Having a fishtail for half their body, it’s widely presumed that mermaids have gills so they can breathe underwater. Unfortunately, us humans cannot breathe underwater, but we have figured out how to hold our breath for longer.
Some humans have even adapted to hunting underwater for up to 13 minutes! The Bajau are nomadic people who live around the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. They free dive at depths of over 230 feet, hunting for fish and other ocean life with spearguns. They have been found to have larger spleens, which is something common in marine animals who stay underwater for longer periods of time, such as whales. Some whales have multiple spleens. A larger spleen means more oxygenated red blood cells, which contributes to oxygen distribution throughout the body and helps with holding breath.
A lot of people cannot hold their breath for more than 30 seconds, but some free divers train to hold their breath for seemingly impossible amounts of time! The Guinness record for the longest breath-hold is held by German freediver Tom Sietas, who held his breath for 22 minutes and 22 seconds.
Many professional mermaids can hold their breath up to four minutes. Melissa Dawn, known as Mermaid Melissa, has a record of four minutes and 32 seconds.
How does one get the ability to hold their breath for so long? Well, it requires physical and mental training, and a lot of will-power.
What happens to your body when you hold your breath for a long time?
The diver’s reflex, also known as the mammalian dive reflex and diving bradycardia, is a series of physiological responses caused by holding your breath and being submerged.
When first submerged you will feel good and relaxed, but after about 30 seconds you will start to feel the buildup of CO2 in your lungs. You’ll feel the need to take a breath, but you’ll still have air. The uncomfortable feeling is just CO2.
Hypercapnia is the term for the buildup of CO2 in your bloodstream. It is responsible for the pain and discomfort you experience after holding your breath long enough. Luckily, you can build your tolerance to it.
Phase 1 DISCOMFORT After the initial discomfort sets in, you’ll soon begin to feel the contraction of muscles in your diaphragm, trying to make you breathe. You’ll also start feeling your throat squeezing/tightening.
Phase 2 LOSING CONTROL After that you will begin to feel light-headed. That is from the buildup of CO2 in your blood. Then you will experience samba, or convulsions, and loss of muscle control. You do not want to let yourself get to that point. With enough training it is easy to avoid that.
Phase 3 BLACKOUT The next thing that will happen is a blackout. Your body is essentially forcing you to breathe, but if you are underwater when that happens it can result in drowning.
That is why it is so important to follow the buddy system! Never practice breath-holding alone.
Up to a certain point it is about persevering through the pain and discomfort. The more you practice safely, the easier it will become to hold your breath for longer periods of time.
Whether it’s for becoming a professional mermaid or just for fun, here are tips on how to be able to hold your breath longer.
- Minimize energy used
- Be relaxed
- Build up tolerance to CO2
How can you hold your breath longer?
- Don’t eat beforehand
Digestion uses a lot of energy, so you don’t want to eat too soon before practicing your breath-holding. If you eat, you should wait two to three hours until practicing holding your breath.
- Practice shortly after waking up
When you first wake up, your heart rate is slow and your body is still sleepy, so you will not use as much energy because your metabolism hasn’t yet been activated.
It is a good idea to stretch your stomach and chest, and any part of the torso. You need to take big breaths while you stretch. This helps stretch the lungs, preparing them to take in more air.
- Wear a diving mask
Wearing a mask helps you to avoid getting water in your eyes and nose, which can be distracting. It’s easier to hold your breath if you minimize other uncomfortable sensations. You just have to remember to equalize when you wear a mask, since the pressure will change the deeper you dive in the water and the mask will begin to squeeze your face. You can equalize by blowing through your nose.
- Wear a wetsuit
Wearing a wet suit will help to keep you warm. This is important because if you swim in cold water your body will fight to keep you warm, which uses up energy. It can also be a shock to the system, which can hinder your breath-holding abilities. Wearing a wetsuit is important because it will help you save energy when you come back up to the surface. It naturally floats and you don’t need to kick your legs and use energy to come back to the surface. Just enjoy the ride back up to the surface after a deep dive. Wetsuit material holds little bubbles that make you float.
- Warm-up your lungs
You can use breath-holding tables to warm up your lungs before you try a long breath-hold. They are a series of breathing exercises aimed on gradually increasing the time for each breath-hold and helping you to build up your tolerance to CO2. You start by holding your breath for thirty seconds or a minute, then double the time in between doing your next breath-hold. For a minute-long breath-hold you would take a break of two minutes, making sure to relax and take deep breaths before your next one. Then you would hold your breath for thirty seconds more. As you go on doing this exercise you decrease the amount of recovery time. Always make sure that when you are in between breath-holds you are exhaling twice as long as you inhale. To help keep your exhale slow, you can make a hissing sound like a snake, like “ssssssss.” Then you can actually hear the speed of your breath, which can help you control it.
- Take big breaths beforehand
You should NEVER hyperventilate before doing a breath-hold. Hyperventilating is when you take rapid breaths. If you’ve ever had a panic attack then you’ve experienced this. Doing that tricks your body, making it believe that you have a lower C02 level than the reality and you will not get the natural warning sign from your body, telling you to breathe, and you can lose consciousness faster. When preparing to do a long breath-hold you need to take long, deep, inhales, filling up your lungs, and then slowly exhaling.
Take a proper breath
You should inhale with your nose, your belly should inflate first as your diaphragm goes down. Your rib cage will expand as your lungs fill up. Your shoulders should not lift up, which is a common mistake. Make sure you are not holding your air in your cheeks, but hold it at the epiglottis, AKA the flap of cartilage in your throat. You can feel your air being held there when you swallow because you are triggering it to cover your airway.
- Static breath-hold
Since holding your air longer is about reducing the energy your body uses, doing static breath-holds, meaning you stay still, can help maximize your breath-hold time. When you are swimming around underwater, the movement makes it harder to hold your breath as long. So, when you are performing in a mermaid tail, try to stay slow and graceful, using big pushes when you kick, and allowing yourself to glide, rather than kicking rapidly and using up your energy. Rule of thumb: Your dynamic breath-hold (while you swim) will be half of the time of your static breath-hold.
- Wear a weight belt
If you have trouble staying underwater, then a weight belt is what you need. The added weight will help you achieve either neutral buoyancy (you won’t sink or float) or negative buoyancy (you will sink), depending on the amount of weight you use. Your body may naturally try to make you float to the surface, so you will use energy trying to fight to stay under, which can be combated by a weight belt. *A wetsuit will also make you float. You should check your buoyancy wearing your mermaid tail, especially if it is made with neoprene. In general silicone is neutrally buoyant.
- Don’t blow bubbles during your dive
It may be tempting to blow bubbles to release CO2, but then you will be releasing your precious air. It’s a mental battle you have to overcome. You have to remind yourself that you have air and that you can make it longer. You should only exhale right below the surface that way you will be ready to take a big breath as soon as you break the surface.
- Stay near the surface
You will use more energy and oxygen the lower you swim, so stay close to the surface to avoid that.
- Put your face in water beforehand
Putting your face into water and holding your breath for 30 seconds will trigger the mammalian diver’s reflex. Don’t forget to remove your mask for this part. Coldwater also helps to trigger this reflex. Our bodies will go through a series of physiological changes in response to being submerged or holding your breath. It also decreases your heart rate to submerge your face briefly.
- Do some cardio exercises
Doing cardio exercises will help lower your resting heart rate. Practicing singing and playing wind instruments can also help to do that. Scientificamerican.com says, ‘’Regular exercise leads to numerous and varied physiological changes that are beneficial from a health standpoint. They include improved cardio-respiratory function,” which means that “the body is able to perform exercise much more efficiently. This results mainly from the body more effectively getting oxygen into the bloodstream and transporting it to the working muscles, where it is needed for the metabolic processing of energy.”
The more you practice aerobic exercises, the better your aerobic capacity will be. Aerobic capacity is how well you use energy. A high capacity means your body will deliver more oxygen throughout your body and you won’t tire as quickly
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol before diving
The only liquid recommended drinking before going freediving is water. It is very important to stay hydrated. Alcohol and coffee both will dehydrate you. Avoiding caffeine is also important because it will raise your heart rate, which you do not want when holding your breath.
Mermaid Marielle’s bonus tips!
What gets measured gets improved: Track your breath-hold progress and write it down over time. You can also use an oximeter attached to the end of one finger to measure the level of oxygen in your blood. Nonin.com defines a pulse oximeter as “a small, lightweight device used to monitor the amount of oxygen carried in the body’’ It will also give you your heart rate. Smartwatches and Fitbits are other good devices to use, since they can measure your heart rate, allowing you to practice lowering it.
Distract your mind: Try singing a song in your mind or listening to music underwater (there are special speakers that work underwater). Those are all great ways to get your mind off thinking about breathing. In my opinion, swimming in the ocean with turtles or fish is the best way to increase your breath-holding time because it is so beautiful and you can forget for a short period of time that you are holding your breath. It is some kind of meditation state.
The most important take-aways
Rule #1: Always have someone with you. Breath-holding can be dangerous when done alone. If done successfully then you can increase your breath-hold time by several minutes! It can help to have a friend with you to help push you and encourage you, as well.
Increasing your breath-holding time is a mental battle as much as it is a physical challenge to overcome. Just remember that it is possible to do! It’s something that needs to be practiced, like any other skill you want to improve.
Hope these tips help you hold your breath longer, to help you be even more like a mermaid!