Training for spearfishing.

By | August 24, 2012

Some people keep asking about my training advise. I had written something a while back. It’s still pretty much what I would suggest today. Here it goes:

Reaching for the bottom on one’s breath is an enjoyable exercise of defiance in a society that values more security and comfort than living. It also defies the land oriented human physiology or at least the perception that humans belong on land and require great amounts of equipment to go underwater. But that freedom comes at a price since freedivers rely heavily on their physical and psychological preparation.

Training

This is a mashup of things I teach my students at the University and routines that worked for me. I personally don’t subscribe to training regimens that promise immediate results although there are some very important short term results for people who follow the sort of routine I suggest.

I find that a safe and successful training program is one that enables you to use all that you’ve worked on. A common mistake is to work on skills that cannot be used for lack of another. For instance, it is marginally useful to work on breathold when you cannot swim properly.

In order to avoid imbalances, a program has to consider some sort of prerequisite hierarchy. I’ve chosen to place fitness and swimming techniques ahead of everything. I tend to put the emphasis on fitness since it will help beginners attain and use diving skills. One could argue that psychological preparedness should be placed before but it does not meet the prerequisite rule and it usually follows a sustained practice.

Breathold is the very last thing on the agenda because you need all of the above to freedive and hold your breath safely.

The pool-training program is largely inspired by underwater hockey. I taught hockey for well over a decade. That little known sport has a very rich and highly structured training tradition. It is also very safe and conducive to building a solid swimmer. The sport itself was conceived as a training activity before becoming a popular activity for its own sake.

That said, some works on apnea have inspired me, especially Francis Fèves’ book on monofin training: L’apnée glisse en monopalme. The book includes an account of the training of French elite freedivers that shows the importance of repetition and measured progression. The routines in that book as the ones I propose are meant to get you somewhere instead of comforting you on your present shape.

This program does not include hypoxia training. I am not impressed with the repetition of accidents that comes with it. I never will suggest long recuperation times before holding your breath within a training routine. Maximum breathold exercises can be useful but the danger associated to this type of practice is so great that I suggest doing them outside of the water. Furthermore there is very little resemblance between real life freediving, especially in the case of spearfishing, and controlled environment maximum breathold training. Instead I encourage people to hold their breath in diverse conditions of fatigue, under different sort of stress, in order to learn to deal with real life, thus imperfect, diving situations. You may not get 5 minutes to meditate before diving.

Fitness, technique and mental preparation

Doing laps improves your cardio, which helps the body burn less air. Most of the routines in this section include enough laps in quick succession to get your heart pumping.

While you do your laps you may as well learn to swim properly. Use the time to improve your technique. Well-coordinated movements are graceful. All that you do should appear easy, not laborious.

Rehearse your moves. Proper finning will come at the cost of many kilometers of swimming. Correct ducking and surfacing will become a second nature after a few hundred immersions. The dolphin kick will become an option only after weeks of practice. If you do something wrong rehearse until you get it right.

While you train, lower noise level in your mind. Focus on what you are doing, eventually stop thinking and do things without having a mental conversation about it. Meditation and yoga can be useful but the most immediate beneficial mental control exercise for a freediver is focusing on his laps.

Security

Always have someone spotting you when you engage in a breathold exercise such as laps underwater. Do not hold your breath past the comfortable level and be very wary if you feel too good while doing long stretches underwater.

Do not focus on breathold except perhaps to avoid holding it too long: one of the surest ways to die while training consists of doing static apnea by yourself. That said, static apnea is so dangerous that I don’t find it comforting enough to have someone spotting me since the best that person can do is save me once I blackout.

Static breathold is dangerous because it is very difficult to determine that you’ve had enough when you remain motionless and suppress the need for air by meditating. The only way I recommend practicing static breathold is on dry land. There you may faint and hurt yourself but it beats drowning.

Whether you are training or diving always remain conservative, take baby steps. Stay away from people and groups who have experienced many sambas and blackouts if you don’t want to experience them yourself.

Few people train for apnea records (personal, national or world records). It is debatable if anyone should but clearly no beginner should go in that direction. While it is easy to build a very impressive breathold capacity in very little time, there is much to learn before these abilities can be used with any measure of safety. Years of experience will chill most people’s static breathold ambitions. It is widely considered the most dangerous activity in a pool. It kills randomly even with safety precautions.

If breathold extension is what makes you tick and you don’t want to work your way through years of slow practice not necessarily aimed at such goals you can find groups that will help you. Do not pursue apnea records outside the close supervision of people who specialize in recuperating samba and blackout victims. The pure apnea record crowd will get you where you want to go faster and safer.

Pool size

Find the exact dimension of the pool you are going to use. All the routines are set for a 25-meter pool. Ideally you have access to a 50-meter or even a whopping 100-meter pool if you live in Australia. In the US you can come across 25-yard pools (23 meters).

Pool depth is less critical. The routines are set for a two-depth pool, i.e. 4 meters in the deep end and 2 meters in the shallow end.

4 speeds

The laps will differ in speed and style. Four different speeds are mentioned. They are measured in exertion, not in meters per seconds.

The speed refereed to as normal or intermediate is fast enough to be uncomfortable yet sufficiently slow to be sustained for a few laps. But everything being relative, intermediate can also be defined as sustainable for a particular routine. Therefore, intermediate or normal speed is faster if you only do 25 meters (1 lap) than if the routine calls for 150 meters (6 laps). Normal speed is the default all-around speed.

Slow speed is strictly for recuperation when done on the surface or a means of torture when done underwater.

Fast is not sprint. A person should be able to sustain fast for one, perhaps two laps. It is a very uncomfortable speed. Fast is muscle tearing and hearth pumping and gruelingly difficult but nothing compared to sprint.

Sprint is the maximum effort one can make. Most cannot keep giving that sort of effort for 25 meters. If you can do more than 25 meters by definition you are not sprinting. Sprints are strictly for underwater hockey players or advanced spearfishermen. It is very hard physically and mentally to do many sprints in a row, even with adequate recuperation time.

Standard swimming styles

“Crawl” means using legs and arms at the same time. Do not rely too much on the arms as you can get a lot of thrust from your legs when you wear fins. The snorkel also saves a lot of energy since you can keep your face in the water at all times and breathe continuously.

“Kick” refers to the normal scissors kick. Leave your arms in front of you. Hold one of your thumbs to make sure that your hands stay together. Extend your body as much as possible to offer the least resistance to the water. Do not bend your knees too much.

The “dolphin kick” uses most of your body. Your feet stay together. They go up and down at the same time. The trick is to undulate. When you go slowly you start the undulation almost at your hands and send it all the way to your fins. When you swim faster start the undulation almost mid-body and send it down to your fins in quicker successions. It is much easier to swim the dolphin underwater than on the surface.

“Arms only” is just that. Use a crawl movement. Leave your legs crossed so not to cheat. If you decide to cheat adjust the routine to make up for it.

Lap types

Laps can be done on the surface, underwater or both. A specific number of breaths can be prescribed when repetitive underwater distances are called. Sometimes underwater lapses are split in two with 1 to 3 breaths halfway.

An underwater lap means a continuous 25-meter crossing following the bottom from one bottom corner to the other. One can cheat by allowing a further start point, taking one breath on the way or not following the bottom. It may be necessary to cheat in order to progress and avoid pushing too hard. With some practice beginner are usually comfortable doing one lap but the routine may call for them after a few surface laps. Placing underwater laps in the middle of a routine when the person is out of breath is the preferred method since it works resistance and recuperation. Needless to say beginners should choose accessible routines or adapt them by reducing the underwater distances.

The “Marsoin” or dolphin includes surface and underwater swimming. It consists in touching the bottom three times and breathing only once every time you come back to the surface. It is the most technical type of lap. It requires efficient ducking and perfect timing. To do this sort of lap properly do not shoot straight down or straight up but move from the bottom and the surface at a 30-45 degree angle. From the surface duck normally, your arms should be in front of you when you reach for the bottom. Push the bottom with one arm and head back up. Once on the surface you reposition the arm that just pushed the bottom (and was clumsily on your side) in front of you for the next immersion. The whole thing should appear effortless, graceful.

Surface swimming is just that. When you reach the wall always do a proper swimming turn… The trick is to start your turn at the right distance from the wall. Once your head and torso are underwater send your legs towards the wall while getting you body in line for another lap and push. Describing this is a futile exercise. Observe how swimmers do it. Try and try again. It takes ten to twenty attempts to do a bad turn and a few hundred before you will think it is useful. Nonetheless do it every time you get to the wall. It will greatly work your agility underwater and eventually cut time on routines.

Time and Intervals

The time you take to do laps is a very good gage of your swimming abilities and fitness. Before starting a routine determine which part of your routine you will do in one sitting. Time the routine including the resting time and keep that information so you can monitor your progression.

An interval is the time given to do a routine including the resting time. For instance, 4 underwater laps on a 30 seconds interval means that you have about 20 seconds to cross the pool and 10 seconds to breathe: the four laps taking only two minutes. Swimming on intervals demands proper dosing of speed and resting time. If you swim fast you get longer resting times but your hearth rate may be too high to recuperate in that time. If you swim slowly you may get too little time to breathe. Intervals make easy routines difficult whether they are done on the surface or underwater.

Breathing

Breathing should be managed. Breathe deep starting from the belly and stay calm even if the routine calls for sprints.

Levels

To measure a freediver’s level you would have to take into account fitness, swimming abilities, diverse technical knowledge, experience of the sea, navigation, experience, breathold capabilities and so on. For the purpose of choosing a training routine that sort of evaluation is too thorough and unpractical. It is useful however to have some sort of idea of your level as a freediver even if it has no meaning in the larger picture.

The AIDA came up with a series of levels based solely on a diver’s capacity to do laps and hold his breath in set amounts of time. That’s called an objective scale in the scientific community because it measures something that can be measured. While it does not give a very good idea of freediving capacities in general, it serves its purpose when it comes to training. The problem is that this type of evaluation can become a deadly trap.

Because your level can change from day to day, on certain days expectations can no longer meet with your true limits. Therefore even if you officially estimate that you are a level “x”, don’t try to keep up with you training program if one day you feel like a level “x” minus 1. You may truly be a level “x” minus 1 that day and blackout before you reach your goal. You will see less variation in your abilities if you train more than once a week, every week, but you should always remain comfortable with your training routine. That said nothing short of an injury or cardiac limitations warrants you to skip or even slow down on the surface laps.

Rather than comforting you with easy to understand, no ambiguity tables and clear pseudo-scientific advice, I will suggest that you gage yourself conservatively and evaluate each routine according to what you think you can do.

I divided the routines by level of difficulty and tried to give some clues has to which divers should follow each routine. Again, these clues are only rough indications and you should evaluate each routine individually.

Security, before you start routines

You should have someone spotting you but the best policy is prevention. If you want to avoid blackouts I suggest three things:

1- When you feel the need to breathe you go back to the surface. If you have to push your breathold or have to hyperventilate to get through a routine, you are not ready for that particular one. You should reach your goal with air to spare.

2- This is perhaps the most important advice I will give: FORGET DETERMINISM. There is NO clear relationship between static breathold capacity and dynamic breathold capacity. Also, there is very little resemblance between what a person can do in a pool and what is achievable in the wild.

3- Furthermore, what you could do yesterday provides little information about what you can do today. Even people who train regularly for many years have good and bad days. By definition a beginner has NO IDEA what his limits are and should avoid pushing himself to reach yesterday’s performance.

Routines

I included over 20 routines for divers of three different levels. The routines are not meant to be done in order although they get harder and harder as the numbers go up. They are merely exemple of routines done by me and other divers (mainly my students).

Routines for beginners and bellying divers

Each routine should be preceded by a warm-up. Beginners should swim at least 500m before starting a routine. Count the laps you can do in a predetermined amount of time or the time it takes for a set amount of laps if you want to measure your progression.

Train at least twice a week if you don’t want to exert for very little returns on the fitness side. The repetition of basic skills such as kicking, ducking and turning at the wall, is very beneficial in mastering the swimming technique and the use of the equipment.

Routine #1 (Work on your surface skills, speed and endurance. Practice your turns and keep your arms in front of you).

This is a 600-meter or 24-lap routine (not including the warm up).

Take 30 seconds of rest between series.

Swim in succession 25, 50, 75 and 100 meters crawl

Swim in succession 25, 50, 75 and 100 meters kick (legs only)

Swim in succession 25 and 50 meters using only your arms (legs crossed)

Four times 25 meters dolphin style (touch the bottom three times breathe only once every time you reach the surface)

 

The first routine was written in plain English but the remainder will use the following abbreviations:

meters is omitted

arms only is “a

crawl is “c

kick is “k

dolphin is “d” (dolphin means touching the bottom three times and breathing once every time you come back to the surface)

underwater is “u

If there are breath taken halfway the number of breath is in parentheses (3), therefore u(2) means one lap underwater with two breaths in the middle of the pool.

ucuc refers to series of over-under laps that are present in intermediate and advanced routines. It consists of 25 meters underwater followed by 25 meters above water swimming crawl during which you can recuperate to prepare for the next lap underwater.

 

Routine #2 [700 meters]

Always take 30 seconds of rest between series (try to limit it to 30 seconds).

75k, 50k, 25k

25c, 50c, 75c

25d, 25d, 50d

The following laps are underwater with 3 or 2 breaths halfway but you can add one breath if you need it.

25u(3), 25u(3), 25u(3)

25u(2), 25u(2), 25u(2)

 

Routine #3 [800 meters]

100c, 100k,150c,150k

25c fast, 25k fast, 25c slow

50u( 3) [meaning 3 breath every 12.5 meters underwater]

50u(3,2,1) [meaning 3 breath after the first 12.5 meter, 2 after the second and only 1 on the last strech]

100u( 3,3,3,2,2,2,2)

25u [Take the time necessary and try one lap underwater. If you cannot make it, take one breath or more and try to finish the lap. Have a partner follow you for security.]

 

Routine #4 [650 meters]

50c, 25d, 25d, 50k, 50d, 50a, 50u(3,2,1), 100d

6 times 25u [You need a partner, take at least 30 seconds between laps]

50u( 1) [One breath every 12.5 meters]

 

Routine #5 [1000 meters, 40 laps]

250c, 125k, 125k, 250c, 50d, 100u(2 or 3)

6 times 25u

 

Routine #6 [750 meters]

250c, 250k

10 times 25u on 60 second intervals

 

Routine #7 [850 meters]

The first are combo series. For instance: 100kcdu(3) means the first lap is kick, the second is crawl, then dolphin and finally underwater with 3 breaths halfway.

Twice 100cku(3)c

Four times 100ckcd on a 2 minute interval

10 times 25u on 60 seconds or less

 

Routine #8 [735 meters]

Twice 100cu(3) ku(3)

250c

Twice 25u on 45 seconds

Four times 25u on 45 seconds

Four times 25u on 45 seconds

35u [take your time and be sure that someone is watching you]

 

Routine #9 [1205 meters]

200c, 150c, 100c, 100k, 150k, 200k

Four times 25u on 45 seconds

Four times 25u on 45 seconds

Three times 35u [take your time and be sure that someone is watching you]

 

Routine #10 [1050 meters]

500c in 8 minutes

50d, 100d, 100u(2)

Four times 25u on 45 seconds

Four times 25u on 40 seconds

Four times 25u on 35 seconds

 

Routines for intermediate freedivers

You are an intermediate freediver (as far as training is concerned) if you can swim 1000 meters in 17 minutes or less with fins. You should also be comfortable with repeated underwater laps and capable of doing 50 meters underwater on a good day.

These routines are appropriate for slightly out of shape advanced divers. The focus remains on cardiovascular training. The main difference with the beginner’s routines is in the way surface laps are intertwined with underwater laps. These routines aim at reducing recuperation time.

Warm-ups should precede every routine and include a minimum 500 meters of continuous surface swimming (within 8 minutes). Hopefully the warm-up does not present a challenge. If so, build your resistance by swimming long distances (1000-2000 meters) 250 meters at a time.

Routine #1 [750 meters]

150c, 100c, 50c, 50k, 100k, 150k

Four times 25u on 45 second intervals

Four times 25c on 40 second

Static 15 seconds then 25u

Static 30 seconds then 25u

 

Routine #2 [1000 meters]

Four times 100uckc on 2 minutes

Four times 75ucc on 90 seconds

The following series consist of a succession underwater and surface laps. It is a traditional training exercise. The trick is to pace yourself to be comfortable. If you find the right pace you will be able to do an indefinite number of laps.

100ucuc, 150ucuc, 200ucuc

 

Routine #3 [1000 meters]

500k (you can use a swimming board)

100d, 100u(3), 200ucuc

Four times 25u on 40 seconds

 

Routine #4 [970 meters]

Four times 100k fast on 1 minute 45 seconds

Three times 50c fast on 45 seconds

100d

200ucuc

35u, 35u, 50u

 

Routine #5 [1185 meters]

100ucuc, 500ucuc

Four times 25u on 35 seconds

Four times 75ucc on 90 seconds

35u, 50u, 50u, 50u

 

Routine #6 [1200 meters]

Four times 75ucc on 90 seconds

Three times 50ck on 45 seconds

100c, 50u(3), 50u(2), 200d

Twice 25u slow

Six times 50u

 

Routine #7 [900 meters]

100ucuc, 500ucuc

Static 15 seconds then 25u

Static 30 seconds then 25u

Static 45 seconds then 25u

Static 60 seconds then 25u

Four times 50u

 

Routines for the advanced and very fit freedivers

Divers in this category can be dropped off in the ocean and swim indefinitely regardless of weather or how they feel that day. Proficient divers are usually very independent minded and self-reliant as they should be. However, it is especially important for them to be monitored while they train since they are the most at risk of blacking out. Sadly the very advanced freedivers do more than their share of dying in pools while training.

I suggest that you push as hard as you can when doing the surface work but remain well inside your comfort zone when holding your breath.

Since you should be able to do 1000 meters with fins in 14 minutes to be in this group, the warm up consists of at least 1000 meters in 16 minutes or less.

Routine #1 [1700 meters]

4 * 100ukdc on 2 minutes

4 * 100k on 90 seconds

100d

4 * 25u on 30 to 35 seconds

6 * 25u on 30 to 35 seconds

6 * 25u on 30 to 35 seconds

4 * 50u on 1 minute 45 seconds

4 * 50u on 90 seconds

 

Routine #2 [1500 meters]

500ucuc, 500ucuc

4 * 50u on 2 minutes

6 * 50u on 90 seconds

 

Routine #3 [1500 meters]

4 * 50c fast on 45 seconds

4 * 100k fast on 1 minute 45 seconds

4 * 100d on 2 minutes

4 * 25u on 30 seconds

8 * 50u on 90 seconds

 

Routine #4 [1275 meters]

4 * 25u on 30-35 seconds

6 * 25u on 30-35 seconds

8 * 25u on 30-35 seconds

25u slow, 50u

5 * 50u on 90 seconds

10 * 50u on 90 seconds

 

Routine #5 [1695 meters]

4 * 75ucc on 90 seconds

4 * 75ucc on 80 seconds

4 * 100ucka on 2 minutes

10 * 50u on 90 seconds

3 * 65u [security!] with at least 60 seconds of break

 

Routine #6 [1550 meters]

4 * 100ucdk on 2 minutes

250ucuc in 5 minutes

5 * 50u on 90 seconds

5 * 50u+ on 90 seconds [50 meters underwater plus a turn at the end]

5 * 65u [security!]

75u [security!]

 

Routine #7 [1790+ meters]

4 * 25u on 30 seconds

6 * 25u on 30 seconds

5 * 50u on 90 seconds

Static for 15 seconds plus 50u [security!]

Static for 30 seconds plus 50u

Static for 45 seconds plus 50u

65u, 75u [security!!]

1000ucuc or more

 

          Training for a purpose

Training is much easier and sustainable when it is inscribed into a lifestyle and done in good fun. This does not mean that it should be easy since too little effort will bring few returns and training will become a chore but there is no reason to go overboard and apply north american work ethics. Balance is everything and just how much effort you should be prepared to make is unclear.

People who are in great shape do well in the water. They can stay down longer more comfortably and will recover faster once on the surface. Moreover, being fit also improves chances of survival in case of trouble or injury and it’s downright necessary if you want to help someone else.

13 thoughts on “Training for spearfishing.

  1. Alex

    Hi Rene,

    I’ve a question: Is “Marsoin” or dolphin exercise has to be done using dolphin underwater swimming or regular finning.

  2. René Potvin Post author

    Marsoin is done underwater, the only time you get to the survace is for taking a breath. You dive right back down without moving forward on the surface.

  3. Alex

    Underwater that I understand. When I’m underwater do I use fining or just glide?

  4. René Potvin Post author

    No, you swim energetically. These are not slow laps, they are meant as cardio and underwater skill exercises.

  5. Alex

    I’m doing your workouts for 3 times a week.
    I’ve a couple of questions:
    1. How many repetitions of every workout is enough to move to the next?
    2. In addition to these workouts do you do static O2 and CO2 tables? If yes how many times a week?
    3. What is the average bottom time I can expect upon completion of your program?
    Thank you!

  6. René Potvin Post author

    It’s great to know people are doing a better job than me these days 😉 I’m working on a house more than at the pool so I’m staying fit anyway.

    There is no number of repetition, no scale. I suggest that within what is safe for you, you do the one that’s feasible regardless of what you were doing the day before. So if one day you manage to do a super advanced workout, the next you may only feel safe doing an intermediate level training. You have to listen to yourself. Progression is not automatic and regressions will occur every few days. It’s managing this sort of thing that makes freediving so dangerous. Also, parts of a training may not work for you. You may be super good at doing very strenuous up and down fast laps but suck at long underwater work, or the reverse. Really, who cares? All that matters is staying alive and keeping it fun (which almost always means sweating blood from time to time ;).

    There is no bottom time expectation to have. I can garantee that you are on the right path to a real increase, one that is physiological, not merely a mental capacity to push towards dangerous levels of tolerance to pain and CO2. Cardiovascular activity leads to better capabilities, nothing else.

    Some techniques will let you do more with what you already have, your core capabilities. Those techniques will make you increase your bottom time quickly but not necessarily safely. I suggest you do your homework on them and apply them very carefully, with a lot restraint. I find that freedivers that work towards getting fit, and learning proper swimming, and favor a slow progression… live longer and win more spearfishing competitions 😉

  7. olivier

    Bonjour,

    j’ai une petite question. Utilises-tu des palmes pour ces entraînements? Si oui, est-ce pour tout les exercices ou bien, seulement pour les longueurs faites sous l’eau?

    Merci.

  8. René Potvin Post author

    Salut, j’utilise toutes sortes de palmes. Le mieux c’est de prendre de petites palmes qui ne risquent pas de vous blesser. Les palmes de hockey subaquatiques sont parfaites. Parfois il est préférable d’utiliser les palmes qui seront utilisées en chasse histoire de s’habituer mais je n’y crois pas trop.

  9. Davey

    Hey dude this is great! Im super stoked to find this program. I am just a snorkeler who likes to explore and dive down to deeper depths, however I would like to get into spearfishing, but before I commit to buying the goods I just want to make sure im commited to the training. So far I have just been doing normal lengths at the pool with front crawl and breast stroke just to get my heart going and trying to make it stronger. But I feel like im lacking in more specific training. I have been researching freediving training techniques, but the dangers(blackout/drowning) don’t seem to be worth it for me, and I don’t plan on setting any records, just want to have fun be fit and spend some more time under water safely without drowning. Anyway I thought I would just shoot you a little appreciation for this program. I have a few questions too.

    1) Do you use fins for all of these exercises, just a few, or none?

  10. René Potvin Post author

    Thanks Davey,
    I go t so much spam lately it took me a while to see your message. I use fins because I wouldn’t know how to swim otherwise 😉 well almost. It doesn’t matter if you use fins or not, unless you are not used to wearing fins, then you should. Underwater hockey players and spearfishermen can improve by not wearing them while training. Switching things around helps a lot actually.

  11. T.R

    Hello Rene,
    first of all I would like to thank you for sharing the above training.
    i passed my SSI freediving level 1, 3 months ago, but still feeling that im not doing well(downtime wise) when it comes to spearfishing. I started the above training yesterday and did the routine number 1 for intermediate freedivers. it was so fun and honestly i thought it would be an easy training, but luckily enough i was exhausted at the end! 😀
    i got however a couple of questions concerning the routines:
    1-when doing the 50c, 75c 150c…. how much should i rest between them?
    2-how much to rest after completing the surface laps and before starting the u laps?
    3-the u laps should be done with slow speeds ryt?

    thank you very much!

  12. hsadrpanah

    Hi,
    Thanks for posting this training schedule. Regarding the rest between series, which one is the series? For example if the training is:
    75k, 50k, 25k
    25c, 50c, 75c
    25d, 25d, 50d
    each line is one series and we should take maximum of 30s rest after 25k, 75c and 50d?

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