Interview by Dave Moran, Editor.
Dave: Ant, tell us a little about your life before freediving.
Ant: When I was growing up I loved sport but wasn’t any good at it. Tried surfing but that went nowhere!
I started a Physical Education course at Otago University which gave me ambitions to either be a coach or a PE teacher. Then I discovered sport psychology which fascinated me. I worked my way into an Honours course and went on to do a Masters in Psychology. I thought, “I’m now going to be a sport psychologist”. I got some work with super rugby teams and through that was invited to help run a privateer team competing on the motoGP in Europe. That’s the motorbike racing circuit for prototype bikes.
I worked with two riders and also with surfers and boxers while in France. All these guys were doing dangerous sports and I was fascinated by that. They seemed to have an aura about them.
I remember standing next to a young guy who was about to BASE jump from a bridge. I was amazed how relaxed and calm he was doing something that would terrify most people. Part of me was very envious of his calmness! I was also amazed how people could be so relaxed when they were about to perform in front of tens of thousands of people and a viewing audience of the millions.
I thought to myself, I am a fraud. Here I am teaching all these guys to do stuff that’s all out of a text book. What I needed to do was to take up a sport that’s dangerous to see if I could learn how to take risks like them. So I looked around and discovered freediving.
I found early on that I had a bit of a knack for it. I was able to really relax and I developed a kick-glide technique that seemed to be very efficient compared to the normal constant fin kick. For every glide I could cover five metres whereas everyone else was doing two kicks for the same distance. I found this gave me quite an advantage, using a lot less energy than the other divers. I started achieving quite good results in the first year of competition, obtaining a world number three ranking in the Dynamic discipline*. I think I held this position for five years. I came tantalisingly close to getting the world record which I had achieved in training but failed on the day. Tried again a year later and missed by just one metre!
Any tips on how to improve your breath-holding time?
You need to do two types of training. There is your breath-hold training on full lungs which is essentially gradually increasing your times from, three-four-five-six minutes. Mix it up with other sessions, like doing eight two-minute breath-holds with a minute between.
The other type of training is on the mental side of your breath-hold. The most common thing I see is divers who think they are only as good as their last breath-hold. So if the day before a comp they do a rubbish dive they mentally perceive that they will fail on comp day. There are all these negative voices on your shoulder and it’s about having answers for them.
How do you practice breath-holding on a day-to-day basis?
I try to make a game out of it. When I’m on the train I will just breathe through my nose and then I will hold my breath for about five minutes. I try not to show any discomfort when it becomes more difficult at around four minutes. Then I quietly release it without disturbing those around me. I don’t do any packing† on the train! I only practice packing in the pool when training for a comp.
To maintain a reasonable fitness base I run and cycle to work. I try and get to the gym twice a week. You have to try and improve your anaerobic‡ system, which is the key. So I do a range of functionally-based resistance training that is specific to freediving. Not to build muscle mass but to improve my endurance. Once a week I will do sprints for 45 minutes. I’m not what you would consider super fit.
Over the years I have worked out certain things that don’t work and certain things that do work for me. I find that I cannot train for months and months. I will start intensive training three months out from a competition. After the comp I’ll switch off!
How important is gear?
I believe it’s about 98% the athlete and 2% the gear. But I concede that it’s important to feel comfortable and confident in the gear you’re wearing.
How do you compensate for the lowering level of oxygen in your brain nearing the end of a dive?
In my early competition days, I tended to slip into a mental trance state where I ‘feel’ that the swimming is easy/beautiful and I’m not conscious of any discomfort. It can be hard to switch out of the trance. So I would find, towards the end of the breath-hold, I couldn’t snap out of the trance and risked having a blackout!
So now I stay switched on for the whole dive. Someone will tell me I’m at six minutes, I’ll look around and up preparing for the end of the dive. So I am very alert at the end of my dive these days.
Any advice you would give re improving your mental toughness?
Yes, two pieces of advice. The first is to think about your dive in two phases: the easy phase and the struggle phase. Try not to get obsessed about the time. Instead, try to stay super relaxed and extend out the easy phase for as long as possible. Also, make sure you spend time in the struggle phase where you have to do some work. That’s where all of your performance gains happen.
It might initially be just 10 seconds in the struggle phase. Be aware of what things are happening to you, be aware of what you are saying to yourself, that’s when the learning occurs. Gradually you learn how to extend the discomfort time and to delay it coming on. Of course, only do this in the water with a partner who understands freediving and has been trained in safety and freedive rescue techniques.
The other thing is something we use in sport psychology, we call it ‘chunking’. Basically it means breaking down your dive into different phases: stay alert; don’t think ahead to the next phase or back to the last phase. If I’m doing a breath-hold dive and I think ahead to the next kick I would just want to come up and if its thinking back to the last kick I would just want to come up. If I stay present in the ‘moment’ then I feel okay and the swim goes well.
Here’s how I chunk a long swim. If 200 metres is my target, I will say to myself, “Okay relax for the first 50m it’s only my warm up.” And when I get to the 50m I then start thinking about how good I feel and how well the dive is going. At 100m it starts to get uncomfortable. To dull this discomfort I think to myself, “People are watching me, so let’s show them some great technique!” This distracts me from the discomfort. Then, “Wow I’ve passed 150m, now it’s time to speed up, I’m on the homerun – how easy is that!” So practice chunking – working through the phases. I combine this with positive cue phrases at each chunk like, “I got this.”
Is there any problem combining freediving skills with spearfishing?
There are advantages for spearfishermen to improve their breath-hold. In fact, more and more spearos are doing freediving courses. But by training people to have bigger breath-holds and longer bottom times we are creating a new set of risks.
There needs to be some responsibility on the freediving community and the spearfishing community to continually ask the question – are we, as communities, being safe enough? Are we proponents of the practice of one-up one-down? My limited experience in spearfishing tells me that this is not always the case.
In freediving you typically have a five minute break between dives. With spearfishing the break between dives is often a lot shorter. You dive down for a minute or so, then surface for say only 30 seconds before diving again. You feel you have plenty of breath so stay a little longer, all this adds to the risk of a shallow water blackout. This problem is only exacerbated when people believe the five minute breath-hold they did in the pool supervised will translate to the same time in the ocean.
What would you recommend to someone getting into the sport?
Join a club and learn the techniques. It’s a very safe sport but if you don’t know the safety rules or you break these rules it can be incredibly dangerous. For these reasons you need to receive a safe introduction to the sport.
Thanks Ant for your time. We and our readers wish you all the best with your future endeavours.
*Dynamic Apnoea with fins: The diver will swim a horizontal distance usually in a swimming pool either using bi-fins or a monofin.
†Packing: Air packing is a method used to overfill the lungs, increasing the volume of air in the lungs above the total lung capacity prior to breath-holding.
‡ Anaerobic: meaning ‘living without air’, as opposed to aerobic which means ‘living in the presence of air’.
Ant’s New Challenge: Diving under the North Pole!
In April 2018 Ant will attempt to break the World Record for the DEEPEST freedive ever attempted under ice. The challenge is to beat the Russian ice diving champion Konstantin Novikov who claimed the World Record in 2015 by diving to 65m on a single breath of air. Ant will be supported by a team of four and a local guide.
Working with One Studio in New Zealand, owner Dave Stewart has assembled an international team of experts to create a world first in wetsuit technology: a wetsuit lined with a heat-producing fabric that can heat Ant while deep under the ice cap at the North Pole. They hope to create a suit of just 1.5mm thickness that will be powered by lithium ion batteries.
The team are currently fundraising to help cover some of the costs of the one month expedition. There is interest from Red Bull Media House and other media outlets.
Ant will keep us up to date as this adventurous challenge develops. We wish him and his team every success.