Professional Surfer
Mark Healey Breath Exercise

Mark Healey knows a few things about holding his breath during a beatdown. Photo: The Inertia/Steele


The Inertia

Editor’s Note: Safety is your first priority. Always have a partner present to supervise and stay seated with cushions around you. Don’t practice any breath training in water, in traffic, or without supervision.

Learn to push yourself, keep calm, and manage fear in heavy surf with Mark Healey’s Guide to Heavy Water.


No matter who you are, a world-record-holding freediver, me, or anybody else, your first breath hold of the day will not be your best. In fact, it’s probably going to be your worst. So why would you want that first breath hold of the day to come out in the ocean when all of the chips are on the table? This is where warming up comes into play and is a key part of being prepared for heavy conditions and having a plan.

If you’re barely making it and you feel gassed on your first wipeout of the day, that’s not good for your confidence. If you’re lacking confidence, you’re going to hesitate, and hesitation leads to disaster in big waves. So set yourself up for a victory. Warm-up. Do a few breath holds in the morning. It’s going to make a big difference.

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Stretching your abdomen, ribcage, shoulders, throat, and doing some breath holds in the morning are a great routine to build. You have to remind your body of what it’s getting into. Then those automatic reactions are still there when you get in the water. You might heighten your carbon dioxide tolerance. You might push your diaphragmatic contractions further back in the breath hold as you train more, but you always have to reset every day and remind your body of what you’re about to do.

This is a pretty simple breathing warm up that also acts to build lung capacity. This is something that I highly recommend doing before going into a surfing situation or even on a daily basis. You can also do this anywhere, so there are no excuses. All you have to do is sit down and go through the steps with a partner and/or cushions around you. I suggest going through 10 full cycles. Even that is going to make a big difference for you.

One cycle is an inhale and an exhale.

This breath essentially happens in five steps. We’re trying to go from maximum lung capacity to the lowest level of air in our lungs into negative capacity. We’re just hitting the full spectrum of flexibility with our lungs, our organs, our rib cage, shoulders, chest, and also our neck.

First, you’re going to imagine the bottom of your lungs on the ground, as if your glutes are the bottom of your lungs. We’re going to fill air in there first. The reason being that most people just use the top of their lungs. But if you look at your lungs, they are shaped so that the area with the greatest capacity for dissolving oxygen is the bottom.

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Guided Breath Warm-Up

1. Fill air into the bottom of your lungs, imagining that the bottom of your lungs are touching the floor. Save room for the next steps.
2. Push your stomach out so there’s more room for your lungs to expand between your spine and your gut. Your organs will make room for your lungs.
3. Make your rib cage wide and allow it to gain capacity.
4. Breathe into your chest with a barrel chest. Think of a circus strongman, cocking your shoulders back and filling into your chest.
5. Lift your head up so air is full up to the chest. Cap off the top part and roll your shoulders forward. Hold that for five seconds. You’ll feel a stretch, this is more air than you’ve had in your lungs for a while.

Reverse the Steps On the Exhale

1. Exhale
2. Chest in.
3. Ribs in.
4. Stomach in.
5. Continue to exhale and fold forward.
6. Hold your breath and slowly rise. Hold the exhale for five seconds.
7. Be careful on the exhale. If you feel discomfort in your lungs, abort mission. You do not want to tear your lungs, and if you have a weak spot on your lungs and come up quickly, it can cause tearing. Use caution and move slowly when coming back up from the exhale.

Points to Remember

1. Start the inhale process over again. Do 10 cycles. You can do more if you’d like.
2. I use my mouth to breathe in because I can more easily control the amount of air coming in with my mouth.
3. You may feel lightheaded. Do this sitting down where you’re safe.

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