Ever considering the fact that looking at James Nestor’s 2014 ebook Deep, I’ve been fascinated by the scarcely believable feats of freedivers. Plunging 335 feet down below the floor of the ocean and building it again on a solitary breath, or basically holding your breath for 11 minutes and 35 seconds, evidently requires a extremely specific set of skills and characteristics.

But until a latest meeting discuss, I’d by no means regarded as whether these very same attributes might be practical in other configurations wherever oxygen is scarce—such as the slim air of large-altitude trekking and mountaineering. At the Drugs in Extremes conference in Amsterdam past thirty day period, Erika Schagatay of Mid Sweden University gave a presentation that summed up a lot more than two decades of freediving analysis. The twist that caught my attention: comprehension what would make a good freediver could be practical for predicting and most likely even mitigating altitude sickness.

Schagatay’s first analysis desire was in what she calls “professional” freedivers, as opposed to leisure or competitive freedivers. These are individuals who dive for fish and shellfish, just as their ancestors have for uncountable generations: like the Ama pearl divers in Japan, and the Bajau subsistence fishers in the Philippines and Malaysia. The latter group do repeated dives to about fifty feet, and sometimes go as deep as 130 feet, with these kinds of brief recoveries that they commit about sixty p.c of their time underwater. In excess of the study course of a 9-hour day, they might commit as a lot as five hours underwater, not breathing.

These diving populations, Schagatay and other folks have located, share three unique attributes with effective competitive freedivers, who take component in contests close to the globe sanctioned by AIDA, the international freediving authority:

  • Large lungs: In one study of 14 globe championship freedivers, vital capacity—the maximal quantity of air you can expel from your lungs—was correlated with their levels of competition scores. The three greatest divers in the group had an regular vital potential of 7.9 liters, although the three worst averaged just 6.7 liters. And it is not just genetic: Schagatay located that an 11-week software of stretching enhanced lung volume by practically 50 % a liter.
  • Plenty of pink blood cells: Divers do are likely to have higher ranges of hemoglobin, the ingredient of pink blood cells that carries oxygen. That’s most likely a immediate outcome of their diving. Even if you just do a sequence of 15 breath retains, you will have a surge of organic EPO an hour later, which triggers pink blood mobile development.

    But there is a a lot more immediate and instant way of boosting your pink blood mobile count: squeezing your spleen, which can retail outlet about three hundred milliliters of concentrated pink blood cells. Seals, who are among the animal kingdom’s most outstanding divers, actually retail outlet about 50 % their pink blood cells in their spleens, so they really don’t waste vitality pumping all that extra blood close to when it is not desired. When you keep your breath (or even just do a difficult exercise session), your spleen contracts and sends extra oxygen-wealthy blood into circulation. Not shockingly, spleen dimension is correlated with freediving functionality.

  • A strong “mammalian diving response”: When you keep your breath, your coronary heart amount drops by about ten p.c, on regular. Submerge your face in h2o, and it will fall by about 20 p.c. Your peripheral blood vessels will also constrict, shunting precious oxygen to the mind and coronary heart. Collectively, these oxygen-conserving reflexes are identified as the mammalian diving response—and when again, the strength of this reaction is correlated with competitive diving functionality.

These three things assistance you offer with a comprehensive cessation of breathing for a couple of minutes. Do they have any relevance to extended exposure to a moderate lower in oxygen, like you practical experience in the mountains? That’s what Schagatay and her colleagues have been exploring in a sequence of research involving Sherpas, trekkers, and Everest summiters in Nepal.

In a research posted past yr, they followed 18 trekkers to Everest Base Camp at seventeen,five hundred feet (5,360 meters). Guaranteed more than enough, the trekkers with the biggest lungs, the biggest spleens, and the biggest reduction in coronary heart amount all through a breath-keep ended up the least probably to establish indications of acute mountain sickness.

The dimension of the spleen is not the only point that matters—its rewards depend on a powerful squeezing reaction to get all the pink blood cells out. In a 2014 research of 8 Everest summiters, they located that three repeated breath retains prior to the ascent prompted spleen volume to squeeze, on regular, from 213 milliliters to 184 milliliters. Right after the ascent, the very same three breath retains prompted the spleen to squeeze down to 132 milliliters. Prolonged exposure to altitude had strengthened the spleen’s diving reaction. In simple fact, there is also evidence that basically arriving at average altitude will lead to a sustained moderate spleen contraction, as your physique struggles to cope with the oxygen-lousy air.

Some of these variations are evidently genetic. The two Sherpas and Bajau freedivers have greater spleens than other closely related populations, presumably many thanks to generations invested either large in the mountains or underwater. But Schagatay doesn’t imagine it is all genetic. Right after all, Sherpas who no for a longer period reside at altitude have greater spleens than Nepalese lowlanders, but not as massive as Sherpas who still reside at altitude. Alongside with other characteristics like the diving reflex, it is something that improves with schooling, she believes.

What can you do with this info in observe? Here’s some data from the Everest Base Camp research, exhibiting the p.c lower in coronary heart amount all through a 1-minute breath-keep. The members are divided into three teams, primarily based on their Lake Louise Questionnaire (LLQ) scores, a evaluate of acute mountain sickness all through the trek. Those with the best scores—the sickest, in other words—barely have any reduction in coronary heart amount these with the least expensive scores averaged about 18 p.c reduce:

Data from the Everest Base Camp study, showing the percent decrease in heart rate during a one-minute breath-hold
Information from the Everest Base Camp research, exhibiting the p.c lower in coronary heart amount all through a 1-minute breath-keep (Photo: Frontiers in Physiology)

To test your individual coronary heart-amount lower all through a 1-minute breath keep, you’d want a appropriate coronary heart-amount keep track of, considering the fact that the applicable data point is the least expensive instantaneous amount you access by the finish of the minute. It is just 1 factor among a lot of, but it might give you some sign of whether you’re probably to go through from altitude sickness on a trek, which could assistance notify your final decision about how aggressive an itinerary to comply with or whether you want to take Diamox prophylactically. (This specific research was finished in Kathmandu, at four,800 feet, so it is probable that the predictions would be distinct at sea level—grist for a foreseeable future research.)

Even a lot more intriguing is the likelihood that you can educate these responses. For illustration, in a 2013 research, Schagatay and her colleagues located that two months of ten maximal breath retains for every day strengthened the diving reaction, making a faster and a lot more pronounced fall in coronary heart amount. The subsequent stage: figuring out whether this form of advancement would make any sensible big difference to trekkers.

The greater takeaway, for me, is the plan that freediving is not as outrageous and unnatural a pastime as I initially thought when I to start with read through Deep. The mammalian dive reflex originates way again in our evolutionary history—it’s what Per Scholander, 1 of the to start with scientists to research it, referred to as “the grasp switch of lifetime.” And if Schagatay is ideal, the circuitry that allows us to go deep is also what allows us to make it to the top of Mount Everest—because, as she places it, we ended up born to dive.

For a lot more Sweat Science, sign up for me on Twitter and Fb, indicator up for the e-mail e-newsletter, and look at out my ebook Endure: Intellect, System, and the Curiously Elastic Boundaries of Human Performance.

Lead Photo: Getty/iStockphoto