Ask the Expert – How do big-wave riders hold their breath so long during monster hold downs?

Q: How do big-wave riders hold their breath so long during monster hold downs? I’m heading to the North Shore this winter for the first time, and everyone’s telling me I’m going to take the worst beatdowns of my life there. How do I prepare for the trip so I can go after big waves and not worry so much about drowning?

-Ryan Grahmn, Los Angeles, California

So you want to visit Hawai’i and ride the wild surf but horrifying stories of two-wave hold downs and twenty-foot cleanup sets are making you hesitate. Well, sorry to report, the tales are true-and if you wanna dance, you gotta pay the band. Luckily, there’s a practical way to prepare for extreme situations before they arise: train both your body and mind. Seasoned North Shore lifeguard/pro charger Dave Wassel tells us how.


“First of all, muscles burn oxygen. And the biggest muscles in your body are your quadriceps, or thigh muscles. Moderate-paced running, preferably on the beach, is a great place to start. Swimming laps is another excellent training exercise. As your stamina increases, you can modify those workouts with simple breathing exercises. Breathing every other stroke during laps or slowing down your breaths while running will greatly increase your cardiovascular performance. Training your body to perform while using minimal amounts of oxygen is the key to endurance.

“Running rocks underwater is a popular advanced breath-holding workout-but it should never be done alone, in case of blackout. Swimming laps underwater, while holding your breath and using swim fins, is another good one that can be done in a pool as well. All those exercises are beneficial as they’re done in water and train those big thigh muscles to perform using oxygen limited to a single breath.

“Furthermore, the best workout for surfing is surfing. The more water time you log, the more comfortable you’ll be in the long run. Freediving is also a solid way to acclimate yourself to the ocean-visit for a wealth of information online.
“To shed more light on your question, I polled a few friends-Mark Healey, Noah Johnson, Braden Dias, and Michael Ho-and they all agreed that although they’ve physically trained their whole lives for those defining moments, it’s their state of mind that pulls them through in the end. You can be in the best physical condition of your life and be able to hold your breath for four minutes in a pool, but if you’re not comfortable getting your ass handed to you in the open ocean, you’re gonna panic-and nothing burns up your breath faster. So whether you need to think of previous experiences, funny scenarios, or Mom’s apple pie-whatever it is that takes you to that happy place-stick with it and relax.

“That said, don’t think for a second that you can handle any situation Mother Ocean throws at you. None of those guys got to where they’re at overnight-and all of them know their limits and choose their battles.”

(Small Sidebar)

Going Mental: More Expert Technique

During Heavy Hold Downs…

-Michael Ho vividly remembers something Eddie Aikau told him: “You gotta eat a few to make a few.” Michael says he hears these words in his head anytime things get hairy, and it helps him relax.

-Mark Healey likes to pretend he’s freediving and there’s a fish just out of reach, and he’s just patiently waiting until it comes in range.

-Noah Johnson counts how many flips and rolls he does underwater during burly wipeouts.