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The freediving breath-hold rule of thirds

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One of the first questions people ask me when they do a course is…

‘How do I know that im getting close to my limit’?

I use, and teach a very simple breakdown of breath-hold. I call it…

The rule of thirds

Fundamentally every breath-hold, no matter how advanced you are can be broken down in to three sections.

1st section: No real desire to breathe. Generally comfortable.

2nd section: Starting to feel the effects of C02 build-up. A general urge to breathe. Some hints of peripheral vasoconstriction.

3rd section: The final section, dominated by diaphragmatic contractions and low 02 levels.


So what does this mean for you? Well, think of it like this….

If you are coming up at the beginning of feeling the general urge to breathe then you are robbing yourself of potentially two thirds more time underwater.

If you hit your first contraction, freak out and come up, then you could have nearly a whole third more time still to go.

If you look at the graphic above you will see the ‘danger zone’ section near the end of the final zone. This is where you are reaching your actual low 02 thresh-hold. Learning to identify this ‘zone’ is a matter of progressive training.

Extending the rule!

As we progress in our training, we can extend each third, thereby extending our maximum breath-hold. We start to increase our c02 tolerance, so we feel the onset of the 2nd third later and can deal with it for longer when it does arrive. We can increase our body’s ability to work on lower than normal oxygen levels, thereby extending the final third as well.

The danger zone.

The most dangerous part of any dive is of course when the partial pressure of oxygen in the brain gets to a point where it can no longer sustain consciousnesses. As we progress with our training we slowly push of c02 threshold back (we also push our 02 threshold back, but often slower as it is more closely connected to fitness and condition), learning to deal with the 2nd and final third and moving us closer to the ‘Danger zone’. This may take months or years to achieve.

In-fact, new freedivers (as long as they follow training guidelines and have formal training) are often less likely to blackout/loose motor control than some more advanced divers, simply as they as new divers have a lower tolerance to c02 so will come up sooner, far away from the ‘danger zone’. A more advanced diver, with a higher c02 tolerance will often push through the 2nd third and the final third all the way to their low 02 threshold therefore risking loss of motor control or blackout. The c02 safety zone is critical and is what keep us diving within our limits, respect it.

Be safe!

Remember, this is a VERY rough guide to breath-hold and the sensations within it. It gives us as freedivers something to focus on when we are training, and is especially useful for new freedivers to judge where they are in their breath-hold.

Before you try any extended breath-holds, please consider signing up for an accredited freediving course with a school such as ours. Always dive with a buddy, never dive alone!

never freedive alone


33 responses

  1. Is it possible for me, a 71 year old woman to learn free diving? I am a very avid swimmer – spend between 2-3 hours in the pool every day – swim 10 lengths at a time & take 1-2 minute breaks after every 10 lengths.

  2. Your website has just blown my mind! I simply had no idea you could train yourself so dramatically. I really connected with your “5 minutes in 30 days” challenge and so after reading all i could on your site, I did my baseline hold, made my tables, and have begun my month to really try to reach 5 min. Success would really blow my mind!
    Q: in my first two weeks, should I be doing only one A table attempt every other day, or many?

  3. Hi, is it true that when u begin to get the contractions the diving reflex gets stronger therefore conserving even more oxygen. I think I saw this on Freediver Youbuur’s channel. Could this help u save even more oxygen rather than hyperventilating ( ps I know it’s bad cause changes pH of blood and blah blah blah ^^)

    1. Its no that its getting stronger its just another phase. The body is physically responding to lower 02 levels by trying to activate the inspiratory muscles.
      It does signal the release of red blood cells from the spleen, that might be where you are getting confused.

  4. Hey does anyone have any pointers for me I want to increase my breath hold time but i never actually don’t feel the urge to breath ( i always feel the urge to breathe )( this pages rule of thirds says a third of my breath hold I shouldn’t even need to breath ) i am following the instructions on the “How to hold your breath for 5 minutes in 1 month – Freediving training” page on this same site.

    1. Try to focus on what you are actually feeling. Is it a feeling of fullness? this is probably just that, and it will pass in time. or is it a feeling of panic? again, same thing, with repetition it will get better and you can start to enjoy that first relaxing phase of not needing to breathe.

  5. I am a 55 yr old 200 lb semi-sedentary individual. In my younger years I was an avid swimmer (Over 5 mi. per week) & SCUBA diver and up to age 40 I was pretty active , 160 lbs and in great shape (bike, surf, swim 3-5 time a week). I decided to become active again and as part of the training regime I want to take on Freediving. Right now I can hold my breath for 1 m 40s and my goal is to be able to do 5 min in 1 year and freedive to at least 30 M.

    My question is, is this an over-optimistic goal or should I set a different goal?



    1. Its optimistic but not impossible, it really depends on how much time you train. I would say that there are dangers of over stretching yourself. 1: you put yourself in a much higher risk of blackout . 2: you may never actually enjoy the sport!
      The depth goal may be harder to achieve as its not all about determination but some physiological factors as well, namely equalisation (which is ALOT harder than when scuba diving).
      Just remember to get your fist course booked in early season so you have the time to get going in the rest of the season.

  6. Can you tell me if and how asthmatics and/or people with asthma are affected and if their is anything we should avoid doing or train differently ? I’ve dealt with it my whole life but is pushing the limits with apnea any different for us?

  7. Hi,

    I spearfish and i am trying to increase my bottom time. Dry breath hold 3 minutes 30 seconds. Once im in the water the time is drastically reduced to 30 seconds and under (5 to 10m depth). I should be performing better in the water and i dont know why i struggle!!!



    1. Hi Sam. Its most likely the combination of stress and the effort to get there. Practice more, with a buddy, in a pool but at the deep end. The fluttering is probably from the diaphragm but if you are concerned see your GP.

  8. Just to add on , around 30seconds i get a fluttering feeling in my chest. I feel like i can stay down longer after that point but get worried with the feeling. Its almost like a fluttering of the heart. Is this normal? I have no heart issues.


  9. I’m 38 an have bad health that I have neglected dew to a bad life style with work. But I have returned from a holiday in NZL I’m not the best swimmer thanks to not having the confidence on breathing but looking to change that I’m 6ft 8in an was 150kgs now on 138kgs at the moment want to drop more cause I want to learn to be a certified scuba diver as well as have more confidence with free dive as all my friend are I have goals in mind cause I want to see a new world an not be a boat boy anymore

  10. Great info! Without boring you with all the whys; I am trying to increase my hanging-out time both horizontally and vertical at the bottom . 8-10 ft. Pool depth. I was told in order to sink as fast as possible: to purge all the O2 out on my way down. I do that and sink like a rock. So it works great; but my ability to stay under is a third of my dry training time. If I don’t release the oxygen, and hold it in I can’t stink and stay down like I want to. I am also having to fight to stay down at the bottom instead of being still. I’d appreciate any advice or tips.

  11. Hello! I’m a 14 year old boy and have been working on holding my breath. I got up to 2:31 for a dry hold and a 2:09 for a water hold but I’m nervous about contraptions. How do I tell when I start having them and how to deal with them? Thanks.

  12. Hi!
    I’m in Gran Canaria at the moment, trying to get some practice. I’m doing 10 meter dives without any serious urge to breathe, 2 minutes static breath holds on a good day, and 25 meters dynamic will probably not be a problem with good fins. Is it a good idea to sign up for AIDA 1&2 or is it better to start easy with just AIDA 1 knowing it’s within my limits?
    Also I’m curious about where to live while attending a course, and the cost for that. Got the gear, but it might need some improvements. Any good place to try and buy gear nearby?

    1. Id say just go for it. The level 2 isn’t all that taxing really. It’s within most people’s abilities.
      Are you talking about attending a course with me in Newquay?
      There are lots of accommodation options available. We have a small range of equipment available, but the best place is spearfishing store in Paignton.

  13. I came here because after a very strange dream I woke up with an inexplicable desire to experience drowning. Drowning – or suffocating – has always been one of my worst fears. After some dream analysis, I concluded I didn’t really want to drown, but I did want to train myself to hold my breath longer. My interest in diving has always only been limited to picking up stuff like rocks off the bottom of the sea near a public beach, for my kids to admire. I might do wet sessions in the bathtub.

  14. I’m not trying to be a freediver but I am trying to learn how to hold my breath for an extended period. Would these instructions still work?

  15. Can I learn to hold 3:30 under a week with 30- 60 mins training daily, right now my breath hold is 2:30 and I use ntx apnea training app to do some exercises

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