How Breathwork Expands Lung Capacity for Surfers

Expands Lung Capacity For Surfers

If you’ve ever watched big wave surfers like Laird Hamilton or Kai Lenny glide down the face of a 50 foot wave and wonder, “how can they do that?,” you’re not alone. The reason these surfers are able to put themselves into mind-bendingly dangerous situations without freaking out or dying is preparation.  Through years of training in and out of the water, they prepared their minds for big wave hold downs.  They fine tuned their body for peak performance in crazy conditions. Breathwork is a cornerstone of their preparation, which allows surfers to hold their breath for longer and increase their performance.

If a wave has ever held you under longer than you’d like, you should improve your underwater tolerance or breath hold ability. In this blog post, we will discuss why you should expand your lung capacity and how breathwork can help. We will explore the science behind breathwork and lung capacity, the benefits of breathwork for surfers, and how you can incorporate breathwork into your training routine.

Benefits of breathwork for surfers

One of the most significant benefits of breathwork exercises for surfers is an increase in lung capacity. You do this by creating more space for the lungs by stretching your rib cage and your actual lungs to increase capacity. By expanding the lungs’ capacity, you can hold your breath for longer, allowing you to stay underwater in case of a hold down or wipeout. This is essential, especially for surfers who want to surf in bigger waves, as breath hold ability can be the difference between life and death. 

Another benefit of breathwork for surfers is improved mental clarity and focus. When you practise breathwork exercises, you learn to control your breath, which slows down the heart rate and reduces stress levels. This mental clarity and focus can help you to stay calm and focused when surfing, helping you to make better decisions and improve your performance.

Breathwork exercises can also help improve a surfer’s physical performance. By training the diaphragm muscles to become stronger, you can take in more air, which improves muscle function during exercises and prevents strain. In fact, studies have shown that athletes in general have higher lung capacities than sedentary individuals. This increased endurance can help you catch more waves and paddle with becoming winded.  

The science behind breathwork

Breathwork focuses on controlling the breath to improve physical and mental health. Breathwork covers a myriad of techniques, including but not limited to some types of yoga, deep breathing, breath retention, and alternate nostril breathing. One of the benefits of breathwork is an expanded lung capacity,  which is the total volume of air that they can hold in your lungs. Increased lung capacity allows you to hold your breath for longer periods. Breath control is crucial for hold downs and sustained high-intensity physical activity.

When we inhale, our lungs fill with air, and the diaphragm muscle contracts and moves downwards to create space. When we exhale, the diaphragm muscle relaxes, and the lungs expel air in the form of carbon dioxide. Through regular breathwork exercises, you strengthen your diaphragm muscle to take in more air. Increased lung capacity equals increased breath hold length. The end result is a better chance of survival in the ocean and a massive confidence boost in your surfing.

The anatomy of holding your breath 

Holding your breath involves voluntarily stopping the flow of air in and out of the lungs.  When you do a static breath hold, you fill up your belly, chest, neck, and then throat to capture the maximum amount of air possible. Your mind tells various muscles in the body to work together to accomplish this. As you begin your breath hold and breathe into your belly, the diaphragm muscle flattens and moves lower, creating more space in the chest cavity for the lungs to expand.  The muscles in your chest and abdomen contract to prevent air from escaping the lungs.  The glottis, a small opening at the top of the windpipe, closes to prevent air from entering or escaping. The muscles in your throat and neck also contract to keep the airway closed.

It is important to note that the diaphragm itself plays a vital role in sustaining high performance over time and preventing injury.  Intra abdominal pressure is created when the diaphragm pulls down on the inhale, compressing the internal organs and acting as a piston on the pelvic floor. The stronger your diaphragm, the stronger your intra abdominal pressure which stabilises your spine and allows the widest, most fluid range of motion in the rest of your body.  

Essentially, breath holding is an exercise.  Like any exercise, you can improve your breath holding ability by strengthening and stretching the muscles involved in holding your breath.  The more air you can hold in your lungs, the longer you can hold your breath, the better you can handle challenging situations in the ocean. 

Understanding vital capacity 

In normal humans, lung volume increases steadily from birth to adulthood.  The lungs stop growing when you are 20-25 and retain the same volume until about 35 years old, when lung volume begins to decline.  Generally, as you get older, muscles like the diaphragm can get weaker.  You also lose elasticity in your airways and space in your rib cage leaving less room for your lungs to expand.

Doctors use spirometry to measure different types of lung capacity.  Vital Capacity (VC) is the maximum amount of air a person can expel from the lungs after a maximum inhalation.  In healthy people who have never smoked, vital capacity decreases about 0.2 litres per decade

The cool thing is that you can combat the effects of ageing on your lung capacity with breathwork.  Thus, increasing your lung capacity is a worthwhile pursuit for both surfers and non-surfers.  Improving your vital lung capacity has many benefits including: 

  • Stronger respiratory muscles
  • Optimization of breathing
  • Improved lung functions
  • Increased oxygen to the brain, hence a clearer and more focused mind
  • Increased oxygen to your muscles, hence positive effect on physical shape and performance 
  • Improved stamina and endurance 

Connection between lung capacity and performance 

Athletes in general have a higher lung capacity than non-athletes simply because they use their lungs more.  When you exercise, your body uses more oxygen and your lungs have to work harder.  Breathing increases from about 15 times a minute (12 litres) to up to about 40-60 times a minute (100 litres of air).  Tests have proven that athletes breathe better than non-athletes, especially those who engage in anaerobic activity. For example, swimmers have larger tidal volume than football players of the same age and physical stature. 

Freediving as a paradigm for understanding breatholds 

The reason that so many surfers study freediving is that freediving teaches the physiology of a breath hold.  Most people will give up after holding their breath for 30-40 seconds, believing that a lack of oxygen makes them need to breathe.  In freediving, you learn what actually causes your urge to breathe.  Once you understand that it is an accumulation of carbon dioxide, rather than a lack of oxygen, you know you’re not going to die if you hold your breath for more than a minute.  Then it is all about getting comfortable with this feeling… underwater.  

Freediving is a great way to crosstrain for surfing bigger waves.  Freediving teaches you to be uncomfortable in the water but stay calm and collected. If you understand the basics around your physiological response to breath holds, you can train yourself to stay relaxed in heavy ocean situations.  Plus, freediving is liberating.  Kirk Krack, founder of Performance Freediving explained why surfers are so attracted to freediving, “It’s the freedom. Similar to the reasons most surfers prefer paddling to tow-ins. Scuba diving is like being in a SUV with air conditioning and music,” he said. “Freediving is like grabbing your backpack and hiking through the forest. You have to be adaptive and understand your surroundings.” 

Doing your Level 1 Freediving course or learning freediving from an expert instructor is advised as freediving can be dangerous.  It is always best to start with dryland breathing exercises and work with someone who knows what they are doing in the water. Never ever train alone near water.  

How to Expand Your Lung Capacity

Incorporating breathwork exercises into a surfer’s training routine can be done in various ways. One way is to practise breathwork exercises at home or in a quiet, peaceful environment. Another way is to practise breatholds in a pool (always with a buddy for safety reasons, please do not practice breath holds in or near water when alone).  For this article, we are going to show you three lung expanding exercises you can do at home. 


The best way to begin your lung expansion training is to do a few stretches to limber up your ribs and diaphragm.  The goal is to increase inward and outward chest flexibility.  To start, kneel on the floor and place your hand on your opposite knee and twist, looking over your shoulder.  Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side. 


Hawaiian Big Wave Surfer, Mark Healey, recommends doing ten sets of this breath technique before you paddle out in heavy surf.  This technique both helps you expand your rib cage and lungs and works out your diaphragm. The more space you have in your rib cage and elasticity in your lungs, the more air you can take in.  

Here’s what you do: start in a sitting position, take a big breath in through your belly and push your stomach out to fill it as much as possible.  Next breathe into your chest and throat.  Take 2 or 3 final sips of air until your lungs are completely full and hold for five seconds.  Now, exhale slowly out in reverse. Release air through your throat, chest, ribs, and finally your belly sucking your diaphragm up into your rib cage as you fold forward.  Hold your breath for 5 seconds and slowly rise.  Repeat 5-10 times. 


Finally, we’re going to incorporate high intensity movement with breath holds to help you increase lung capacity. For this exercise, you can use a paddle machine, exercise bike, rowing machine or good old fashioned jump rope.  Start by moving at a moderate pace for 30 seconds.  Then kick it up a notch and go at 80-90% of your max for 10 seconds.  Take a deep belly-chest-throat breath and hold for 20 seconds.  Exhale and start moving at medium intensity again and repeat the cycle 8 times. This will definitely get your heart rate going.

First, you create more space in your rib cage and lungs.  Then, you build strength in your diaphragm.  Finally, you pump it up and put your respiratory system to the test. This trifecta of exercises will help you improve their lung capacity and performance in less than 20 minutes from the comfort of your own home.

The secret to enhanced performance 

Humans are the only creature on earth capable of consciously controlling their breath.  We can choose the cadence, depth, and method of breathing.  Our breathing patterns at rest dictate our breathing patterns while surfing, exercising, or under stress.  The secret to enhanced performance is simpler than you think.

Author Christopher McDougall recognised the secret when he studied the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico for his book, Born to Run, which chronicled both modern and ancient distance runners. He noticed that Tarahumara tribesmen and women could finish a marathon with low heart rates, low respiratory rates, calm demeanour, and lower blood pressure than when they set off.  The difference between the Tarahumana and puffed marathon runners who can barely cross the finish line before collapsing? Nose breathing. 

Nose breathing during exercise increases athletic performance in several ways. First, nose breathing regulates the amount of air that enters the lungs, making it easier to control breathing and pace during exercise. This can be particularly important during endurance activities, where pacing is crucial to maintain performance over time. Additionally, nose breathing can help to warm and humidify the air before it reaches the lungs, reducing irritation and increasing oxygen uptake. This is especially beneficial in dry or cold environments where air can be particularly harsh on the respiratory system.

Furthermore, nose breathing activates the diaphragm more effectively, increasing lung capacity and enabling more efficient breathing. This can lead to improved oxygen delivery to the muscles and tolerance of Co2. Finally, nose breathing has been shown to help reduce stress and improve relaxation, which can have a positive impact on athletic performance. By promoting a sense of calm and focus, nose breathing can help athletes perform at their best in high-pressure situations.

Of course, you may object that it can be difficult to nose breath while surfing because water often blocks your nasal passages (although world-class swimmers have learned to nose breathe in the water).  Indeed, times exist in the ocean where nose breathing is totally inappropriate.  For example, you’d never take your last, full breath before going under a big set through your nose because you want to get as much oxygen as possible in your lungs in the shortest possible time.  However, whenever possible, you want to return to nose breathing all day, every day.  That means when you are out the back waiting for the next wave, you should breathe through your nose.  

It also means that when you train on dry land you should focus on nose breathing to the highest level of exertion possible.  The idea is you push out your upper limit of nose breathing gradually, so that you can exert yourself more and more without resorting to mouth breathing.  When you get back into the water, you will feel this work in terms of physical fitness and breath control.  The benefits of exercising this way will translate into your surfing because you are purposely turning your stress response on and training yourself to tolerate and perform.  This is exactly the kind of training you need to stay calm in stressful ocean conditions

Greater lung capacity creates confidence in the water

Over time, breathwork will strengthen your diaphragm muscles, expand your lung capacity, and allow you to hold your breath for longer periods. Simultaneously, breathwork will help you to improve your mental clarity and focus and control your stress response, which is crucial when out in the ocean.   Small adaptations will result in one big thing: increased confidence in the water. If you feel out of breath when you are paddling out, you won’t feel confident.  If you’re not feeling confident you might hesitate, miss a wave, or get smashed on the inside. Your confidence levels will plunge further.  That’s why we train to expand our lung capacity: so we feel like nothing can stop us when we go surfing.  If you feel unstoppable, you’re going to have an amazing session no matter where you surf!


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Audrey is a Surfer, Bad-ass Adventure Mom and Breathless Breathwork Instructor.

Audrey runs a creative media marketer, copywriter, project manager company and hosts amazing surfing retreats for moms.

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