Taking Athlete Performance to New Depths in Hawaii

Red Bull High Performance trains top athletes to hold their breath up to five minutes.
© Bryce Groark/ Red Bull Content Pool
By Nate Hoppes

Remember when you were hanging out in the pool with your friends and you'd challenge each other to see who could hold their breath the longest? Other than the overachieving friend no one liked, most of us lasted somewhere between 60 to 90 seconds underwater.

Would you believe that with just one day of detailed anatomy classes and a few intense training sessions, you could hold your breath for close to five minutes?

But how does this have anything to do with improving an athlete's overall performance? The video above on the Red Bull High Performance program's breath-hold camp connects the dots.

This Red Bull High Performance camp, originally designed as a survival camp for surfers to develop their ability to hold their breath in extreme situations with increased confidence and comfort, has now been opened up to athletes from multiple disciplines.

I was in absolute disbelief of what the body is capable of doing. I improved my breath hold by 400 percent in day one. It gave me a lot of confidence in the water.

The 2014 class that traveled to Kona, Hawaii, to participate in the program included professional gamer Jimmy Ho; motorsports legends Travis Pastrana and Tarah Gieger; snowboarder Ben Ferguson; freeskier Bobby Brown; Olympic slopestyle skiing champion Dara Howell; surf ironman Matt Poole and surf ironwoman Jordan Mercer.

In theory, if an athlete can learn how to control their breathing and stay relaxed under uncomfortable, challenging and stressful circumstances, they will be able to perform at a high level no matter the playing field.

Relaxation is the common skill these athletes can all take back to their respective careers. It's one thing to understand that, but it's another thing to put it to the test.

"You have the physiological limit in terms of how long you can hold your breath," explained Andy Walshe, Director of Red Bull High Performance. "You have this idea of how far and how deep you can go. All you (the athletes) do all week is bang up against that limit."

"Each athlete takes away something very specific to them. If you're a little anxious you have to deal with it, if you're a little uncertain you have to relax. What that does is allow them to take that to their sport in really practical ways."

Unlike the coach who rides in a golf cart while yelling at you to run up a hill, Andy Walshe participated alongside the athletes in the program. "You can't watch this from the sidelines and get a real sense of what they are experiencing, so that you can support them in any meaningful way. My experience is always about how best to optimize these projects moving forward. So it's a shared misery along with continuos progression kind of thing."

The athletes are challenged to push through their mental and physical limits while free diving to the bottom of the ocean. The life-saving techniques they learned in the process can be applied to any high-pressure situation.

Mercer understands that this type of training is a much-needed step to achieving her latest goal of big-wave surfing. "If I want to paddle into a 20-foot wave, which is a goal of mine, breath-hold camp was a great place to start. I was in absolute disbelief of what the body is capable of doing. I improved my breath hold by 400 percent in day one. It gave me a lot of confidence in the water."

Once the program shifted from the training sessions in the pool to the ocean, it was no longer solely about improving your abilities -- it quickly became a competition.

Well, maybe not for everyone, but definitely for the ultra-competitive Pastrana, who commented, "However far someone else goes down, I want to go further."

Despite trying to psych Jordan out with an American flag speedo, Pastrana was outdone by the surfer. (Watch the 3:18 mark in the video above.)

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