Free-divers swim extraordinary distances and depths on one lungful of air, using strategies that could help any runner or rider. Hanli Prinsloo, superstar of the deep, shares her knowledge and experience
Fastening a wetsuit and slipping into a dolphin inspired monofin, free-diver Hanli Prinsloo is on her way to a place she feels truly at home. Calm and focused, she takes one huge breath in – before descending with perfect grace, 60 metres to the sea floor below.
In just over 60 years, the art of free-diving – “diving as deep, as far or as long as possible on a single breath of air” – has developed into a sophisticated sport. For some, it’s a way of pushing the boundaries, from unassisted swimming to record breaking depths, to plunging into the darkness strapped to a weighted platform. For others like Hanli, the thrill of the sport come from the sea itself.
“For me, free-diving is a way of being part of the sea,” says the South African. “I’ve been fascinated to see what my body can do under water – however I’m a very bad competitor. I really don’t care about being better than anyone else. I like the feeling of the body in water, the lack of gravity and the ability to move in three dimensions. I long for the silence and solitude of free-diving. I often find myself dreaming of being underwater alone. There’s a beauty in being surrounded by something so big without the bustle and noise of the world.”
Hanli insists free-diving is only dangerous when divers push themselves “too hard”, usually having “progressed too fast.” However she certainly recognises that with the joys of free-diving come many significant challenges. As they journey deeper, free-divers are facing the unavoidable build up of pressure in the inner ear; the physical effects of having an enormous volume of water above them; and the need to propel the naturally buoyant human body underwater, while conserving precious oxygen.
“On deep dives, you work on breathing out properly, oxygenating your blood and body tissue and slowing your heart rate. That begins with a strong inward breath,” explains Hanli. “When you start your dive, for the first 20 metres you’re kicking to get down. Then as your body is compressed [by the pressure], you enter what’s known as freefall, where you stop swimming [to conserve oxygen] and let your new density pull you down. All the way you really need to concentrate on equalising the pressure in your ears. If you miss an equalisation you can’t keep going. Then there’s the mental challenge. Not allowing yourself to listen to your doubts and fears. To trust in your body, your training and your skill.”
[quote align=”left”]“I’ve been fascinated to see what my body can do under water. People are definitely better adapted to water than they realise.”[/quote]
Hanli uses yoga techniques to achieve “a level of anaerobic fitness.” Starting each dive fully relaxed and well oxygenated allows her to glide through the water with maximum efficiency, conserving oxygen and allowing her to concentrate on each equalisation. Of course, it takes more than deep breathing to hold your breath for six minutes, while your lungs are squashed to the size of a small paper bag. For that, Hanli relies on the body “awakening its ‘inner seal’.”
Hanli is one of many free-divers who believe in the benefits of the Mammalian Dive Response – an innate and uncontrollable reaction to the conditions of deep ocean free-diving. She says it’s primarily this response that allows her to hold her breath for so long and return to the surface.
“At depth, your body responds in a way which you don’t control,” she explains. “There’s no cue – my body simply does it as I dive. People are definitely better adapted to water than they realise.”
The body’s response begins immediately. As soon as Hanli’s face touches the water, her heart rate begins to slow down. As she dives deeper, blood vessels in her legs and arms constrict, flushing blood back to her core so it can be recirculated to her brain. Her spleen contracts, releasing “a great amount oxygen-rich red blood cells.” Finally, blood plasma shifts into capillaries around her lungs, cushioning fragile lung tissue as her body is squeezed by the weight of water above.
It didn’t take long for Hanli to realise that much of what she had learnt as a free-diver applied to any sport where there was, “a need for aerobic fitness and oxygen.” Her free-diving inspired workshops, which began with big wave surfers, have oxygenated the bodies of runners, cyclists, swimmers – and even the South African Rugby Sevens team, who after initially wondering why their coach had booked them in for a pool session with a free-diver, immediately recognised the physical benefits of Hanli’s highly effective techniques.
Her message is simple. No matter which sports activity you choose, if you want to perform at your best, oxygen matters. “We tend to breathe quite badly, as our bodies try to do everything with the least possible effort,” she explains. “A lack of good breathing skills stops you from being well oxygenated. With cyclists and runners, I’ve worked on increasing their lung volume through stretching. Bigger lungs will of course help when they’re competing.”
Hanli also stressed the significance of proper recovery breathing in sports where performance and oxygen are inextricably linked. “Some of the mountain bikers I’ve worked with will finish a huge climb and then have to keep riding for the next 4 hours. Just like a free-diver in between dives, it’s crucial that they know how to recover properly.”
As someone who has pushed the limits of what we thought was possible in water, Hanli believes “overcoming limiting ideas” and shifting mental boundaries is the most important type of training for any athlete. But her greatest love is coming face to face with an array of animals.
“Swimming with a whale and understanding that it really is experiencing me, but without any animosity or aggression, is phenomenal,” she says. “The ocean has a fascinating variety of creatures we don’t really know or understand.”