Breath holding for surfers: how to overcome fear of wipeouts

How many times did you not catch a wave because of your fears of getting wiped out?

breath holding for surfers

I have recently sent out an email to thousands of my readers asking them what their biggest fear in surfing was. The number 1 response was getting caught under water for a long time (breath holding). They wrote things like:

  • „Be caught by the set of waves in the break”
  • „Getting caught under water for too much time, hitting my head against coral reef”
  • „Getting hurt/pounded”
  • „One of my biggest fears is holding my breath for so long that I pass out under water.”
  • „All I know is that I am really bad at holding my breath, so it is going to be tough.”
  • „Hopefully I don’t pass out „

The most simple way of overcoming your fear of breath holds (and wipeouts) is that you have to know that you are prepared for every outcome. This is what will give you more confidence and help you to reach the next level in your surfing.

The key formula for surviving nasty wipeouts

Most of the surfers I have met in my life never actively prepared for getting caught under water. Sure, big wave surfers do, but your average weekend warrior just fears the wipeouts, but never prepares for them.

One of the reasons for this that it is not obvious how to prepare for it.

What confuses most surfers is that breath holding training is usually done in static, calm environments. (e.g. you go to a pool and try out how you can stay under water..). There are no waves, there are no issues. Even if you can hold your breath for 1-2 minutes without training, this is not the case when that wave sucks you in and drags you through the „washing machine”.

Here is how you need to think about this: if you can hold your breath for at least 4 minutes in a static environment in ideal conditions (e.g. you are in a pool in relaxed state, everything is working to your best breathhold), then you should be able to take a quarter of that (1 minute), when you are surfing and you are tossed around and trying to protect your head etc.

The 3 step formula for surf breath holding training

I have broken down what you need to do into a simple formula:

Breath holding in surf: breath holding in normal conditions + getting dragged under water + dealing with fear

1, Breath holding in normal conditions

As I wrote above, first you need to to be able to hold your breath at least 2-3 minutes.

This can be easily reached by a little bit of practice. Personally I used the below method, which was popularized by Wim Hof, the guy commonly nicknamed “The Iceman” for his ability to hold his breath for 6 minutes while his entire body is submerged under water. You can hear Laird (Hamilton) talk about what he learned from him here.

You can start doing this even without going to a pool. Just sit on the floor/ground, take at least 20 deep breaths like in the below video (deep inhale through the nose, exhale through your mouth). Once you start to feel a little dizzy, or reached 20 exhales, exhale and hold your breath and see how long you can do it.  You can see how to do the breathing part here, explained by Wim Hof (3 min video)

Then repeat this 2 more times, but try to do it with 30 inhales/exhales before holding your breath. This exercise will increase your oxygen levels and will get the circulation going. If you are interested how this works in more detail, this is a good animation here.

Watch from 2 minutes:

Try 3-4 times with some rests in between. Write up your results in your phone or use my Breath holding cheat sheet. Keep track of your progress every time you do this.

After 3 days of practice, you will already be a lot better (my times doubled) at holding your breath and start to become more accustomed to fighting the fear response of the body when the oxygen is running out. You will find that you will be able to push through the boundary of the first panic reactions and there is still plenty of time afterwards before you actually need to breathe. This will give you more confidence and the ability to remain calm when you are next time under water and start to get scared.

Once you have practiced this for at least 3 days, you can try this in a pool, or in a bathtub again. Have somebody with you watching you at all times. Read the warnings here about how to do it.

Once you feel comfortable holding your breath in the water, aim for multiple 1 minute breathholds with very short surface intervals, just like when you are getting pounded by a heavy set . Try doing 2, then 3 and 4 sets.

Those who want to become really good at this, I recommend you doing the entire Wim Hof course. I managed to learn how to hold your breath for 4+ minutes AFTER exhaling and also built up my resistance to cold water. It is really amazing what all of us are capable of with just a little bit of training.

2, Getting dragged under water

Holding your breath while you are getting dragged under water during a wipe out is way more challenging than in optimal conditions. This is ok, beacause ideally you have to hold it less than 8-10 seconds with smaller waves (less than overhead wave) and even for larger (2-3 overhead) it is unlikely that you will have to hold for more than 1 minute.

While you are getting pounded by the wave your muscles are using more oxygen as you are trying to instinctively paddle/protect your head. You need to learn to only use your muscles to protect you head and stay in the embrio pose, but otherwise relax your body. Less tension = you last longer under water.

To practice this, go with your buddy to a pool and simulate the under water „experience” what you are getting when you are pounded by the wave like this:

You can do this in a shallow pool, assume the embrio prose and have your body rotate you around.

3, Dealing with fear

The most simple way of overcoming your fear of wipeouts is that you have to know that you are prepared for every outcome.

With the above two steps, you already increased your ability to have enough oxygen to survive a beating by a set of waves.

Knowing that you are prepared for what can happen will give you more confidence:

  • Briefly recall the breath training when you paddle out next, knowing that you know your limits, you know how it feels when you have to survive under water.
  • Remember that it doesn’t take as long to surface as you think after the first 2-3 seconds after being caught by the wave. In total it will be likely much less than a minute and you are able to hold out for 3-4 minutes.
  • Also you should always assume you have to deal with not just one, but a set of waves. You need to stay calm after the second or third wave is pounding you and keep repeating what you practiced above.

The panic and fear is holding you back more than your physical capabilities. Open water is kind of a scary thing for almost everyone. Learning the fundamentals of surfing is one thing, but now you know how to handle a set of monster waves on your head right after a dirty wipe out. Print my Breath holding cheat sheet and hang it near your desk. Prepare for it, so you can have more fun and confidence surfing next time.

The biggest thing you could take away from this whole breath holding preparation is that you are now able to control yourself and your body even when your conditions are not ideal. Now go enjoy your next surfing session with more confidence!

If you want to further explore your fears in surfing, check out my article How to turn your fear in surfing to your advantage


Do you know what is the number 1 thing holding back your progress in surfing?

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