A note about training, drill cards, and an Italian thing…

Let’s face it: training is always hard, but its benefits often prove to be elusive; surely we can improve the efficiency of training, but how?

The “how” is the subject of this post, but let me tell you in advance that there could be no stable improvement without discipline and consistency.

Training aside,  the best investment you can make as a beginner is joining a course by a qualified instructor. Personally, I took two courses after having had 20 or so years of freediving, and still I found them greatly useful.

As I see it, there are three drivers of freediving performance:

  1. The technique (how to duck dive, how to swim with fins, how to maintain a correct body posture)
  2. The body (muscle efficiency and power, resistance to low levels of oxygen and high levels of carbon dioxide)
  3. The mind (relaxing even when short of breath, visualizing positive images under stress, being confident in the water)

While for beginners even a few training sessions can significantly improve technique and mind, the rate of improvement soon flattens, as improving the mind further (not to mention the body) takes substantially more effort.

What you really need is consistent training, which brings us to the small matter of frequency: training once per week can, realistically, only maintain your technique and a connection to the act of breath-holding, but will not significantly improve your mind, and not at all your body.

On the contrary,  training twice a week, with a dive at sea over the week-end, can lead to improvements, although ideally  you would train thrice a week (plus the dive). Therefore, be realistic with what you can achieve; as always, you get what you pay for, and if you are not prepared to invest a substantial amount of time, you will not get far.

An important note here: swimming underwater is not the only way of training! Actually, every aerobic exercise (running, swimming, cycling)  improve your body’s efficiency, hence your freediving. If you can, consider swimming over other aerobic exercises, since it will improve your confidence with the water and the streamlining of your posture.

Actually, if you are serious about freediving, and you cannot swim for 100mt without stopping short of breath, do yourself a favor and learn how to swim: how could your relax in the water if you cannot float on its surface without outside help?

So, let’s suppose you are confident in the water, know how to swim without the paraphernalia of civilization (wetsuit, fins, snorkel, etc.), and willing to train at the very least once a week, plus a dive over the week-end… what to do next?

Here is where training drills come in handy. Actually, there are entire books devoted to the subject, and different opinions too! Let get this straight: this post is not meant to be exhaustive, but merely to introduce drills that we have tested over the years and found useful, with a view of tuning them with the feedback that will come from members.


From the next training session, laminated training cards will be available at the side of the swimming pool, from which you will be able to pick the program of the day.

The drills on these cards are divided into four classes:

  1. Hypoxic (these drills are designed to improve the functioning of your body in a low-level oxygen environment)
  2. Hypercapnic (drills designed to improve the tolerance to high levels of carbon dioxide)
  3. Lactic acid (these drills improve the tolerance of your muscles to work when oxygen-deprived)
  4. Static (stationary apnea, it is mainly useful to train your mind)

One word of caution here: the boundaries between the first three categories are blurred, since every breath-holding effort causes the oxygen level to decrease and the carbon dioxide level to increase; in addition, in an unfit body, even moderate physical exercise can trigger the lactic acid metabolism.

As far as safety is concerned, hypercapnic exercises are the safest, while the hypoxic (and, potentially, the static) ones are the most blackout-prone. As you may know, your body cannot measure the oxygen level, hence a series of drills designed to build up carbon dioxide can be very stressing and painful, but it is also safe… despite what your body yells at you!

The time and number of repetitions on the training cards are indicative only, and you are encouraged to adapt them to your level, while maintaining the spirit of the drill and keep on repeating them session after session, in order to gauge your progression.

Since we are at it, how do you measure progression? We all know the feeling of inconsistent performance from session to session, and there is a reason for it: your life. Freediving is all about relaxing your mind and your muscles (while maintaining situation awareness and the ability to express power at an instant’s notice), but the stress levels of a normal day often get in the  way, introducing tensions in your diaphragm, or making your mind to wander into negative territory.

Well, there are two ways to measure progression:

  1. Your ability to complete the drill as written in the cards, and possibly improve over them (longer distances, higher number of repetitions, shorter recovery times, higher static breath-holding times)
  2. The Mardollo protocol: a simple yet effective way to measure your overall proficiency developed by Apnea Academy

So, what is this Mardollo-thing? Very simple: you swim for 12 minutes continuously in a 25mt pool, one lap underwater, one lap swimming on the surface on your back (dynamic recovery). Of course, the longer your swim in those 12 minutes, the better at freediving you are.

We will soon introduce a way to record the Mardollo, and we plan to perform the Mardollo every two months, in order to measure the improvements of our members.

I hope you have found this post useful, and, as always: get off the couch and put the blades where they belong!

I would not have been able to write this post without the example of my instructor Alberto Marivittori (Apnea Academy), or the books by Duilio Marcante, Umberto Pellizzari, and Armando Lombardi.