The best surfing advice you’ve ever been given – See how long you can hold your breath

I’m all for feeling the fear and doing it anyway. But sometimes the fear is so strong that you can’t simply suck it up – you need a different approach to make your brain realise you’re not about to die.

One of my biggest fears when surfing used to be that I’d be held under for too long, I wouldn’t be able to breathe and I would obviously drown. And it wasn’t until I worked with Sam* (one of the coolest kids ever btw) on the latest Wave Project course that I was reminded that

  1. I literally used to be terrified of this,
  2. And I haven’t actually given it a second thought for several years now!

Sam really wasn’t keen on going under a wave. So much so, that if he fell off his board, he would start panicking and bolt out of the sea. Now I’m sure we all know that when you’re learning to surf, falling off happens quite a lot, so as you can imagine, he wasn’t loving life right at that point.

After chasing him out of sea a couple of times we sat down to talk about what was causing it and it turned out he was really scared of drowning. And then I remembered, I used to be exactly the same.

There was a time when I was getting pretty good at surfing small waves, but absolutely hated going out in anything bigger. Even if I’d been brave enough someone had bribed me to go out, I wouldn’t paddle hard enough because I didn’t really want to catch the wave in case I got caught inside and held under. I spent a lot of time sitting out back not really doing anything and getting incredibly frustrated. I genuinely used to think if Mark Foo can drown then I’m screwed – logical obviously because waves at Mavericks are totally the same as a two-foot beach break (*rolls eyes at myself*)

So Sam being scared, reminded me of all this, and the piece of advice that totally changed it all…

My friends and I all felt a bit battered and bruised after a particularly heavy session at Maderas and we were chatting about getting held down in big waves over our post-surf Toñas.

“How long do you think you’re going to get held down for” one of the guys next to piped up.

“I don’t know, like 20 seconds?” I replied

He smiled (like one of those smiles you give to a child who’s being completely ridiculous) “and how long can you hold your breath for?”

I thought about it, and having no idea I said “maybe 30 seconds”

“Well then” he said, “You’ll have no problem will you.”

Obviously we all looked a bit shocked, so he continued.

“Seriously, hold your breath now and count how long you can actually hold it. Then next time you get in the sea, count how long you get held under. I’d be surprised if it’s anywhere near half the time you can hold your breath.”

He was right. I could make it to about a minute, and surprisingly, even in pretty big waves (for me, so about head high) I was rarely underwater for any more than ten seconds. So on that basis I could get held down under at least three set waves without dying (obviously allowing for the period in between the waves too). And to be honest, I have absolutely no business being out in surf that’s going to do that.

In fact, before and after, I’ve never been held under for more than a wave, even if when I came back up, another wave was about to crash down on my head, I usually had time to gasp in a breath before going back under.

This notion literally changed my life. Obviously I timed myself properly as soon as I could. And googled it. I discovered an averagely fit person can hold their breath for nearly two minutes. And you can actually train yourself to get better.

I also tested it out for quite a long time, whenever I was feeling slightly out of my comfort zone, I’d count every time I fell off, and feel reassured that it was plenty of time to come back up to the surface. It felt like I was staying under for less time and I was much more relaxed about it all. In fact, somewhere along the way, I completely forgot to be scared of drowning altogether.


So back to Sam on the beach at the Wave Project. I asked him how long he could hold his breath for. He wasn’t sure so we tested it out – a very respectable 36 seconds. Then we watched some people in the sea, counting how long they stayed under if they fell off, probably between 4 and 8 seconds. Then, to double check, I went under a few waves with Sam watching and counting. After that, and a final promise I wasn’t lying, he felt happy enough to go back out for another try. And the great news is that was the last time he ran out of the sea for the rest of his course, and his progress started going through the roof.


And to the random guy at Maderas – thank you! You eavesdropping on our conversation made me, loads of my friends who I’ve shared this advice with, and a really cool kid called Sam, much less scared, and enjoy surfing a whole lot more!


Know anyone who’s scared of being eld under – please share this with them, you’ll be their BFF!

And if you’re scared of being held under, why don’t you try the test. And please let us know if it helps in the comments below!


*I’ve changed Sam’s name.

**Disclaimer: obviously I’m talking to people who are beginner and intermediate surfers, who are going to be out in no more than head high waves. I’m not suggesting that you’ll be safe if you go surf 20ft monsters, just because you can hold your breath for two minutes!

Author: Amy Lambert

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