The Mammalian Dive Reflex

By: Manny Colon-Perez
April 4, 2020

During the Instagram Live last week, DEF Master Trainer Rick Briere mentioned the “mammalian dive reflex,” also known as the “dive reflex.” In order to understand better what he was talking about, let’s do a quick exercise… Take a couple of deep breaths and try holding it for 10-15 seconds, maybe a little longer if you can. Did you feel some pressure or a gag sensation?

All humans have a physiological response that gets activated when we hold our breath, when we are submerged, or our face is cooled by water. In simple terms, the Dive Reflex is the body’s preventive mechanism triggered before the level of oxygen becomes critically low. In the breath hold exercise we just did for example, the body immediately emits signals to utilize the available oxygen as quickly as possible. It is important to note that after a prolonged breath hold, we have the urge to breathe because the level of carbon dioxide is high - not because the oxygen level is low. 

Everyone experiences the dive reflex at a different level. Overtime, the body becomes more resilient and adapts to tolerate a higher level of CO2. Since we started in 2018, we have observed how efficient breathing exercises possess a unique ability to influence heart rate, mood; the blood circulation, its composition and acidity. Through efficient breathing techniques and breath hold exercises at DEF, we have gradually increased our capacity to perform under water during workout or during UTL game play. This is relevant to our sport because it means that we can push further thus increasing our fitness and ability to make a play or score. Outside of the game, it means a higher level of cardiovascular capacity, focus and relaxation under stressful situations. Speaking of stressful situations...

The FREE principles: (Focus, Relaxation, Economy of Motion, Efficient Breathing) promote self awareness, concentration, and fluidity. These are all applicable and relevant not only to water sports but also to everyday life. DEF Athlete and Pro Surfer Cole Houshmand says:

The dive response is something that I learned to get used to and translate into surfing. In training, you get that response all the time and it can spike your heart rate and make you use more energy than needed. Whenever I get into scary situations in surfing, I start to focus on other things rather than getting to the surface. I can focus on myself, make sure I’m not injured, am I still attached to my board, and then try to calm myself down. It’s all a learning experience. 

Though the dive reflex is a complicated process, its overall goal is simple: the preservation of life by physiologic adaptation in response to the current environment. The good news is that by training our natural dive reflex and practicing efficient breathing, it is possible to modify the stress signal and increase our CO2 tolerance.

I have learned in DEF is that if you can take your mind elsewhere, and focus on the task at hand underwater, that response will slowly fade away and take up less space in your head. 

About the Author: Manny is a DEF Certified Tier 2 Instructor and Trains with Team La Jolla
Photos courtesy of: Cole Houshmand

For more information about FREE and Breathing Exercises visit us on Instagram: @deependfitness