Basic respiration control for Freedivers (part 1)

In the last couple of months, I noticed that even some Freediving professionals are not completely understanding how breathing control in humans happens. And be honest, while I was writing this article I found out that I was not 100 % correct as well.

Hopefully, this article helps you to understand better what exactly happens with your respiratory system when you hold your breath. And if you find any mistake here – feel free to correct me – I am still learning as well!

As any other Freediving school, we are teaching about breathing control on our Freediving courses, but here I tried to put a little bit more details.

To start with – we have two different types of chemoreceptors which are detecting chemical changes in our body and sending signals to our respiratory center within Pons and Medulla Oblongata (both located in the brainstem), from where impulses send to our external intercostal muscles and diaphragm, to change the volume and frequency of our breathing (or cause “urge to breath” if you are holding your breath).

We can divide these receptors into 2 categories

  1. Central chemoreceptors. Why “central”? Because these receptors are part of our central nervous system and literally part of our brain (located inside Pons and Medulla Oblongata). Since these receptors are not inside blood vessels, they are responding to high CO2/H+ not within the blood, but within cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which separated from the blood vessels by the blood-brain barrier (BBB).

chemo receptors

Let’s make an example. You hold your breath for a few minutes. Amount of CO2 increases in your blood, the amount of H+ also increase creating low pH (respiratory acidosis). H+ doesn’t diffuse through BBB, but CO2 does. This CO2 bonds with water inside CSF and produce H+, an increased amount of which is going to be detected by central chemoreceptors.


Recently I learned that lactate has an impact on this process as well. Lactate, which is produced during anaerobic energy production, in a form of lactic acid, can go through BBB where it brakes down to lactate and H+, which eventually lead to the activation of central chemoreceptors.

Eventually, central receptors can desensitize and this is why we have the potential to become less sensitive to high H+ over some period of training with exposure to a high CO2 (whether it is a breath hold training or some form of HIIT).

  1. Peripheral chemoreceptors. They are not part of the central nervous system (instead, they are an extension of the peripheral nervous system) and located inside aorta (largest artery of the human body). More specifically – inside the aortic and carotid body. Interesting fact – here we have one of the highest blood flow in a human body.


Chemoreceptors inside aortic body sensitive to the change of partial pressure of CO2 and O2. If there is a change – they send the signal to Medulla Oblangata via Vagus nerve.

Chemoreceptors inside carotid body sensitive to change of partial pressure of CO2/O2 and change of pH (metabolic change, due to high lactate production for example). And if there is a significant change – send the signal to the respiratory center via Glossopharyngeal nerve.

The main function of peripheral chemoreceptors (glomus cells) is control of pO2 (in contrast with central chemoreceptors, where the main trigger is a change of pCO2/H+). As I said early, they also sensitive to the change of pCO2/H+ but secondary. It means that the sensitivity of these receptors to the low pO2 is greater when pCO2/H+ is high.

Activation of peripheral chemoreceptors are low when the partial pressure of O2 is close to the normal (100 mmHg), but when it is going below 60 mmHg the activity increases rapidly due to a decrease of hemoglobin-oxygen saturation.

Peripheral receptors are not desensitized over time.

Two common hypoxic ventilation responses (CO2/pH can stay at the normal level) – reaction to high altitude or high concentration of carbon monoxide in breathing air.

How all of this can be useful for us Freedivers? In the middle part of the breath hold, when your contractions start, it is a reaction to a high CO2/H+ sensed by central chemoreceptors. Peripheral chemoreceptors are not playing an important role at this moment since the partial pressure of O2 is close to normal. But close to the end of your MAX attempt, when pO2is going to be close to 60 mmHg and low, a reaction from them will contribute to your urge to breathe.


For further reading


Useful videos to watch



Everything that you need to know about MDR (Mammalian Dive Reflex) in Freediving

First of all the term, Mammalian Dive Reflex is a little bit misleading term since not only mammals have it. So, let’s call it Dive Reflex or Dive Response or just DR 😉

Doesn’t matter, you are complete beginners or you already Freediving Instructor, Dive Reflex is your best friend!

A bit of history. Many years ago one French doctor made a statement that man could not dive deeper than 50 meters because the thoracic cavity is going to be crushed (some sources say 30-40 meters). Why? Because every 10 meters pressure increasing with 1 atm and when you are 50 meters surrounding pressure already 6 atm. And it is huge. But back to those time, no one was even trying to do it (ok, there a couple of exceptions). But in 1961 Enzo Maiorca dived to this depth and survive! Why? Because of the blood shift! And blood shift is a part of DR!

DCIM102GOPROGOPR1302.JPGDR is activated when our face is cooled (by cold water for example) or when we hold our breath. When we do both – even better!

This reflex helps us to hold our breath longer and dive deeper! How? By:

  1. Apnea
  2. Bradycardia
  3. Peripheral vasoconstriction and blood shift
  4. Spleen contraction

1. DR is responsible for spontaneous activation of Apnea. If we place infant underwater (don’t ask me why) their windpipe would spontaneously close (by vocal cords) and this prevents water from entering the lungs. This reflex quite strong upon 6 months and then start to disappear. My assumption – around this age baby start learning how to crawl and probably decide that Dive Reflex is not that important for them! Does it happen because of our genetic memories of our aquatic past or because nine months before birth our natural environment is liquid? Who knows 😉

2. DR causing bradycardia – slowing your heart rate (HR). Quite common is 10-30 % DCIM102GOPROGOPR0029.JPGreduction of HR for Freedivers (up to 50% or more in highly trained athletes). There are stories with even more impressive results, but let’s skip them now. Sounds impressive? How about this – laboratory rats have 80% decreases in HR while submerged underwater!!

Bradycardia is usually followed by tachycardia (increase in HR) after breath hold is over.

Why bradycardia is important for Freediver? Well, it is a protective mechanism of our body, it decreases O2 consumption, which means we can hold our breath hold longer without risk of losing the conscious! It also compensates the result of peripheral vasoconstriction effect (which cause increased blood pressure)

3. Next benefit of DR is a peripheral vasoconstriction and blood shift

Back to 1974 study showed that during dives to 40-60 meters, the amount of blood in the thorax (chest cavity) increased more than twice! And this reflex was called (pretty obviously) blood shift.

DCIM102GOPROG0053175.JPGPeripheral vasoconstriction (PV) is a narrowing of the blood vessels to reduce blood flow to non-vital organs (such as skin or inactive muscles, for example) ensuring that oxygen-sensitive organs like the brain or heart receive enough O2 for normal function. In another word PV is a redistribution of blood to vital organs from peripheral organs. PV also induces anaerobic metabolism, with an increase in lactic acid as a by-product. Interesting that the release of lactic acid into the bloodstream doesn’t occur (or at least significantly reduced) until Freediver resurface (at least this is what experiments on laboratory rats show).

For all of the above, you can say that blood shift (BS) happens (blood moves from non-vital organs to vital organs) when PV happens, but quite common Freedivers are using the term BS when describing the movement of the blood to the chest cavity to protect it from increasing pressure while diving deep.

Due to PV certain amount of blood pushed to the lungs, the capillaries in the lungs receive a greater blood flow and increase in size, compensating for space lost in the lungs due to increasing of ambient pressure. The lungs become filled up with the blood, which is reabsorbed when Freediver ascending.

IMPORTANT! Blood shift not pushing the blood into alveoli! It pushes it into capillaries around alveoli!

Why PV is very important for Freedivers? Well, it helps to move O2 from organs which can survive longer without it, to organs which are in constant demand of O2. So, it helps us to hold our breath longer and dive deeper (by moving blood to the chest cavity).

4. And the last but not least benefit of DR is the spleen contraction. Spleen in the human body has two main functions – mechanical filtration of red blood cells (RBC) and as a part of the immune system. We are interested in the first function. About 240 ml of RBC’s can be held in the spleen and released when needed (due to hypoxia for example). When the contraction of the spleen happens oxygen-rich RBC’s gradually start their journey to circulatory system increasing O2 carry capacity of our blood (and helping us to hold our breath longer).

Interesting that spleen not recovering fast, even after an hour it is only partially recovered (however there are studies which show that spleen can be fully recovered in size in less than 20 minutes).

5. This is not a benefit, but still part of DR. Immersion diuresis. Yes, this is an explanation DCIM102GOPROG0022614.JPGwhy while Freediving you want to pee much often! As you know part of DR is PV and it causes increased blood flow to the torso area and increased blood pressure as a result. Our body detects it and releases a specific hormone responsible for liquid regulations, which increase urine production. Don’t be embarrassed because of it! But make sure that this reflex doesn’t make you dyhadrated (drink enough before and after Freediving session).

6. Another side effect of DR is faster muscles fatigue. And again you can blame PV. When PV happens and blood moves away from your muscles, they start to work in an anaerobic way and produce more lactic. And even after you finish apnea, the effect does not disappear quickly (depends how long and intense your apnea was). Do you need proof? Try to do DYN bi fins 100 meters and 100 meters surface swim (with the same fins) and compare how do you feel.


If you have any question about Freediving, let me know in comments below!