Are Old Farts Really Better at Freediving? | Freedive Earth

Are Old Farts Really Better at Freediving?

I’ve often been told (usually, I’ll admit, by coaches of "a certain age") that, unlike - say - football, where any professional over the age of 30 is getting seriously long in the tooth, freedivers get better as they get older.

Anyone who knew the late Natalia Molchanova who, at the age of 56 was still truly unbeatable, holding world records in every competition discipline, would find it hard to disagree with this, and ever since I heard Switzerland’s Pascal Berger referring to himself as “the younger generation”, I’ve been intrigued about what, exactly, is “old for a freediver”. Pascal himself, at the tender age of 42 has just broken the Swiss VWT record with an impressive dive to 115m, just 31m shy of 39 year old Stavros Kastrinakis’ world record. The UKs Sara Campbell, too, dived to 104m CWT at the age of 39. So what’s going on here? Where are all the youngsters “in the prime of life” breaking records?

 One possible explanation is that truly “professional” freediving has only really been around for, let’s say, 25 years, since Umberto Pellizari. That might be doing a disservice to the likes of Jaques Mayol (100m + at the age of 56) and Enzo Maiorca who certainly dedicated their lives to the sport much earlier than this, but by and large they were exceptions, seen by the general public as something more like stuntmen than serious athletes, and not really role-models for anyone. 

 The growth of competitive freediving since Pellizari started slowly and as such, the majority of freedivers in their teens or 20s today will only have had a few years of exposure to the sport. Divers like Guillaume Néry (34) and William Trubridge, (36) inspired by Pellizari at an early age, and themselves now serving as inspiration for a much larger group of the younger generation, were still exceptions to the rule when they were younger, because freediving was still comparatively unknown. 

 But is that all that’s going on? As an obligate aquatic physiologist, I found myself drawn to investigate this question further, and it turns out that there are a number of physiological changes relevant to freediving which occur with age. Some of these are potentially beneficial, others not so obviously so, but it may, perhaps, be changes in the mind that are the most relevant of all.

 This article assumes some prior knowledge of physiology and freediving, if you’re new to the sport, or to the science behind it, why not have a look at our “physiology bootcamp” and “how long can you hold your breath” series which deal with some of the basic concepts in detail. In the meantime, here's a picture of Dr Otter Snr in a contemplative mood:

 

 

 Changes in the Heart and Blood Vessels

 Broadly speaking, the heart, and the arteries it supplies, stiffen up with age as active muscle cells (myocytes) get replaced with inflexible collagen.  This also affects the way that electricity is conducted through the heart to make it beat. The control system of the heart (the vagus nerve and sino-atrial node) and the arteries too, also become less responsive to catecholamines (hormones like adrenalin and noradrenalin) which tend to increase heart rate and blood pressure under stress. 

 

 In order to understand these changes properly, it’s worth taking a moment to understand that blood pressure (which determines how well the brain gets perfused with blood - and this is what we really care about for staying conscious) is determined by the equation: 

 BP = HR x SV x TPR

BP = Blood Pressure

HR = Heart Rate

SV = Stroke Volume (the amount of blood pumped by the heart with each beat)

TPR = Total Peripheral Resistance - this is a measure, in part, of arterial “tone” which is maintained by the arteries’ response to adrenaline and noradrenaline. Increasing amounts of these hormones make the arteries contract, increasing their tone and therefore TPR. 

 The stiffening process which affects the heart causes a reduction in stroke volume through the starling mechanism. As the arteries stiffen, this increases TPR and as the control system becomes less responsive to catecholamines, this tends to decrease the heart rate. Loss of arterial tone in response to adrenaline means that the blood vessels are less able to handle changes in blood volume. Overall there is an increase in blood pressure (despite the lower heart-rate and stroke volume).

 Here are some of the possible consequences of these changes:

 

Change

Potential Benefit For Freediving

Potential Problem for Freediving

Decreased Heart Rate

Reduction in oxygen consumption

Decreased Cardiac Output and worse perfusion of organs like the brain

Increased Blood Pressure

Potentially better for perfusing the brain

Greater potential for developing a stroke or lung squeeze †.

Decreased Flexibility of Heart and Vessels

 

Decreased blood shift

Changes in Electrical Properties of Heart (Myocytes replaced with collagen)

 

Greater potential for developing abnormal heart rhythm

Changes in Artery Response to Catecholamines

Decreased stress response - possibility of decreased risk of lung squeeze †

Loss of arterial “tone” - 

 

*Check out our discussion of the Starling mechanism and its role in freediving coming up soon.

†See our articles on lung squeeze here

 Overall, then, although there are some potential benefits, we would expect the cardiovascular performance of older freedivers to be worse than their younger rivals.

 

Changes in the Lungs

 Like the heart and blood vessels, the lungs also stiffen up with age. This creates potential problems in relation to lung squeeze since the lungs can’t accommodate so easily to changes in volume. It’s not all bad news, though. Work done by Peterson et al (1981) and Kronenburg & Drage (1973) shows a significant decrease in the respiratory response to hypoxia and hypercapnia (increased CO2). This comes back ultimately to a decrease in the urge to breathe and may prove useful in helping older divers to relax underwater. Finally, because of a decrease in the efficiency of oxygen transport across the alveolar cell membrane, older adults tend to have a slightly lower oxygen saturation under normal conditions. This might mean that the rest of their physiology (blood and organ oxygen transport systems, for example)  is better adapted to a hypoxic environment. 

 Here’s a summary of the significance of these changes:

 

Change

Possible Benefits For Freediving

Possible Problems for Freediving

Loss of lung flexibility

 

Greater risk of lung squeeze, Reduced Total Lung Capacity, Greater risk of air embolism from packing. 

Decreased response to hypoxia and hypercapnia

Decreased urge to breathe

Decreased mammalian dive reflex

Decreased arterial oxygen saturation at rest

Greater tolerance for hypoxia (assuming good breathe-up and full saturation at start of dive)

Decreased efficiency of lung oxygen transport system - may cause greater hypoxia at the end of the dive

 

 

Changes in the Muscles

 Lots of evidence (e.g. Keller & Engelhardt, 2013) shows that muscle mass decreases with age. This will leave older freedivers lacking in power for those long ascents, and a certain amount of oxygen storage capacity from myoglobin too. The plus side to this, however, is that their demand for oxygen at rest will be lower too (see next section).

 It’s also worth bearing in mind that these changes may be more to do with decreases in physical activity amongst elderly… I mean… older… divers. See Nishiguchi et al (2014, below) for more on this.

 

 Changes in Basal Metabolic Rate

 Because of decreases in heart rate, brain activity (sorry guys!), density and activity of muscle fibres and a generalised decrease in the activity of respiring cells in all organ systems of the body, the basal metabolic rate of older adults is often lower than those of younger individuals. This means that at rest, or in a state of complete relaxation, an older diver will typically consume less oxygen than a younger diver.

 It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that work done by Van Pelt et al (2001) suggests that this decline in BMR occurs mainly as a result of decreasing levels of exercise among older populations, so may not apply to freedivers training hard and regularly throughout their lives.

 Have a look here for a fuller description of the role of BMR in oxygen consumption. 

 

Changes in the Brain and Mind

 Although our brains keep the ability to change and develop throughout life, they do tend to lose cells over time as we age (NIH 2008). This has a knock-on effect on things like neurotransmitter production, and overall activity of the brain (e.g Smith 1984, NIH 2008) which ultimately lead to a decrease in energy requirements (and therefore oxygen consumption) of the brain as we age. This can only be a good thing for older divers… as long as they can still remember how to get to the competition venue.

 Probably more important than this, however, are the changes that inevitably happen in our minds, rather than our physical brains as we age. Most obviously, practise and immersion in the competition environment are likely to lend older divers an advantage in, for example, handling the drama of competition and maintaining core aspects of technique (equalisation, for example) under pressure. Freediving is a sport which above all else requires this kind of mental toughness, which really only comes with age and experience.

 More generally, there might also be an effect of age - let’s call it the “chill factor” that benefits older divers in terms avoiding injury by progressing more slowly, dealing better with failure and being more relaxed about achieving their goals, all of which carry an obvious benefit for freediving. This effect is measured, for example, by a decrease in impulsivity, and a better response to long-term rewards as we age (Eppinger et al 2012). 

 

The Bottom Line

 It’s clear from the information above that there are a range of things happening as we get older, some of which are likely to affect us adversely, and others that might help us when we’re diving. It’s important to recognise that every individual is different, and that the ‘rate of ageing’ we experience has a lot to do with lifestyle and genetics too. It’s often difficult to make a direct connection between chronological age and “physiological age”, particularly when looking at populations of highly trained and motivated athletes eating an alkaline diet.

 

 

Despite this, it’s reasonably clear that younger divers have a physiological advantage in terms of their ability to withstand the demands of depth and extreme hypoxia than older divers. Older divers may derive a benefit from a decreased basal metabolic rate and improved ability to relax under pressure, as well as the obvious benefits of greater competition experience. Many of their physiological deficits will be masked by the fact that, compared to other sports, freediving doesn’t require so much strength, or strength-in-endurance either. Some of these benefits are offset by a greater risk of serious complications arising out of putting your body through physiological extremes though.

 One thing that’s common to all freedivers as they progress through their careers is time in the water. Our latest research in the area of lung-squeeze, for example, suggests that the best way to prevent this potentially deadly injury is to adapt slowly, increasing your maximum depth gradually over time. Younger divers have often simply not had enough time at depth to adapt properly and as such are limited in terms of competition performance. The greatest benefit of ageing overall seems to be in the areas of mental toughness, technique development and the “chill factor” described above, all of which really only come with age and experience. The likes of Alexey Molchanov, world record holder at the age of 21 and Sayuri Kinoshita who recently broke the CNF World Record seem to have missed that memo, however.

So the Jury’s still out. It’s likely that, as the sport of freediving grows, younger divers who have pursued the sport from an early age will gain ground over the old guard, but it does seem that freediving as a sport has some unique features that dramatically extend an athlete’s shelf life. Good news for us all.

 

References

Eppinger B, Nystrom LE, Cohen JD. Reduced Sensitivity to Immediate Reward during Decision-Making in Older than Younger Adults. Gilbert S, ed. PLoS ONE. 2012;7(5):e36953. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036953.

Keller K, Engelhardt M. Strength and muscle mass loss with aging process. Age and strength loss. Muscles, Ligaments and Tendons Journal. 2013;3(4):346-350.

Kronenberg RS, Drage CW. Attenuation of the ventilatory and heart rate responses to hypoxia and hypercapnia with aging in normal men. J Clin Invest. 1973 Aug;52(8):1812-9.

Mendelson & McCann, American Geriatric Society Presentation  AGING: NORMAL PHYSIOLOGY https://www.pogoe.org/sites/default/files/gsr/2_Normal_Physiology_of_Aging.pdf

National Institute of Health 2008 The Changing Brain in Healthy Ageing https://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/publication/part-1-basics-healthy-brain/changing-brain-healthy-aging

Nishiguchi, Shu et al. Effect of physical activity at midlife on skeletal muscle mass in old age in community-dwelling older women: A cross-sectional study Journal of Clinical Gerontology and Geriatrics , Volume 5 , Issue 1 , 18 - 22 2014

Peterson DD, Pack AI, Silage DA, Fishman AP. Effects of aging on ventilatory and occlusion pressure responses to hypoxia and hypercapnia. Am Rev Respir Dis. 1981 Oct;124(4):387-91

Rachael E. Van Pelt, Frank A. Dinneno, Douglas R. Seals, Pamela Parker Jones  Age-related decline in RMR in physically active men: relation to exercise volume and energy intake American Journal of Physiology - Endocrinology and Metabolism Published 1 September 2001 Vol. 281 no. 3

Smith, Carolyn B. Trends in Neurosciences , Volume 7 , Issue 6 , 203 - 208 1984

 

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