Physiology of static breath holding in elite apneists

Anthony R. Bain*, Ivan Drvis, Zeljko Dujic, David B. MacLeod, Philip N. Ainslie

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    4 Citations (Scopus)


    New Findings: What is the topic of this review? This review provides an up-to-date assessment of the physiology involved with extreme static dry-land breath holding in trained apneists. What advances does it highlight? We specifically highlight the recent findings involved with the cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and metabolic function during a maximal breath hold in elite apneists. Abstract: Breath-hold-related activities have been performed for centuries, but only recently, within the last ∼30 years, has it emerged as an increasingly popular competitive sport. In apnoea sport, competition relates to underwater distances or simply maximal breath-hold duration, with the current (oxygen-unsupplemented) static breath-hold record at 11 min 35 s. Remarkably, many ultra-elite apneists are able to suppress respiratory urges to the point where consciousness fundamentally limits a breath-hold duration. Here, arterial oxygen saturations as low as ∼50% have been reported. In such cases, oxygen conservation to maintain cerebral functioning is critical, where responses ascribed to the mammalian dive reflex, e.g. sympathetically mediated peripheral vasoconstriction and vagally mediated bradycardia, are central. In defence of maintaining global cerebral oxygen delivery during prolonged breath holds, the cerebral blood flow may increase by ∼100% from resting values. Interestingly, near the termination of prolonged dry static breath holds, recent studies also indicate that reductions in the cerebral oxidative metabolism can occur, probably attributable to the extreme hypercapnia and irrespective of the hypoxaemia. In this review, we highlight and discuss the recent data on the cardiovascular, metabolic and, particularly, cerebrovascular function in competitive apneists performing maximal static breath holds. The physiological adaptation and maladaptation with regular breath-hold training are also summarized, and future research areas in this unique physiological field are highlighted; particularly, the need to determine the potential long-term health impacts of extreme breath holding.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)635-651
    Number of pages17
    JournalExperimental Physiology
    Issue number5
    Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2018


    • apnoea
    • breath-holding
    • diving
    • free diving


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