How Does Smoking Affect Freediving?

smoking and freediving

Over the years, I’ve had the realization that when it comes to excelling at sports, training for the sport only contributes around 20-30% of your success, and a large majority of your success has to do with things outside of training. That means eating a healthy diet, getting adequate rest, trying not to be stressed out, staying motivated, taking care of aches and pains before they become full-on injuries and not engaging in any activities that would harm your progress.

That’s why I’m always surprised to learn when an athlete is a smoker. Smoking is the antithesis of a healthy, athletic body; it’s like you’re undoing all of your hard work. The impact smoking has on the body is even more pronounced when it comes to breath-hold sports like freediving. To put it bluntly, if you’re a freediver and you smoke, you’re probably not going to be the best. Even freediving legend Enzo Maiorca, who was known to be a regular smoker, stopped smoking for a month before each record attempt.

If you’re smoking and freediving, you are definitely hurting your freediving performance. Smoking is known to damage your lungs, among myriad other negative effects, and each puff you take will reduce your underwater depth, total breath-hold time, and make it harder to equalize. Thankfully, most of the effects of smoking can be reversed if you are able to stop before more serious complications develop. If you’re freediving and smoking and want to improve your breath-hold times, the single best thing you can do is to quit smoking.

My two cents on smoking

woman smoking cigarette back view

Before I explain in more detail how smoking affects freediving, I just want to address the elephant in the room. This article is not intended to make you feel bad about smoking. I’m not angry at you nor am I trying to shame you for smoking. Even I’ve smoked in the past, so it’d be awfully hypocritical of me to have a holier-than-thou attitude.

If you smoke, it’s your life and your choice. It doesn’t affect me in any way, so believe me when I say there’s no judgment on my end. I know how soothing it can be to smoke a cig when you’re stressed out, and how good of a bonding activity it is to casually share a cig with someone close to you, and so on.

However, in the context of how smoking affects freediving, I need to be honest: smoking is terrible for freediving, scuba diving, and quite frankly, any athletic endeavor. This is not me hating on smokers; this is me hating on smoking. Again, it’s your choice if you want to smoke, but you should at least be informed on your decision to smoke and freedive.

How smoking can decrease your freediving capabilities:

Increases risk of shallow water blackout

Do you know why shallow water blackouts occur? Even if you aren’t a smoker, it could happen to you. Some freedivers use a technique called hyperventilation where for several minutes before a dive, they take multiple deep breaths and try to intake more oxygen into their body than normal. The result of hyperventilation is that it temporarily fools your body’s carbon dioxide sensor into thinking you have a surplus of oxygen in your body.

Thus, during a dive, when your body would normally alert you to head to the surface because you’re running dangerously low on oxygen, you won’t feel that urge anymore. Many freedivers have lost their lives this way because they would pass out from lack of oxygen and drown. We only know about this phenomenon because a lucky few freedivers managed to get rescued before they drowned.

How does smoking relate to this? Rather than fool your body’s carbon dioxide sensors, smoking can simply damage them so they won’t function properly in the first place. That means that as your body naturally produces carbon dioxide as it uses up the oxygen, you also won’t be able to tell that you’re running dangerously low on oxygen. Like when you hyperventilate, smokers can stay underwater for longer without feeling the urge to breathe and this can easily lead to a shallow water blackout.

Damages the cilia on your lungs

Cilia are microscopic, hair-like structures that cover our lungs and most of our airways. They naturally produce a sticky mucus-like substance that can trap dust and prevent airborne particles from settling on the airways. By moving in a wave-like motion, the mucus (and particles stuck on it) is moved out of the lungs.

When you smoke, the smoke and heat can damage the cilia, preventing them from moving the mucus. The damaged cilia can also die off. So now the airborne particles will remain in the airways and this can lead to increased risk of lung infections.

The bad news doesn’t end. Since your lungs don’t have functioning cilia anymore, plus the smoke can create a black tar-like substance on your lungs, your lungs will have an abundance of mucus that can only be removed by coughing. This is what’s referred to as “smoker’s cough”, and what you cough out is unsightly. The accumulation of mucus can also affect a freediver’s ability to equalize as well.

Decreases lung flexibility

Smoking will prevent your body from producing an enzyme called elastin which helps with lung flexibility. Freedivers need flexible lungs so that they can inflate it to hold as much air as possible.

Another benefit of elastin is that it reduces the likelihood of lung barotrauma which is when your lungs are inflated beyond what it can handle. Having flexible lungs can only benefit a freediver, and when you smoke, you are taking away that benefit.

Increases heart rate, metabolism, and blood pressure

Nicotine, a highly addictive substance in cigarettes, can cause your heart rate, metabolism, and blood pressure to increase. All of these are bad, but the increased heart rate is especially pertinent to freedivers because it means you are using up oxygen faster.

The increased heart rate is noticeable even when you are at rest. Each time your heart beats, it is pumping the oxygenated blood that it received from your lungs to the arteries which distributes blood to the rest of your body. This sounds well and good, but that means an increased heart rate is decreasing your overall breath-hold times.

For this reason, it’s important to keep your heart rate low. Some freedivers even learn how to meditate just to keep their heart rate lower. However, smokers will simply have a faster heart rate than non-smokers, and that won’t change unless they quit smoking.

Narrows blood vessels

Another side effect of inhaling nicotine: it causes our blood vessels to contract, decreasing the total amount of blood flow to our organs. If you’ve been smoking for a while, the blood vessels can eventually become stiffer and less elastic, reducing the amount of nutrients and oxygen your cells are given. This causes your heart rate to increase to compensate for the lack of nutrients in oxygen, and this is bad for freediving as mentioned above.

Damages alveoli

Inside our lungs are tiny air sacs called alveoli, and they are responsible for extracting oxygen from the air we breathe and moving it into our bloodstream. They also transfer carbon dioxide out of our bloodstream so that we can get rid of it when we exhale.

Smoking will damage the alveoli by destroying their thin walls, leaving larger and less efficient air sacs. The gas exchange will not be as effective, and if enough alveoli are destroyed, then you can develop emphysema.

Increases carbon monoxide levels

Normally during the gas exchange, oxygen binds to hemoglobin which is then delivered to all of our cells. A non-smoker should be able to supply sufficient oxygen with no issues. However, due to cigarette smoke, carbon monoxide will be present in a smoker’s lungs and it binds to hemoglobin better than oxygen does.

In fact, that was an understatement, carbon monoxide is about 200 times better than oxygen at binding to hemoglobin, taking up space that oxygen would normally bind to, which means there is an overall decreased amount of oxygen in your bloodstream which places more strain on your heart and lungs.

Increases anxiety

While it seems that smoking can make you feel relaxed but that’s only in the short term; in reality, smoking can actually increase your anxiety and tension when you start to experience withdrawal symptoms and cravings. When the cravings are too much, smoking will only stave off the withdrawal symptoms, but it will not decrease your anxiety or tension.

Not only that, but there might also be a psychological aspect at play. Some smokers know how harmful it is to their body, yet they are struggling to quit. In the meantime, they may be worried about the bad chemicals in their body that they can’t seem to quit, and this causes them to be stressed out and anxious. The severity of the effects can differ from person to person, but there is certainly a link between smoking and anxiety.

Can you vape and freedive?

vaping and freediving

Vapes and e-cigarettes are relatively new compared to the original cigarettes’ long history. Thus, it’s currently unclear what the long term effects are. However, with even just a few years of data, researchers and medical experts have already come to a conclusion: they are also bad for divers, but perhaps less so than regular cigarettes.

In fact, there are plenty of similar side effects such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism that regular cigarettes can cause. So even if you were hoping to switch to a “healthier” alternative, be aware that, at least for diving, your bottom times will likely remain the same.

Now, what did we mean when we said that e-cigs/vapes are not as bad as regular cigarettes? For one, they contain fewer chemicals than the 7,000 or so that regular tobacco cigarettes have. It is still unclear what chemicals exactly are in e-cigarettes, however at least in terms of quantity of chemicals, vaping is not as bad.

That said, there is a new problem which vaping introduces, which is the ability to use third-party/black market modified e-liquids. You don’t know if and how these e-liquids have been modified, and it’s possible you can suffer lung injuries or even death by inhaling them.

If you are a smoker and were hoping to switch to vaping as a “healthier” alternative so that you can continue smoking while freediving, unfortunately, it does not seem like it would make any difference in regards to your breath-hold capabilities. Consider quitting, or at the very least, stop smoking for a few days or weeks leading up to a freediving competition.

Can you smoke marijuana and freedive?

marijuana and freediving

Even though marijuana is less damaging to the lungs than tobacco is, that doesn’t mean you can smoke it without regard for your safety. For instance, it still may have a negative effect on your lungs in relation to how much you smoke it. That said, it is estimated that a tobacco user smokes ten to 20 cigarettes a day, but a recreational marijuana user may only smoke a handful of times a month. Thus, the typical exposure to marijuana smoke is significantly lower than tobacco smoke from tobacco smokers.

Due to lack of data, the current hypothesis is that very heavy marijuana use may take a heavy toll on the lungs just like smoking tobacco would. However, it would appear that occasional use of marijuana (e.g. 2-3 times a month) does not have adverse consequences to lung function, but heavier exposure may eventually take a toll over the years.

So reading between the lines, does that mean marijuana is okay for freediving? The answer is still no. Why? Because even if casual marijuana use does not impair pulmonary function, it can certainly impair your judgment. Marijuana is fine if you are on land, surrounded by friends or at home where you can be taken care of. However, it’s definitely not okay if you’re underwater.

Freediving already has plenty of inherent risks, and you do not want to introduce more risks that can potentially result in death. Impaired judgment can cause you to misjudge your depth, dive deeper than before, or ignore warnings that you would usually heed. If something does go wrong, do you really want to jeopardize your own safety and your buddy’s just to get a little high?

Parting words

There are many downsides to smoking and freediving, and we have only covered some of them as they pertain to breath-hold activities. Even smoking e-cigarettes (vaping) and partaking in some recreational marijuana use can be enough of an impediment to decrease your bottom times and jeopardize your safety. If possible, the best option is to quit, or at the very least, temporarily cease smoking leading up to an important diving event.

Smoking is a personal choice and, as we discussed, something that is ultimately up to you. The information we researched for this article is intended to help you make an informed decision. Again, this article was very anti-smoking because it truly is harmful if you plan on doing any breath-hold diving. However, if you can somehow manage to achieve all of your freediving goals without quitting smoking, then more power to you.