How to Handle a Hold-Down

Greg Long on the Science of Surviving

Greg Long smiles just like this during hold-downs, because he knows the key to survival is avoiding panic. Photo: Van Swae

Big-wave hellman Greg Long has gained distinction as one of the hardest charging surfers on the planet. But glory in this realm involves flirtation with monumental risk. For our “Ask A Local” column in the January 2011 issue of SURFER, we asked and the 2009 Eddie Aikau event champion the best ways to physically and mentally withstand long bouts underwater. While we used part of his response in print (on newsstands December 1, 2010) his explanation was so thorough we thought we’d share it in full here.

“When I started riding big waves I read an article that said to survive a massive wipeout, your mental preparedness will be just as important as your physical conditioning. After over a decade of pushing myself in challenging conditions, I can tell you that this statement is absolutely true.

In addition to maintaining a high level of physical fitness and stamina, being able to control your mind, keeping your composure, and entering a relaxed state during a wipeout are essential to getting through each big wipeout. And if you are really trying to push it in the big stuff, it is imperative for survival.

The main idea of staying calm and relaxed underwater is to conserve your energy and oxygen. The more you panic, struggle, and fight underwater, the faster you will deplete both. For me, learning to stay totally relaxed didn’t happen overnight, but rather over the course of a few years.

A huge part of becoming comfortable during a bad wipeout comes from experiencing them firsthand. I gradually worked my way into larger and larger surf, and as I progressed, the wipeouts naturally came. I made sure to never push myself beyond my limits, but rather become comfortable at each new level, until I knew I was ready to progress forward. In doing so I learned about the physical stress my body was put under (which is typically the initial cause for people to panic) as well as the physiological processes that takes place while I was being held under and depleted of oxygen.

I would recommend going online and researching or even taking a free-diving course to better understand what happens internally when your body is depleted of oxygen and your CO2 levels rise. This will help give you a better understanding of the feelings and sensations that will arise and help you work through them and stay relaxed.

Being physically fit and prepared helps to give me peace of mind when I am underwater. Knowing that my body is capable of handling the extreme forces I encounter in a massive wipeout makes it easier to stay relaxed. Over the years I have found that yoga as well as practiced meditation and a strict cardiovascular regimen are amazing compliments to my big-wave training.

Greg Long attempts to outrun some heavy water at Todos Santos. Photo: Van Swae

Yoga is incredible for your overall strength, balance and flexibility as well as learning to become more aware and in control of your breathing habits. One’s flexibility will undoubtedly be put to the test during a bad wipeout, when sent through those relentless rag-doll motions. Being supple and able to move with the water rather the feeling like you are being torn apart by it will not only help to prevent injuries, but once again allow you to stay more relaxed and calm.  The increased flexibility in certain parts of your body (intercostal muscles, low back, etc.) will also allow you to further expand your lung capacity.

It can be difficult to stay calm or find that happy place with so much going on underwater. Over the years I have found it easier to enter that meditative state after practicing regularly on dry land. Getting to that place will be a personal experience, but the idea is essentially to clear your mind of any negative thoughts or emotions that do not serve you. They are simply another form of wasted energy.

You will also find strengthening your cardiovascular system to be extremely beneficial to holding your breath for extended periods of time and increasing your confidence underwater. My regimen consists of swimming and apnea training both underwater and on dry land. The idea behind this type of exercise is to teach your body to operate more efficiently with less oxygen and build up its tolerance level of CO2. I cannot stress enough how imperative it is that you never do any apnea training without a partner, especially underwater!

These are the key concepts I have learned and practiced over the years to help me to stay relaxed during heavy wipeouts. Some may resonate with you and others may not. The next statement however is one fact that cannot be denied: The ocean is far stronger and greater than any one of us. Once you have wiped out or are caught inside, there is no avoiding what is coming. The ocean will let you up when she wants. So in that time, you may as well relax and enjoy the ride, because there are no do-overs.”

—Greg Long