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How Age Affects Freediving Success

I am often told (usually, I must admit, a coach of a “certain age”) that unlike, for example, football, where any professional over the age of 30 needs to think about retirement, freedivers get better with age.
How Age Affects Freediving Success

Anyone who knew the late Natalia Molchanova, who at the age of 56 was truly invincible, set world records in every discipline, it would be difficult to disagree. Ever since I heard that Pascal Berger from Switzerland calls himself the representative of the “young generation”, I’ve been intrigued by what exactly means “too old for freediving.” Pascal himself, at the age of 42, set the VWT Swiss record by plunging 115 m. This is only 31 m less than the world record of 39-year-old Stavros Kastrinakis. Briton Sarah Campbell, too, at age 39, plunged into the 104 m CWT. So what’s going on here? Where are all the young people “in their prime” setting new records?
One possible explanation is that “professional” freediving has essentially existed for only 25 years, starting with Umberto Pellicari. This may not pay tribute to Jacques Maillol (100+ meters at the age of 56) and Enzo Mallorca, who, of course, dedicated their lives to sports much earlier. However, in general, they were exceptions, which the general public accepted more as stuntmen than athletes, thus not turning them into role models.
Since the time of Pellicari, the growth of sports freediving has progressed slowly, and today most freedivers in their teens or older than 20 years have only a few years of experience in this sport. Since freediving was still relatively unknown, famous freedivers such as Guillaume Neri (34 years old) and William Trubridge (36 years old), inspired by the Pellicari at an early age, and now serving as a source of inspiration for the younger generation, were still an exception to the rule in his youth.
But is this a reasonably complete explanation? As a marine physiologist, I was interested in further research on this issue, and it turned out that there are a number of physiological changes associated with freediving that occur with age. Some of them are potentially useful, others are not so obvious, but perhaps changes in consciousness are the most important of all.
How Age Affects Freediving Success

This article assumes some prior knowledge of physiology and freediving.
Changes in the heart and blood vessels
In a broad sense, the heart and arteries that receive blood from it lose their elasticity with age, since active muscle cells (myocytes) are replaced by inflexible collagen. It also affects how electricity is passed through the heart so that it beats. The heart control system (vagus nerve and sinoatrial node) and arteries also become less sensitive to catecholamines (hormones such as adrenaline and norepinephrine), which increase heart rate and blood pressure under stress.
How Age Affects Freediving Success

To correctly understand these changes, it is worth paying attention to the fact that blood pressure (which determines how well the brain receives the blood necessary to remain conscious) is determined by the equation:
BP = HR x SV x TPR
BP (Blood Pressure) = Blood Pressure
HR (Heart Rate) = Heart Rate
SV = Stroke Volume = stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped by the heart with each beat)
TPR (Total Peripheral Resistance) = Total peripheral resistance is, in particular, a measure of arterial “tone” supported by the response of arteries to adrenaline and norepinephrine. An increase in the amount of these hormones leads to a reduction in arteries, an increase in their tone and, therefore, TPR.
The process of reducing the elasticity of blood vessels, affecting the heart, causes a decrease in stroke volume. As the arteries stiffen, TPR increases, and as the control system becomes less sensitive to catecholamines, this leads to a decrease in heart rate. Loss of arterial tone in response to adrenaline means that blood vessels are less able to cope with changes in blood volume. In general, there is an increase in blood pressure (despite a lower heart rate and stroke volume).

Lung changes
Like the heart and blood vessels, the lungs also narrow with age. This creates potential problems with compression of the lungs, as the lungs cannot adapt so easily to changes in volume. However, not everything is so bad. Studies by Peterson et al (1981) and Kronenburg & Drage (1973) show a significant decrease in the respiratory response to hypoxia and hypercapnia (increased CO2). This ultimately means less desire to breathe and can be helpful in helping older freedivers relax underwater.

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How Age Affects Freediving Success
I am often told (usually, I must admit, a coach of a “certain age”) that unlike, for example, football, where any professional over the age of 30 needs to think…

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