Understanding the role fitness plays when diving
Scuba Diving is often viewed as a hobby or leisure activity. One does not necessarily have to be in great shape in order to dive and one of the cool things about diving is that it is quite accessible. However, the relationship between diving and fitness does not begin and end with whether or not one can carry their gear or keep up with a divemaster underwater.
Aside from the typical physical exertion that can be expended on an average, uneventful dive, situations can arise that demand physical reserves from a diver. Performance and comfort in the water in terms of buoyancy, trim and propulsion will be impacted by a diver’s overall strength and endurance. Besides this, decompression and air consumption both are related to overall fitness (among several other factors).
Knowing your personal limits
The ocean (and other diving environments) are dynamic places and sometimes conditions change, divers get lost or other logistics go awry and one is faced with a significant surface swim, difficult entry or exit or need to get to another diver in a hurry. Taking stock of these potential circumstances at a given site in a particular group is important – is it within your personal comfort zone?
Cardiovascular fitness and scuba diving
Having decent cardiovascular fitness is beneficial for divers not just so that the task of swimming both on and below the surface is easier, but because it means that a diver’s circulatory and respiratory systems will generally be in better shape and thus more efficient at off-gassing nitrogen (and helium). This means that, all else being equal, this kind of fitness will help to reduce a diver’s chances of decompression sickness (DCS). Of course, there are multiple factors that contribute to DCS and being healthy and fit does not insure against DCS on its own, but it is one of many tools that divers can employ to dive as safely as possible.
Running is often the first exercise that comes to mind when cardio is mentioned; however, there are several options. Cycling is great cardio and the best cardiovascular exercise for diving is probably swimming. Many fit people complain that when they hit the water to go for a swim for the first time in a long time they are surprised at how quickly they are winded. But any cardio is better than none so, try to squeeze it in whatever way works for you, be that swimming, running or a fast paced sport like soccer or kickboxing. Whatever kind of cardio you choose, make sure you begin with a reasonable training program. Join a running group or search online for various training schedules and be honest with yourself about your current level of fitness. If you have not done any cardio in years, don’t go out and run yourself into the ground – that’s how injuries happen.
Flexibility, what does that have to do with diving?
Lots. We’re awkward enough by the time we don all of our gear and exposure protection; we do not need a lack of flexibility complicating matters. Do you struggle to put your own fins on? This can be partially alleviated by getting scuba gear that fits you and by using spring straps and gaining comfort and control at the surface with practice, but flexibility is part of the formula. Can you reach your own tank valve(s) with your gear on? This is important in order to check that your tank is on, if there is any doubt and to be able to turn it back on, in case of a roll off (which can occur just poking around under ledges and overhangs – it isn’t a problem exclusive to wreck or cave penetration), and to shut off a tank in case of a regulator failure (with a buddy around). So, it’s useful, but can you do it? This is particularly tricky in drysuits and thick undergarments. Having exposure protection that is minimally restrictive (ie, that fits you) helps with mobility as does positioning and fit of other gear but shoulder flexibility will make a huge difference.
Stretching on a regular basis will help maintain and potentially improve flexibility. If you are not very familiar with stretching techniques, investing in a book, video or class to learn is a good idea as it is possible to hurt yourself. Like all exercise, it is best to be patient and start slow, gradually increasing your flexibility over time. Some turn to yoga to improve overall flexibility (this may also increase strength). For those in the Vancouver area, there is no shortage of yoga studios and many community centres offer classes in yoga or simply stretching. Some gyms also have stretching workshops available. A lot of the old school of thought in terms of what is the “right” way to stretch has fallen to the wayside, so if it’s been 20 years since you’ve last done any serious stretching, a class or at least plenty of reading on the subject is not a bad idea.
Scuba gear is heavy, strength is important
Dive gear is heavy and somewhat awkward to carry. We are often scrambling over slippery rocks and seaweed or heaving ourselves and our gear up boat ladders. Having the strength to move your scuba gear around in a comfortable way is critical to diver safety on shore or aboard a boat. When it comes to being strong enough to move and carry this gear in a safe way, particularly over any kind of distance, all over strength is crucial. Building strength for diving isn’t about the gun show. Upper body strength is handy when it comes to lifting and carrying tanks, but it won’t do much on its own (aside from maybe earn you a back injury). Leg and core strength are probably more beneficial to develop than upper body strength. Strong legs will help you step confidently across slippery terrain and give you the platform for heaving up a too-short boat ladder by being able to engage the large muscles of your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. Core strength will protect your back when lifting and provide you with stability.
Plus, building strength means building lean muscle mass which tends to have better circulation than fatty tissue, therefore it off-gasses more effectively. Lower body strength will also help divers develop the power necessary to kick quickly when necessary and really maximize the speed and power that they can get out of their fins should they need or want to get out of the way of something, catch up with a buddy or escape a particularly strong current (by swimming across it).
We will all have our strengths and weaknesses in terms of fitness and the general tendency for most people is to work on your strength because that is what is easiest and therefore more enjoyable. However, it is probably the best practice to work on one’s weakness(es) and overall fitness. This may be frustrating at first, but because this is where the most improvement can occur, you may find it the most rewarding. An integrated approach to fitness is really appropriate for diving as scuba is more varied and demanding than we may first think. You can approach fitness as a weekly routine that you develop on your own or as something that you work on and schedule through some of the varied exercise training programs, et cetera that are now more commonly available through various gyms and training centres, like Wuji Systems in Vancouver.
Please note that the advice given in this article is not a substitution for proper training and it is up to the individual to consider health risks and personal ability when undertaking a new or modified fitness program. If uncertain about personal health and any fitness routine, it is best to consult with a physician.
Martz, Cameron L., Fitness for Divers. Form Fitness LLC, Raliegh, NC: 2005.