If there is one aspect in the sport of freediving that gets the most overlooked by new freedivers it has to be ear equalisation. Many people start freediving expecting it to be the physical breath hold or mental capacity to deal with being underwater to be the most challenging aspect of the sport, and are often surprised when it is actually equalisation of the middle ear that proves to be the challenge. Because it’s just as simple as pinching your nose and blowing, right?
Well not exactly. Firstly lets refresh and look at Boyle's Law as to why we need to equalise our ears during a dive. On an airplane you can get away with a simple blow against a pinched nose (or sometimes just swallowing!) to help compensate for the change in pressure in the cabin, this because the pressure change in an airplane is relatively very small. In scuba diving, the other place where you might equalise your ears, you can descend slowly, come to a head up position (which makes it easier), wait some time for it to work (and breathe!) before carrying on. In freediving we are descending fast in a head down position which makes the whole process more difficult if not done correctly or efficiently.
So here are the six most common mistakes of equalising for freediving that I encounter with my students as a professional freediving instructor:
1) Not being relaxed:
Suddenly finding yourself upside down underwater and holding your breath is not conducive to being relaxed! Then trying to add another complicated skill (equalisation) makes things even more difficult.
Solution: Practice breath holds dry to get used to that sensation and the urge to breathe. Practice pool dynamics or statics to get used to that sensation in the water. Use muscle relaxation exercises to give you greater awareness of your body and how you hold it.
2) Descending too fast:
The quicker you descend the quicker you need to equalise. Fine if you are proficient at it, otherwise it can be hard to keep pace.
Solution: Slow down the descent speed, use the discipline of Free Immersion where you can stop or slow easier using the line. Remember that as you get deeper you will become negatively buoyant so will still descend without even kicking or pulling.
3) Using the incorrect or an inefficient equalisation technique:
FRENZEL technique (not VALSALVA) is the best method of freediving equalisation. Some people do it automatically, and some people need to learn it.
Solution: Learn Frenzel technique and figure out the best tongue position that works for you and how to control the ‘gates’ (soft palette and glottis). You can do all of this away from the water.
4) Not equalising frequently enough:
Freediving equalisation has to be done fast so you need to be ready so as to do it as often and as quickly as possible.
Solution: Keep your fingers close to your nose ready to pinch quickly when needed. Equalise in a rhythm pattern in anticipation of greater pressure coming up, not just waiting to feel pressure before reacting to it, which will prove too slow.
5) Not equalising the mask:
The mask often gets forgotten as an airspace and needs to be equalised via exhaling through the nose. If not done this can have a knock on effect to the ability to equalise the ears.
Solution: Exhale into the mask when you feel the pressure on the face increasing with depth.
6) Not training or practicing:
As with any skill, ear equalisation takes time to master. The control of the parts of the body involved does not often come naturally (who knew before how to ‘close your glotis’!?!). But practice makes perfect! You can’t expect to be good at something without practicing it repeatedly.
Solution: Learn and practice, practice, practice! Fortunately most ear equalisation training can be done dry so you can practice any time before even getting in the water. Doing a little bit of training every day will pay off greatly in the long term.
I hope this topic has provided some insight and will help you on your freediving journey! Of course the best way to learn a new skill is with an experienced freediving instructor that can observe and correct any mistakes and offer you correct advice and training solutions.