Variable Ballast Technique Considerations


Hello all,

As a continuation of the technical aspects I touched on in the article “OUR GOAL: 125 METERS VARIABLE BALLAST!” I will go more in depth into the technical aspects of Yasemin’s dive protocol for her upcoming 125 meter attempt in the Variable category. On that article I had talked about the hybrid pull-kick technique that we employed for Yasemin’s 96, 100 and 105 meter records to great effect, however, now that we’re going 20 meters deeper, I have fine tuned both the descent and ascent parts of the dive to reflect changes both in equipment, training metodology and other factors. Let’s take a look at it step by step.

sledphotoProper Technique, Efficiency and Working Apnea Time. These 3 concepts are very important and rarely understood and used by freedivers nowadays. As a trainer, Proper Technique is everything to me, and what this means, is a diving style that maximizes all the strong areas of the diver and minimizes the weak areas. Sounds good, but what does it mean? Well, for one, you can always tell the divers with the better technique as they are the ones with the faster dive times. Good technique will allow you to move through the water without wasting time, always covering distance, always moving forward, coming closer to your goal while using only the neccessary amount of energy. The better your technique, the better you’ll move through the water, and thus the faster you’ll move through the water. But this increased speed should come with minimal use of energy, not with increased energey consumption as would be the case with poor technique. This is Efficiency at its best, achieving the most with the least. For example, with a monofin, Yasemin has as ascent speed of 1.57 meters/second, and she is able to keep this speed all the way from 100 meters to the surface. This is very, very good, in fact, better than most male divers I know, all of whom are far stronger and have far better apnea capacities than her. She is able to achieve this speed through good technique, not strenght, and in her case, this is very important, because Yasemin is not one of those divers that can spend 3 to 4 minutes underwater as opposed to many divers who routinely do dives approaching or even exceeding 4 minutes. This is Working Apnea Time, the time that a diver is able to spend underwater while at work, regardless of good or bad technique, and in Yasemin’s case, we alaways strive to keep her dive time under 3 minutes. Why?

She suffers from Thalassemia, a chronic form of anemia which means she always has very low concentrations of hemoglobin and hematocrits, both very important for oxygen transfer, and whatever small amounts of Hemoglobin she has, is shaped in a way that makes it very ineffective at bonding with oxygen. In fact, this is the worst condition to suffer from for a freediver, but we have had to adapt to it and make it work. Minimizing the Working Apnea Time (WAT) is certainly the best way to achieve this, since Yasemin would most likely be unable to complete a 4 minute dive. So with that goal in mind, we work relentlessly on her technique so that she can move very efficiently underwater in the least amount of time. Of course, this principle applies to every other diver, and as a trainer, I can tell that 95% of freedivers out there today have very poor techniques, which makes them very inefficient underwater and increases their WAT to a limit where they are putting themselves at risk of blackout or samba very frequently. The fact that they are able to complete dives with such long working times certinly points to how good their general apnea capacity is, but also to the fact that they are working on the edge, because I can assure you that dive times of over 4 minutes are very much near the edge for ANYBODY. So, if we count on the fact that, ideally, we want Yasemin to spend 3 minutes, or very little over 3 minutes, underwater for this 125 meter dive, what must we do, both in terms of descent and ascent?

Descent Protocol. Well, the descent is one sure way to cut time underwater, since this is the iddle part of the dive, and basically, we always try to descend as fast as her ears allow it, perhaps even a little faster :-) Yasemin is always able to equalize very easily down to 70 meters, and then from there things start getting difficult very fast, and by the time she’s at 95 meters or so, she is at negative capacity, meaning she can no longer “pop” her ears, and from there down to the goal depth, she is constantly fighting to just keep her eardrums from bending too much and rupturing. She has reached 140 meters like this on a training dive, so we know she can equalize to 125 meters, but we need to keep a couple of things in mind. First, we should make the first 70 meters of her descent faster since she can equalize without problems there, theoretically all the way to 1.7 meters/second, but she would be unable to keep that speed below 70 meters, so we use a brake mechanism on the sled to slow down below 70 meters. After that, an ideal descent speed would 1.4 meters/second, which is still very fast, but allows her enough time to perform her Frentzel and Diaphragm Compressions to keep the ears reasonably equalized. So, we will constantly play with the descent speeds to keep this first half of the dive as short as possible, and keep on working on equalization to allow her to equalize in deep water with as little pain as possible. We will implement EricFattah’s equalization technique for the first time on this record period, and that should give us enough of a cushion to equalize while keeping the descent reasonably fast. However, let’s not forget that when diving to 125 meters or 13.5 atm of pressure, Nitrogen Narcosis is CERTAINLY a factor, and one of the things that worsens narcosis is a fast descent, so we will have to play a balancing act constantly and play with different variations of speeds during every training dive until we find a protocol that will allow Yasemin to go down as fast as possible while still being able to equalize and stay clear minded enough under the effects of narcosis. This should happen at an average speed of around 1.55 meters/second, and that is our goal.

Ascent Protocol. As for the ascent, as I have mentioned above, good technique is the key and that is Yasemin’s biggest asset. In Constant Ballast dives, Yas was always able to reach “Break Point” (the point at which she becomes negatively buoyant and can stop kicking and start free falling) in 5-6 kicks with her mono. Since we planned the break point to be at around 20-23 meters, this is a phenomenally efficient technique and one that even very physically gifted divers like David Lee, Bevan Dewar and Ant Williams were unable to match. We used to laugh seeing how such a “little girl” as Yas would not only get to that depth in less kicks but also less time than those guys. So, to maximize this excellent technique of hers, we have built a sled that allows her to use a monofin for the first time, and she has made the move to what is generally accepted as the best monofin nowadays, the Waterway Glide. She will also be wearing a custom wetsuit, from 7 mm neoprene that is very buoyant but still flxible enough to let her breathe comfortably while on the surface. Interestingly, this neoprene is not Yamamoto, the standard in freediving suits nowadays, but we have chosen Sheico L-Foam material instead, which is extremely flexible and much more tear resistant than Yamamoto, an important consideration when dealing with the sled, a contraption that has many metalic edges and corners. This material is also more compression resistant, which means it will retain buoyancy deeper. As far as the technique itself, we have abnadoned the hybrid style for an alternating protocol which mixes periods of pulls with mono kicking. With the hybrid style, both the legs and arms start getting tired from lactic acid build-up at the same time, and in Yasemin’s case, this is acceptable on dives to 100 meters or so, but deeper than that, we run the risk of her running out of power on both muscle groups with too much distance to go still. So we decided to start pulling at the bottom, where the contact with the rope and the cadence of the pulls is beneficial to fighting the narcosis at the depth, and once she’s a certain distance from the bottom, she will switch to monofin strokes, back to pulls one more time, and then cover the last 40 meters or so of the dive with kicks one more time. This is the part where she can really benefit from the suit’s buoyancy, so it is important not to impede this extra ascentional force, which she would do if she were holding the line and stopping momentarily in between pulls. This mixed technique will allow her to keep a very high average speed of ascent, since both arms and legs are only used while they are fresh, and as they start getting tired, a switch is made to the other part, which is rested by now.

Final Thoughts. Applying all these techniques and protocols should allow Yasemin to reach 125 meters and return to the surface in around 3 minutes, and that is our goal. It is a very ambitious goal, for this is a very fast dive indeed, but you can be certain that if Yasemin is able to attempt this dive, she will be very, very close to that goal time. Not bad considering that the existing AIDA record of 122 meters took 3:38 minutes. I am still surprised when I talk to divers who have no clear idea how long their dives should take, even depths that they have reached many times before. For example, in Constant Ballast, Yasemin’s 50 meters time is 1:35 min, her 60 meter time is 1:55 min and 70 meters always comes at 2:17 min or so, and knowing these times is very important when planning deeper dives, like 80 or 90 meters for example. Part of the reason for this is that many of these other divers still dive on instinct, without a pre-determined plan, just adjusting as they go, and without very clear goals as to what their speed and technique should be. This instinctive approach may sound cool and suitable for many, but it has no place in record setting freediving in my opinion. With Yasemin, and every other diver I have trained, we always know what speeds we’re shooting for, descent and ascent times, how many kicks, pulls or strokes we need to make to cover a certain distance, etc, etc. And of course, we carefully study every dive afterwards thanks to the detailed graphs that we can pull from the Suunto gauges that everybody has. Those little computers are so much more than a fancy depth gauge, they are one of the best training tools out there, and one of the easiest ways to see if you’re making progress in your diving. Many people still think that progress is achieved by diving deeper, but I differ, before worrying about going deeper, we should worry about improving our technique on thr shallower dives so the deeper ones become easier.  Well, that’s it for now, all that remains now is a combination of Yasemin staying healthy, being able to train well, the weather to cooperate with us when we start diving, for Yasemin not to get sick due to the winter conditions, for her ears not to get an infection, the hotel food not to get her sick as it usually does and lots and lots of good luck. Very easy, right?

Remember, freediving is a sport like any other, if you want to improve, you need to work on the many aspects of training, technique, conditioning and equipment. I’ll be happy to answer training questions as I’ve done many times before if time permits, so shoot away!

Rudi Castineyra

15 Responses to “Variable Ballast Technique Considerations”

  1. Kars says:

    Hi Rudi,

    Another great write up, very pleasant to read and informative too!
    I agree that for records a systematic approach is needed, one cannot fiddle around doing everything intuitively. Our brain has a function too ;)

    One thing for me personally, if I may ask, is that I really seem to have difficulty remembering technique. I don’t mean descriptions, but while swimming. For years now I’m training monofin, and many say it’s not that bad, but to me it’s different and inefficient every time. Occasionally I hit the right technique and as you can imagine then it’s flying without much energy. And I really try to remember it, dissecting my movements, even writing them up. And the next training everything is gone again, back to struggling. Though this way I’ve ‘learned’ from my many mistakes and can help others to improve their technique, I still have trouble with my coordination. And thinking about that isn’t going to be efficient O2 use either ;)
    It’s really pretty frustrating to lose that cool, good feeling efficient stroke, every time.
    Well I’m going to analyse this question once more in my bed now, maybe someday I’ll overcome it.
    Thanks for your great write ups, such works and stories are very motivating and great to read!
    Love, Courage and Water, Kars

  2. Frank says:

    Great Reading, as usual.
    I also read your advice in the previous record attempt (David) and since that moment used more wisely the graphs from my suunto.
    You both will succeed, throug determination, passion and love for the ocean

  3. Rudi Castineyra says:


    I know what you mean, it’s very frustrating to not be able to repeat a certain technique on a consistent basis, and it happens to me as well :-) Monofin technique is especially difficult and when you stumble upon the “right way” sometimes, it is difficult to really understand what to do to make it happen again. But I will try and give you some advice.

    The first thing with any technique is to first focus on the basic premises, those things that no matter what, must be done all the time or must never be done. Like if you’re a sprinter running the 100 meters, you know that you really need to use your arms to push the body forward and that you need to carefully time the arm pull with the opposite leg’s kick. First you need to spend thousands of runs perfecting this technique until it becomes second nature, then you can focus on the details. Likewise, for monofin swimming, whether horizontally or vertically, there are a couple of basic “must do” that have to be mastered before thinking of anything else:

    1- Don’t use the upper body! The most common mistake, even made by many world class freedivers. Most people feel that the right way to use a mono is by undulating the body, dolphin style, and for good reason, this feels like the “right” way to do it. But this is wrong, very wrong. All the power is transfered to te fin from the lower part of the abdominal/lower back area down to the legs, but that’s it, the torso, arms and head must remain fixed, without moving. It is useless to worry about what to do with the legs if the upper body is still moving. Once this problem has been corrected, most people find out that their technique has improved dramatically, simply because by not doing what’s wrong, they are doing what’s right.

    2- Glide after the stroke! One of the benefits of a monofin is the fact that it creates a wake, or wave of momentum that creates propulsion after the kick has been made. With 2 fins, once you stop a kick, you must make the other one, as you almost stay still if you don’t continue moving. But with the mono, water that rolls off the blade is still moving after the diver has finished the kick. So, you must wait for that additional propulsion to end before starting the next kick. If you don’t, then you loose about 25-30% of your forward gain and you create a turbulence that makes the next kick more difficult. So, a freediver needs to learn to pause after kicks and let that “free” motion move him forward, and then, as the momentum ends, start the next kick. As you become more experienced with this, you’ll learn exactly when to kick so that you’re always moving but you’re conserving as much energy as possible. This “kicking point” is shorter at depth, longer in shallower water and changes also with a different fin. The longer the blade, the longer the glide, and viceversa.

    3- Never extend the legs fully! Another big mistake that consumes a lot of the diver’s energy in vain. At the end of the stroke, when your legs are about to become completely straight, you must stop! This completion of the extension is responsible for about 50% of the energy usage by the quadricep muscles in the leg but only results in an extra 5% extra impulse. This is the action mst responsible for the lactic acid burn we feel in the quads both when using a mono or bi-fins, so the wise thing is to avoid it. Instead, as you near the end of the kick, when the lower legs are about to become aligned with the upper legs, this is the point at which we push our butts outwards, allowing us to finish “unfolding” the blade completely while keeping the legs bent. It sounds complicated, but is simpler than it sounds.

    Yasemin, as a monofin swimmer for many years before she got into freediving, spent hours everyday practicing these 3 principles for many years before she started making minor adjustments for deep diving. Maybe that’s why her technique looks so “effortless” now, because she spent such a long time incorporating these basic principles. Well, I leave you with these few pieces of advice, but be assured that they can help any diver achieve a better and smoother technique. Later on, I will touch on more advanced principles, and next year, we will release a video about mono technique that will be very informative.

    Safe dives,

    Rudi Castineyra

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  5. Howard Teas says:

    I find myself confused on technique. I have been working with Total Imersion techniques for swimming. Their focus is on efficiency, not strength. They strongly push core body as the starting point for the dolphin kick, which feels good, and seems to be very efficient.
    Your description is very much at odds with that. Is the difference caused by the mono? Or is there a deeper difference?
    Thanks for the great write-up.

  6. Rudi Castineyra says:


    I don’t know the Total Immersion recommended technique for mono but if you say their focus is on efficiency rather than power, I doubt their approach and ours are really at odds. Maybe I worded it wrong, but what I meant by not “using the upperbody” was that the torso should not move as part of the stroke, that it should remain immobile. the kick should indeed start from the lower abdominal and lower back regions’ muscles, essential parts of the core musculature, but not higher than this. If this is what they advocate, then it is in fact, and solely from my perspective, wrong. We’ve been meaning to record several technique videos showing mono technique, among others like unassisted constant ballast, etc, but never get around to doing it. If I can record something shorter of Yasemin in the upcoming weeks, I will use it to show these basic procedures, which should make these concepts far easier to understand than writing about them. Let’s see. In the meantime, if there is a total immersion video available online, I will be happy to look at it and comment on it.


    Rudi Castineyra

  7. Howard Teas says:

    Here is the best of the you tube videos I have found. It is the most applicable for monofinning or no fins techniques.
    Terry Laughlin has primarily focused on freestyle, but does also work with the other strokes.
    I have one of his books (Swimming made Easy, I think) that covers all four strokes. he has some very interesting ideas on streamlining to improve your speed.
    Let me know what you think.

  8. Rudi Castineyra says:


    Sorry it took over 2 months to reply to your post :-) We have been very, very busy to say the least, but here’s a reply at last. I finally got to see the videos you recommended and will say the following.

    My statements stand, the most efficient way to use a monofin is by keeping the upper body as stable, steady and immobile as possible. In the video link you posted, the man (I assume he’s Terry Laughlin) almost gets the technique right, but right at the moment where his butt kicks upwards, at the end of the leg extension motion, he lets his upper body compensate the upwards motion of the butt by lowering itself. Typical balance really, one part goes up, the other one goes down. Except that this is wrong. You need to fight the upper body’s tendency to roll in opposite direction of the butt, by stiffening the lower back, flexing the abdominal region outwards and keeping the upper body straight. If you look at the woman, she does a much better job, she keeps her upper body almost straight all the time, and that’s the idea when using a mono for deep diving. Like I said, I will post several technique videos soon, and in fact, all we need is for the weather to get a little better in Miami and we will go out and do some filming.


    Rudi Castineyra

  9. Howaqrd Teas says:

    I’ve been thinking about your idea. The following show a technique I assume is more in line with your views.

    Sorry to keep pushing videos, but they do seem, for better or worse, to show technique in action.
    These also made me wonder about basic technique. i train without fins usually, as they are hard to get to the pool on my bike after work (think Anchorage, Alaska in February). When I am swimming dolphin kick with my arms at my side (the hardest variation), I need a definite body undulation to move. When i hold my arms out in front of me, I can get along with more kick and less body. I assume with a mono I would need no body undulation, and just use my hips and legs.

    Any comments?

  10. Rudi Castineyra says:


    Watched the videos, here are my comments:

    - Both videos show the classic technique as it applies to SURFACE mono swim, which is to say, only the downward stroke is used, and the swimmers then wait for the fin to return to the neutral position by itself without adding a backwards stroke. Other than that, both ladies are actually pretty good, their upper bodies undulations begin below shoulder plate level, which is good, with the arms, head and shoulders remaining motionless. That’s good.
    - The first video, showing obviously technique without fins, is not appropriate for this remark, but on the second one, I noticed this lady does not use the “glide” part of the motion at all. Once the legs return to the neutral position, immediately after the stroke (both downward and backward, of which she’s only doing the downward part) the legs should be temporarily stiffened (ever so slightly) along with the rest of the body, to glide along with the impulse of the kick, which she is not doing, or doing very poorly. Other than that, these are good examples of what I’m referring to, just not full examples of the techniques I’m describing.

    Lastly, it is true that it is easier to initiate the kicking motion with the arms extended, since this allows the latisimus dorsi muscles to be used to push down on the obliques, which in turn activate the hip flexors, which start the undulation. With the arms by the side of the body, the lat muscles are relaxed and this activation action does not happen, necessitating instead a wider undulation that must involve the abdominal muscles as well as a bending of the spine sometimes, creating the exaggerated undulation we’re trying to stay away from. I used to be a believer in the arms-by-the-side style, since I felt that putting the arms up would add fatigue and unneeded oxygen consumption by having to flex the shoulder muscles, which are very large, but in truth, even these negatives are more than compensated for by the streamlining and speed gained with the arms up.


  11. Howard Teas says:

    Thanks Rudi,

    I appreciate the response.

    I’m curious to see the videos (when you get time to put them together) that show the technique Yasemin’s technique

    I heard recently that the big day is now May 2. Good luck


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