During training, all divers learn the importance of physical and mental fitness for scuba diving, but how does that translate to real life when many people dive only once or twice a year on vacation? We’re taking a closer look at diving fitness here.
You’d be forgiven to think about diving as not much of a “sport.” Gently drifting along a reef, pushed by a current, hardly requires any effort. However, this tranquil scene can change quickly when the gentle current picks up or turns into an up- or downcurrent. An equipment problem might take a diver’s composure away, or, on a technical dive, divers might face the added pressure of being unable to go directly to the surface, be it thanks to an overhead environment or a decompression obligation.
For all of those reasons, divers should be reasonably fit. But what does that mean and how do we measure it? Apart from the self-assessment forms at the beginning of training courses, there are relatively few health checks later on in a diver’s career with the exception of professional levels. As a consequence, the divers themselves must usually determine whether or not they are ready to dive.
Physical fitness for diving
On a physical level, divers need both a degree of cardiovascular fitness and strength.
Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) is a great place to find more information on diving fitness. In relation to our heart and circulatory system, one statement stands out: ‘Nearly one-third of all diving fatalities are associated with an acute cardiac event.’ According to DAN, immersion alone puts stress on our cardiovascular system, meaning that it doesn’t take a challenging dive for problems to occur.
On the other hand, this clear connection makes it easy for divers to prevent these kinds of problems by improving their cardiovascular or aerobic fitness. You’ll accomplish this basically done through endurance exercises, including running, swimming, walking briskly and even dancing.
Divers also need a degree of muscular fitness, which includes both strength and endurance. What’s the difference? Strength is basically the maximum force a muscle can generate. Endurance is a muscle or muscle group’s ability to contract repeatedly without causing muscle fatigue.
Divers need endurance when finning through a current, for example. A reasonably fit, frog-kicking diver should expect his or her leg muscles to propel them through the current at a reasonable speed without overexertion.
Divers need strength, most obviously, when handling equipment. Most technical divers are used to lugging their equipment to and from the shore, cave entrance or boat. Taking care of your own gear, with help, is part and parcel of the sport for techies. Instructors will usually ask recreational divers to take care of their own gear during courses, but afterward new divers often take advantage of boat crew or support staff helping out.
Underwater, while you may not feel like you’re working (out), your body is busy. You need muscular strength to overcome drag that your diving equipment creates. This is especially relevant for tech divers who carry more than one tank.
And, going back to the beginning of this article, your muscles need oxygen to work, which puts pressure on your cardiovascular system. How do you train your muscles? Dive professionals sometimes carry lots of tanks, but for everyone else, a reasonable amount of weight training is useful. You don’t even have to hit the gym: you can do squats, lunges and push-ups at home.
Mental fitness for diving
An equally important component of diving fitness is your state of mind — your mental fitness to perform the planned dive.
While there are some differences between training organizations, most divers start thinking about mental diving fitness at the rescue-diver level. The most obvious topic here is pre-dive stress. During technical-training courses, learning to deal with, and mitigate, stress is a key component, as is learning to call a dive, i.e. cancel rather than go ahead in adverse conditions.
There is, however, more to mental dive readiness than dealing with stress. The dive industry is beginning to recognize this, with PADI recently offering a distinctive specialty covering psychological aspects of scuba diving. The idea is to train divers to understand how their brains work underwater, how they make decisions, and how they can better deal with their instinctive reactions to potentially adverse events.
Another part of the industry’s discussion of mental diving fitness relates to diving’s culture as a whole. Focus areas here include minimizing the potential for human error as well as looking at team dynamics and creating a ‘just culture,’ in which divers not only feel they can speak up when they think something is wrong but are also happy to share their mistakes to prevent others from repeating them.
On a practical level, this involves creating and following checklists, to name just one example. Although this is normal in the aviation industry, for example, this practice is largely restricted to CCR divers. However, other divers could benefit from it just as much.
In conclusion, there is more to scuba diving fitness than initially meets the eye. While medical questionnaires are required at the beginning of training courses, with few exceptions there is no such requirement for guided dives. So, it is up to the individual to be honest with himself and accurately assess his own diving fitness on any given day.