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Did you ever go on an airplane and experienced a feeling of discomfort in your ears? Well, a similar thing happens when you freedive. Learning how to relieve this feeling of pressure is one of the first and most valuable skills you have to learn when starting this sport. But how do you do this? We are going to take a deep dive into equalization for freediving so you will never have to worry about popping your ears again.
Why is it important to equalize while freediving?
When you freedive to depth you will start to feel a squeezing sensation in your middle ear, which gets more intense the deeper you go. This is due to the increasing pressure as you descend. To relieve this discomfort in the ears, you have to equalize the air space, this essentially means adding a little air from your lungs into it.
If you fail to equalize the ears, this mild squeezing sensation will become more and more intense until it feels very painful. Moreover, it can cause injuries such as an ear barotrauma or even a burst ear drum.
When and how often should you equalize
There is no set rule on how often you should equalize the ears when freediving. But you should make sure to do it well before any ear pain occurs.
It’s important to equalize on the surface, before even descending, to make sure that you can equalize successfully before adding any pressure into the mix. You might notice that some days you can’t equalize or it is harder than usual; this happens if you have congestion or are suffering from a cold.
Once you have checked your equalization on the surface, you can begin the duck dive, during the duck dive you should equalize again, and again when you are completely upside down.
As you descend you should try to equalize as often as you can to avoid ear pain. Equalize as soon as you feel the squeezing sensation begin.
Freediving equalization techniques
There are many techniques used to equalize the ears. We’re going to look at the main four that are used in freediving:
The Valsalva technique involves closing the nostrils and pushing with the abdominals to create pressure to equalize the ears. It is a similar technique you probably use to blow your nose into a tissue.
This technique is the most suitable for scuba divers, who can take more air from a tank as needed. However, it is not optimal for freediving as it requires a good amount of air to be in the lungs to equalize successfully.
As a freediver descends, the air in their lungs becomes compressed and so it becomes much harder to perform a Valsalva equalization at depth. It is also not considered to be relaxing, which is a key part of freediving.
The Frenzel maneuver is an equalization technique that most freedivers perform. It involves bringing air into the throat and contracting the throat to create pressure in the nasal cavity, which in turn opens the eustachian tubes and equalizes the ears.
It can be a little trickier to master than Valsalva (which most people do instinctively) but with a little practice, it can soon become the autopilot technique.
As you descend using Frenzel you will have to add new air from the lungs into the throat to maintain consistent equalizations. Frenzel is considered to be more relaxing and much easier to do to deeper depths while freediving.
The mouthfill technique is an advanced maneuver that more experienced freedivers will perform as they start doing very deep dives. It involves keeping air in the cheeks as you descend and squeezing the cheeks to equalize the ears.
Deep freedivers might choose to perform mouthfill equalization because it doesn’t involve the throat so they are less likely to experience a throat squeeze, which can happen when negative pressure in the trachea causes blood vessels to rupture.
After around 30m-40m of depth it also starts to become more difficult to bring air from the lungs to the throat to perform Frenzel, this is due to the lungs being so compressed. The mouthfill technique allows you to keep the air in your cheeks and avoid using the lungs and throat.
Mouthfill is a very advanced technique that most freedivers require an experienced coach or instructor to teach them.
Not many divers know how to equalize without pinching their nose. But as you get more advanced and start performing deeper dives, you probably want to learn how to equalize hands-free by opening the eustachian tubes in the ears. Using this method, you can keep the ear drum in neutral position, so you don’t have to pinch your nose.
Surprisingly, some people are born with the ability to do this naturally, while others need to practice a series of exercises, which is not easy. With time, you might be able to learn how to do this, but if it doesn’t come naturally to you it’s usually easier to use a nose clip and try to master Frenzel or mouthfill until you master hands-free equalization.
Now you have all the information you need to keep your ears pain-free while freediving. Equalize often and properly and remember there is no shame in canceling a dive due to poor equalization or painful ears. No dive is worth risking your health for, and you can always try again tomorrow!
Interesting questions about equalization in freediving
How deep can you freedive without equalizing?
Most people wouldn’t be able to dive past 10-15ft before feeling extreme pain in the ears or causing serious damage.
At what depth do I need to equalize?
You should equalize before you even go underwater. Equalize on the surface, then at least twice more during your duck dive. On the descent, it varies for each individual but at least once every 1.5ft of depth is a good rule of thumb. You should equalize when you start to feel slight pressure (the squeezing sensation in the ears) and well before any ear pain occurs.
How do I know that I have properly equalized?
You will experience a “popping” sensation, or a gentle clicking sound when you have equalized successfully. The feeling of pressure will disappear and your ears will feel normal (like they do on the surface) until you add more depth and have to equalize it again.
Can altitude and water temperature affect the ability to equalize?
It shouldn’t feel any different to equalize when diving at varying altitudes but water temperatures can definitely affect your equalization. In a cold water environment, it gets harder since your body starts to shiver and your muscles are harder to control so it might take more effort and focus to properly equalize.
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