Holding breath: how much, recovering, training

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10m pistol French Championship qualifications
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This is a subject that once in a while appears in the forum, most often in the form of "lacking air" and the effect on the urge to release your shot (and inevitable bad consequences). Based on my personal experience, sharing and training and also being an apneist I would like to share clues on that.

UPDATE: being a 10m & small-bore pistol shooter and having little contact with 50m or longer stands I recognize that the following may be less relevant or at least in a different way for rifle prone position disciplines. Discussing biomechanics specific to these cases would be of great interest.
Therefore consider the following mostly adapted to pistol and rifle standing or kneeling, while keeping in mind that the fundamentals have a wider area of application.

#1: How much air to hold?
Most of us would think: enough for the holding time needed, and a little more for comfort. But this is not the best way, by far. And that for two reasons: it excludes other consequences of breathing level beside "holding comfort" and it leaves aside that the comfort level can easily be increased by proper training (I'll write about that in #3: training)

What is the optimal breathing level, meaning amount of air you hold in your lungs at that time? Well unexpectedly it is related to your heartbeats and how they disturb perfect immobility.

Think of your lungs as air cushions, and imagine a pile with your spine, then your heart, your lungs and your arms on the top. Your spine is mostly rigid and thanks to a good posture it is stable. Your heart is strongly held in place by tissue around it attached for most to the spine and back of the rib cage. It is surrounded by your lungs and in strong contact also. Therefore your heart transmits compression waves through your lungs to mobile bones, which are your front rib cage, collarbone and shoulders, all of which transmit shaking to your arms. As your heart pumps and varies in size it also mechanically transmits movement directly to your rib cage This is increased in riffle standing compared to prone or pistol, as your arms closely lay on your rib cage. Meanwhile lungs in the middle, since they are filled with air and have elasticity, will absorb the compression waves to some varying level.

Then what happens when you hold your breath? Well, if you hold to much air lungs become more rigid due to air pressure, just like in a football or inner tube of a bicycle wheel, and compression waves are transmitted stronger, which increases shaking. Conversely if you hold little air, lungs transmit little shaking but it is heart movement that is mechanically transmitted to the ribcage, all the way through attached bones ending to your arms.
It is easy for most people to feel the difference between both situations, as in the first case you have this kind of surpressed ballon feeling, while in the second it feels more like all of your skeleton is shaking. In both situations you will get a stronger feeling of your heart beats and maybe feel your arms being moved.

Between these "too much" and "too little" there is an optimal amount of air in your lungs, with which movement is well inside the elastic margins of the rib cage, while the lungs are well in their wave absorbing shape. This is the point with least heartbeats transmission to your outside body, including rib cage and arms laying on them (riffle) or shoulder (pistol).

Your job is to find this optimum. How?
First become familiar with the "too much" and "too little" feelings. You must do that with the weight of your gun and in shooting position. Start with filling your lungs to the maximum, hold and close your eyes, then focus on feeling your shaking at each heartbeat. Try to find where in your body this feeling is most intense. It will vary from people to others, depending on your anatomy it may be in your arms, your sides, your collar area. Then do the same exhaling to the maximum and holding. Quite different feeling, most intense in other body parts like your back, solar plexus, diaphragm or throat, and even painful when you hold long (otherwise meaning you didn't exhale enough...).

Now that you have these feeling references, repeat the exercise reducing the spread between your maximum and minimum towards some middle, until you find holding margins where you least feel your heartbeats.
If you don't feel your heartbeats clearly enough you can increase their strength and amplitude with a few minutes of physical exercise.
At this point you can increase the precision by repeating the exercise while aiming. That's where you see the bullseye shaking in your sights at each heartbeat. Work your holding level until this shaking is minimal or has disappeared. You've found it. Focus on how it feels, repeat reaching this level regularly and precisely. It will be a good idea to repeat these exercises for some period of time then once in a while without limit, as health and condition also interfere.

Last step is finding how in your sequence you feel most comfortable reaching this holding level. Inhaling to some max then exhaling to optimal holding point is a good rule-of-thumb but you must adapt it to you. If you inhale too much or too strongly it may disturb taking and keeping your aiming position. In riffle you will have to adjust your position *again* after holding, inducing lost time and more fatigue, while in pistol inhaling too much affects the proprioception of your shoulder position and arm level.
Play with the possibilities, looking for what keeps you more relaxed, motionless, with least muscle strength involved.
Think of modifying when you inhale and hold withing your aiming sequence. If you can hold with a good level of comfort then try inhaling and holding early, then take your time aiming with one less parameter to control simultaneously. Conversely if you are comfortable with very small amounts of intake/exhaust try taking your aiming while breathing, then holding only when you feel ready to stabilize and release your shot. Just play, feel, repeat.

More to come with #2: how to recover.
 
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This is a subject that once in a while appears in the forum, most often in the form of "lacking air" and the effect on the urge to release your shot (and inevitable bad consequences). Based on my personal experience, sharing and training and also being an apneist I would like to share clues on that.

UPDATE: being a 10m & small-bore pistol shooter and having little contact with 50m or longer stands I recognize that the following may be less relevant or at least in a different way for rifle prone position disciplines. Discussing biomechanics specific to these cases would be of great interest.
Therefore consider the following mostly adapted to pistol and rifle standing or kneeling, while keeping in mind that the fundamentals have a wider area of application.

#1: How much air to hold?
Lots of good points David. You are quite right that they apply primarily to standing and to some extent kneeling positions. Prone rifle is very different. Here the objective is to be as relaxed as possible and also consistent. The most relaxed position is at the naturally exhaled state, with nothing held back and nothing forced out. This is also the most consistent position (practised with every breath you take when you are not shooting or exercising!). See the attached picture of a natural breathing cycle.
Breathing Cycle.jpg
Note that only about 17% of the air in your lungs is exhaled with each breath. For prone rifle shooting, the automatic pause phase is the ideal time to fire, with the pause being extended slightly while correct aim is verified and the shot released. Ideally the extended pause should last no longer than about 6 seconds - if the aim is not correct, just take another breath and try to maintain as close as possible to your natural breathing cycle. This all depends on your natural point of aim (NPA) being properly aligned. NPA is where the rifle naturally wants to point when you are completely relaxed. By pivoting about your forward elbow until the NPA is perfectly aligned with your aiming mark when you are naturally exhaled, every time you breathe in your foresight will drop to between 6 and 7 o'clock (right handed shooters), and every time you breath out it will return to the centre of the aiming mark and stop dead in the middle of the bull when you reach the naturally exhaled state. In effect, with a properly aligned NPA, you are aiming with your diaphragm, simply by breathing.
Another significant point for all forms of shooting is to breathe with your diaphragm, rather than by moving your ribcage. This minimises physical body movements. In prone rifle, by raising your right knee (right handed shooters) you rotate your body onto the left side and lift your heart off the mat, so reducing the transfer of pulse into your prone skeleton.
One other factor of the breathing cycle is how long you hold your breath. The longer you hold it, the lower the oxygen levels in your blood become (organs are constantly taking oxygen out of the blood, which needs to be refreshed by regular breathing). I was told that the eye is the first organ to suffer from oxygen depletion, but that has been disputed by a medical friend. I do know that I used to hold my breath for long periods and by the end of a 10 shot smallbore card I would often have difficulty focusing on the the sights and target. Since adopting a much shorter breath hold (3-6 seconds), I have little problem with fading sight picture, despite my advancing years (66).
 
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OP
D
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Thanks @CharlesD for adding the details for rifle shooting.
One other factor of the breathing cycle is how long you hold your breath. The longer you hold it, the lower the oxygen levels in your blood become (organs are constantly taking oxygen out of the blood, which needs to be refreshed by regular breathing).
That's a subject I'm about to cover in following messages. In short, after taking a breath and holding, excess of carbon dioxyde (CO2) is what you will feel first, very far before lack of oxygen. Excess CO2 is what creates the urge to breath and the overwhelming discomfort. But it is just a basic reaction, easy to get used to. If holding longer it then generates diaphragm contractions, then a cascade of reactions, none of which is related to oxygen. Training allows to overcome these reactions very efficiently. Absolutely anyone is able to hold at least a whole minute in total relaxation (and 2 minutes totally immerged in medium cold water). Your arms will let you down far before that.
 
OP
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Your highest shooting achievement
10m pistol French Championship qualifications
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Air Pistol
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Amateur/Hobby Shooter
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I was told that the eye is the first organ to suffer from oxygen depletion
There is no way one will reach a damageable level of oxygen depletion by just holding breath. Even if you do specific actions or act in a specific environment, you will only do at worst a syncope, meaning your brain "switches off", a kind of fainting. When you recover you will have an inhaling reflexe that will correct the blood oxygen level to the brain in a matter of seconds. You won't remember anything at all of the incident because your brain went off.
There can be early signs of nearing lack of oxygen but they totally vary from people to others. Some feel it in the eyes, others in the neck or on the front, in the arms or hands, and many feel nothing at all. In any case this is not a sign of possible damage to eyes or whatever organ, all these are protection mechanisms that happen far before oxygen lowers to damageable levels. So don't worry.

Learning better breathing helps hold breath for long times without any such feelings. Very easy and fast to train for anyone, I mean in a matter of days or a few weeks at most. I'll write about this next.
 
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I would like to read more. This is very informative.
 
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