The Man They Call…The Flying Fish

Herbert Nitsch is hailed as the ‘Deepest Man on Earth’, and 32 world records later, he is looking to go even deeper! So what does it take to stretch the physiological and mental boundaries most of us conform to today, what makes up the man they call…the flying fish!?

Mental Strength

Nitsch flies planes for a living as a commercial airline pilot, which I’m sure most will agree comes with its fair share of pressure, but despite this demanding and time consuming job, he also finds the time and discipline to train for competitive freediving. Freediving is a sport that Nitsch stumbled upon by accident after his scuba diving gear was stolen; he tried diving without breathing apparatus only to find he had a natural ability to dive deep, and stay under for a very long time! After just 2 weeks Nitsch was a mere 2 metres short of the Austrian national record, and has since gone down in history as the greatest of all time.

To put this man’s mindset into perspective, think back to a time when you last held your breath, now feel the pounding in your chest that results from your heart working overtime to eliminate the rapidly accumulating CO2, remember the anxiety that slowly creeps up on you every second you’re starved of that precious O2. Now imagine being 200+ metres underwater on a single breath, imagine being visually impaired, deafened and oblivious to anything that is around you. The water is on average 0-2oC at this depth and the pressure you’re under both metaphorically and literally is potentially catastrophic. At as little as just 10m underwater the pressure compared to surface level increases by 100% to approximately 200 kPa, fortunately for Herbert Nitsch the water pressure doesn’t increase by 100% every 10m though, because at a depth of 200m the pressure would be enough to literally crush him like an aluminium can! As we descend deeper and deeper underwater, the air in our body compresses reducing support between membranous spaces causing pain (including the middle ears, mouth, paranasal sinuses and lungs) and even rupturing! Nitsch has suffered from repeated hypoxia (severely low levels of oxygen), blackouts, decompression sickness due to high Nitrogen pressure, and more recently an air embolism during his incredible record breaking 244m (820 feet) freedive! Despite this health scare, Nitsch has recovered and plans to descend an incredible 1000 feet! Look up ‘mental strength’ in the dictionary, and you’ll see this picture…



Physiological Fitness

Fitness is absolutely key to being a freediver, Nitsch’s rapid recovery from the embolism he incurred during his world record dive in June 2012 is testament to his physical conditioning! During a dive at these depths, the body endures significant cardio- respiratory trauma including high blood pressure (hypertension), very slow heart rate i.e. less than 60bpm (bradycardia), arrhythmias and contraction of the spleen. The lungs are forced to endure severe compression occasionally resulting in pulmonary oedema, collapsed lungs and barotrauma, particularly to the alveoli (burst air sacs in lungs), or embolisms (as in Nitsch’s case). Taking all of this into account, it makes absolute sense that freedivers such as Herbert Nitsch undergo a strict training regime, suitably fuelled by proper nutrition (Lindholm and Lundgren, 2008)!


A consistent resistance training regime is crucial, compound whole body exercises such as deadlifts, squats and clean and jerks condition the whole body promoting overall muscle balance. The aim would be to perform moderate weight, high reps in order to minimise bulk whilst suoproting endurance, the last thing Nitsch wants is to become too muscular, the excess muscle mass would demand more oxygen and increase blood acidity during breath holding. Endurance exercises likely entail middle distance running to support bone mineral density, joint integrity, muscle density and cardio-respiratory efficiency. And not forgetting pool time, a freediver will spend hours in the pool practicing sport specific exercises such as descents, ascents and static apnoea (breath holding whilst stationary), lasting up to a breath taking (no pun intended) 10 minutes (World Health Organisation, 2007)!


One of the key anabolic (growth) and anti-catabolic (anti- breakdown) nutrients is the amino-acid, particularly the branch chain variety (Isoleucine, Leucine and Valine). Most freedivers regimentally monitor their protein/amino-acid intake to support their physiques, skeletal and soft tissue integrity and recovery, and as an important part of a cleverly devised freediving strategy. A high protein diet when training is very important, but freedivers need to pay special attention to their protein intake due to its potential impact on blood acidity! Protein increases the acidity of the blood usually because their relative carbohydrate intake decreases when protein intake is high, meaning the body resorts to using fat as an energy source resulting in the formation of ketones (an emergency energy source) which inherently increases acidity (decrease pH). High protein diets are not harmful at approx 1-2g protein per kg bodyweight, but during a dive where oxygen can become severely depleted, blood acidity increases far more rapidly than it would do ordinarily due to the high CO2 levels seen during breath holding. The consequent increases in acidity can result in ascent blackouts (pass out during the ascent towards the surface), involuntary inhalation and organ failure.

Low blood pH is also a significant hindrance to general health and fitness. During exercise, low blood pH (high acidity) usually stems from a lack of oxygen and a resultant increase in Hydrogen ions resulting in muscle fatigue and cramping.


If you have a high protein intake and you don’t want to adversely increase the acidity of your blood, opt for an alkalising agent such as Udo’s Choice Beyond Greens. Beyond Greens gives you what your body needs, mucilage, soluble and insoluble fibre, phytonutrients, minerals, vitamins, enzymes and probiotics in a healthy, convenient and easy to use delivery system. This particular alkalising agent supports a healthy digestive system which makes us more alkaline protecting us from excessive acidity enhancing training endurance. If endurance sports/events are your thing, consider a protein powder such as Optimum Nutrition 100% Gold Standard Whey, or XL Nutrition Ultimate Whey Protein for a high quality isolate/concentrate blend that will perfectly replenish skeletal muscle and smooth tissue cells. Combine this with a moderate to low GI carbohydrate such as Universal Carbo Plus for sustained energy release alongside a high GI (quick release) carbohydrate like the High 5 Energy Gels!

About the Author

Job Role Qualified Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist Qualifications BSc (Hons) Sports Science | BSc (Hons) Dietetics Tom has always participated in sport both recreationally and competitively which led to an unquenchable thirst for information on anything health, nutrition and fitness. After leaving school Tom went on to play for a football academy during which time he studied Sport and Exercise Science. From here he went on to study a BSc (Hons) Sport Science at UEA followed by his second BSc (Hons) degree, this time at the University of Hertfordshire studying Dietetics. Tom has worked in the fitness, educational and clinical nutrition industry starting out at David Lloyd Health and Leisure Clubs. He then went on to work as a Dietitian (RD) in the NHS, during which time he conducted clinics for healthy eating, weight loss and weight gain, as well as specialised consultations on Diabetes, IBS and Coeliac disease to name a few. He has vast amounts of experience at devising diet plans and supplement regimens, as well as working in the community with schools and competitive athletes. As Head Nutritionist and Supplement expert at Discount Supplements Tom is here to provide current and evidence based health and nutrition information to help you reach your health and fitness goals!


  • Dominic

    Not long ago I started my freediving training. It is much harder than I thought it will be. As in any sport you progress fast at the beginning but it is hard to reach high level. Available training routines are still less "scientific" than in other sports, there is plenty of space for development.

    As for Herbert he's truly a great athlete, I bet he could succeed in other disciplines as well with his attitude and professionalism. I hope he'll recover after his unsuccessful world record attempt.

    I was wondering what supplementation would be useful for this sport, so thank you very much for this article.

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