Fit for Tek

Karl Shreeves

A recent article I wrote about fitness for diving for Skin Diver’s sister publication, Discover Diving (see “A Fitness Lifestyle for the Diving Lifestyle,” April ’99, vol. 2) prompted a few questions from some divers on the tek side. They varied, but the gist is “Okay, your article covered general fitness principles for general diving. What kinda shape do you gotta be in if you’re into tek?”
“Well, above average,” I said, which disappointed and even angered a few. (If you can’t handle the answer, don’t ask the question.) Seriously though, it’s not like you need to be Aquaman. Considering that the average U.S. citizen’s physical fitness is pretty piss poor, “above average” is no great feat. Hence, you need to be “well above” average for tek diving, and certainly above the “average” you need for much (but not all) mainstream recreational diving.

Extreme Diving Equals Extreme Demands
Why the fitness focus in tek diving? Think about it. You’re wearing three or four times the amount of gear that a recreational diver wears. You jump in frigid water, strong currents, extreme depths or all the above. You also need to be able to move a huge mass against a lot of drag while breathing dense gases. You must use fuel efficiently as well as undergo time-consuming decompression. And this is when everything goes right. By definition, physical fitness is the capacity to expend force and still have enough energy for future exertion.
What’s that mean for you? Only you, your physician and your fitness trainer can say exactly, based on the type of diving you do and your physical attributes, but here’s some food for thought:

Fat Tissue
According to the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) men’s body fat should be no more than 12 to 14 percent of total body weight for optimal health, or 14 to 18 percent for women. Fat tissue higher than 20 to 25 percent is overweight for men (clinical obesity) and anything higher than that is chronic obesity. For women, 26 to 35 percent is clinical obesity, while chronic obesity is 36 percent and above. The desired fat levels for different sports generally fall in the 5 to 12 percent range for men and the 10 to 15 percent range for women. It’s not weight per se that’s good or bad, but the fat ratio.

Heart Rate
A person in good health should be able to perform 20 to 30 minutes of exercise at 60 to 80 percent of maximum heart rate (which varies with age and fitness). Doing this three times weekly is considered normal for cardiovascular health and aerobic endurance. Sound like part of your regular routine?

Regular resistance and cardiovascular exercise, yes. Regular smoking, no. Frequently drinking alcohol, no. Frequently drinking water, yes. Controlled healthy diet, yes. Controlled substances—get the hell off my boat.

Exercise Tolerance
Exercise tolerance ratings vary with age and gender, but here are some examples that help gauge your fitness. For good aerobic fitness, the Cooper aerobics test for women says you should be able to swim 613 yards or more in 12 minutes if you’re under 30; 569 yards if you’re 30 to 39; 503 yards if you’re 40 to 49; and 459 yards if you’re 50 or older. For men, the numbers are 656 for under 30; 613 for 30 to 39; 569 for 40 to 49; and 546 for 50 and up.
Strength fitness has broad tolerance categories. For example, if you are between 161 and 180 pounds and rate in the top 25 percent of the population, you should be able to bench press 175 pounds if you’re a young, adult male, or 105 pounds if you’re female.
There are many exercise tolerance evaluations. The point is to get in “above average” shape, the first step is finding out where you are now. Age is not a factor, directly. Fitness capacity changes with age, but not necessarily enough to knock you out of tek diving until you’re late in life. There are tek heads in their 50s and 60s who are lean, mean diving machines. I wouldn’t want to fight ’em.

Getting From Where You Are
If it doesn’t sound like you measure up, then you have some choices. First, you can deny everything and live with the risks. (Bad choice, because then you put your team mates at risk, too.) Second, you can limit your diving to your physical limitations. (Better choice in that divers should always do this, but if you’re not up for tek you’ll be making recreational dives.) Or, you can get off your butt and do something about it. (Best choice, since living a fitness lifestyle improves all areas of your life, your potential longevity and your quality of life.)
There’s not enough room here to explain how to get in shape, but to get started, if you don’t know anything about exercise, and especially if you’re way out of shape, see your doctor and a fitness trainer. Exercise and proper diet are the best things you can do for yourself, but you need to acclimate your body to the change gradually. Get a fitness trainer to put an regimen together and show you how to exercise properly so you don’t hurt yourself.
When working with your trainer, be sure you include ample resistance (weight) training for your entire body. You need this for two reasons: first, it’s resistance training that increases your lean mass and metabolism so you burn fat. Second, resistance training provides anaerobic strength, which is the most powerful strength your body produces. When you get into high stress situations in tek diving, that’s the strength you call upon to overpower a current and catch the anchor line, to stand with doubles and four stages, to climb the boat ladder in full kit and six-foot swells. For tek diving, anaerobic fitness is the most important.
This doesn’t mean you blow off aerobic/cardiovascular training. Normal swimming underwater is a lightweight aerobic activity, so aerobic fitness will reduce your air consumption and let you sustain a faster swim. Don’t over do it—excessive aerobic training actually begins to degrade your lean mass and anaerobic strength (that’s why marathon runners look anorexic).
Take care of your diet. Learn to eat intelligently. Yes, you can still enjoy the occasional Big Mac, but the cliché is true: you are what you eat.

Shape Up or Ship Out
If you start on the right fitness program tomorrow, you’ll notice a difference in six weeks—no joke. And most people can substantially reshape their bodies in 12 weeks—not bad considering some of us spent years getting it into the dumpy shape it’s in now.