Freediving at 50 with world record holder Nina McGowan
Nina McGowan is a visual artist, Bikram yoga practitioner and biohacker from Ireland who discovered freediving while on holiday in Egypt when she was in her mid-forties. Shortly after she turned 50, Nina secured a world record dive of 43 metres in the No Fins category that involved holding her breath for 2 minutes and ten seconds.
In this episode, Nina explains how her yoga practice helps her freediving and she outlines the benefits of eating well, sleeping well and clearing your mind to focus on your breath to you in the here and now. Nina also shares some of her own personal experience with her hormone journey and seeking out the right support.
Nina’s three priorities for a positive lifestyle change:
- Prioritise your sleep and protect that space
- Make any diet changes slowly and one at a time
- Don’t fear the unknown. If take the step, the bridge will appear.
Dr Louise Newson [00:00:09] Hello, I’m Dr Louise Newson and welcome to my podcast. I’m a GP and menopause specialist and I run the Newson Health Menopause and Wellbeing Centre here in Stratford upon Avon. I’m also the founder of the Menopause Charity and the menopause support app called balance. On the podcast, I will be joined each week by an exciting guest to help provide evidence-based information and advice about both the perimenopause and the menopause. So today in the studio, I’ve got someone who I’ve not met in real life before, like many of my guests actually. But she’s called Nina McGowan and she reached out to me with the most incredible story, actually, and she’s very kindly agreed to tell her story. So, she’s a visual artist, but more recently, she’s also a freediver. But she’s not just a freediver. She’s got four national records for Ireland, and she’s got a world record in no-fins freediving. So welcome, Nina, today to talk about you and what you’ve been getting up to.
Nina McGowan [00:01:20] Thanks, Dr Louise. Thanks for having me on.
Dr Louise Newson [00:01:22] No, it’s great. So tell me a bit about you. I’ve introduced you as a visual artist, but that doesn’t really describe what you do and what your talents are. So if you mind talking a bit about your background and then if you didn’t mind talking a little bit about your menopause, because obviously it’s a menopause podcast, we can’t not talk about menopause. And then we’ll talk a bit more about your absolute passion of freediving.
Nina McGowan [00:01:43] Yeah, sure. So yeah, I’m Irish, grew up in Dublin by the sea. I had a very kind of, I guess, regular twenties and thirties, interspersed with the usual things going out, drinking with buddies. And I really enjoyed the I guess the dancing in the early nineties, but it came along with bouts of depression which I could never really control and went on and off antidepressants I suppose on occasion. They never really repaired some sense of lack in my experience, I suppose. And it was when I was aged 40 I decided I was giving up all the running around the bars and the city famous bars and stopped drinking, smoking and I decided to take radical responsibility of my health, took it into my own hands, changed my diet and found and took up Bikram yoga. And that really gave me a sense that I was in charge and I managed my mental health everything really well through these changes in lifestyle, and that all worked very well through my forties. But, you know, everything had changed. I never felt better, was never fitter. I took up meditation, I was really interested in calming the body. The body is an instrument, I suppose, as part of my visual art practice. So I’m a sculptor and I would make installations that you physically experience. So for me, movements through the dancing, through the whole dance culture, the body as the way we experience the world has always been really important and refining of that and finding a way to describe that to other people through the artwork has been a real driving factor. But as I said, until I was 40, it was kind of a little bit all over the place. But as you get older, you start to figure this stuff and what needs to be done. So I had great control through most of my forties, but then at about 45/46, I felt this creeping sense of unease and the yoga, the meditation, the diet in particular ketogenic low carb, which I’d refined and refined since I suppose I had IBS, really something odd going on that was never quite figured out from my early years. Just crazy cramps, but I managed to keep a hold of that by giving up carbohydrates, wheat in particular, I suppose. I managed all this stuff. Everything was going great. But this depression started to come back in or a narrowing sense; claustrophobic thinking, not having the energy, not having the willpower or the interest in lots of the things. I was just keeping ticking over with the yoga. But I, I was like something isn’t right here. And it never even occurred to me that it could be something as simple as my estrogen starting to drop. And it was only till some friends said, look, this could be a menopausal thing. And I was like, What? What are you talking about? I thought that happened in your mid-fifties. My periods were always bang on. Okay, So I went to my doctor and I said, Look, I really, really don’t want to go back on antidepressants. I have been managing this. And I was quite proud that I had control over my systems. And he was like, I think it’s psychological. You should try your antidepressants and I know everybody that so many women have had this experience.
Dr Louise Newson [00:05:02] You knew that wasn’t right.
Nina McGowan [00:05:03] Yeah, yeah but through friends and as I said, I kind of said, well, I’m really open to trying some estrogen, how do I get on it? And my first doctor, as I said, said antidepressants, and I gave him up and went to Dr Judith Kavanagh at Mercer’s Medical Centre in Dublin. She’s just been phenomenal, helped me all the way through. So I’m basically just over two years taking estrogen and progesterone at this point and things have never gotten better. It’s just been a phenomenal revelation. I feel really proud to be in control. I think I took up with this idea of the Biohackers, which is a kind of a Silicon Valley idea, but people who would try to optimise their health. And the past ten years, with this, deciding that it’s up to me if I wanted to live the best, make my body the nicest place to live in, the most comfortable place, the place where I could experience going out dancing, better energy, and life to its fullest that this would be the way forward. So to add estrogen into this has been the greatest tool ever, really. And for me, going forward, I think it’s just changed my perspective of ageing. And I think as a generational thing, we as women going into our fifties don’t need to take on board, I suppose, the experience of all the previous generations because we haven’t seen widespread use of HRT. So it’s a blank page.
Dr Louise Newson [00:06:30] Yes.
Nina McGowan [00:06:30] You know?
Dr Louise Newson [00:06:30] You’re absolutely right and often is, you know, very scary for a lot of people and a lot of people who criticise me say, well, you’re just pushing hormones. Well, I’m not pushing anything for a start. But I think what you’ve said about being in control is really important and a lot of us are actually really in tune with our bodies and we want to be in control, whether it’s the way we breathe, the way we exercise, the way we sleep, the relationships we have, you know, we choose our destiny to some extent. But actually when our health isn’t right, then it’s out of our control. And for anybody who has experienced an illness or if they’ve become hormone deficient because of the menopause and it affects them, especially mentally, but also physically, it is completely out of your control. And, you know, even you with a really healthy lifestyle, doing yoga, being very in tune, knew that something still wasn’t right. And that’s because estradiol is a very biologically active hormone that works all around our body. You know, we are designed to function with it. And most of us notice when we don’t have it, but we don’t actually know what it is that we’re missing sometimes at the time.
Nina McGowan [00:07:38] Yeah. And it’s just the creeping slowness of it that it came in over time that I couldn’t identify what it was and I never guessed. And obviously that idea of replacing your estrogen isn’t circulating in my culture. It was shocking and I feel really angry that it wasn’t suggested to me that I had to go looking for this instead of it just being offered at some point that somebody might have come in and gone at this age you’re probably going to start noticing the effects of reduced circulating estradiol.
Dr Louise Newson [00:08:08] Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of people that I’ve seen and speak to and myself personally actually. I wish I’d realised more earlier and I wish I had considered. And it’s really weird because we call it hormone replacement therapy, but it’s often in the perimenopause, it’s more like hormone support. And so I wish I’d started a very low dose probably five years before I did, because like you say, these symptoms can creep up and then you’re not really sure what is it? Is it life? Is it what is it? Because I’m getting older? So actually knowledge is power, isn’t it? But also being in control, being able to make that choice when you want to start HRT, if you want to start HRT, rather than being forced or to either not consider it or even being given an alternative like an antidepressant, which obviously isn’t going to replace your estrogen levels.
Nina McGowan [00:08:53] Yeah, exactly. It’s the empowerment that comes with having that choice that really brings up your mental health and the sense, again, I am in control and this life is something that I can steer. And it’s so necessary at this juncture that you have that.
Dr Louise Newson [00:09:14] Absolutely.
Nina McGowan [00:09:14] Sense of being at the steering wheel of what’s going on, because it impacts everything.
Dr Louise Newson [00:09:19] Absolutely of course it does. And, you know, we need to be at the helm. We need to work out individually what we want. And everyone’s different and that’s fine. So, tell me about your freediving. I mean, I’ve got you’re going to laugh at this, advanced PADI certificate I used to dive quite a lot before I had children and I’ve been very fortunate, I have dived in all sorts of amazing countries with my husband. But the first time I was learning to dive I was in Egypt and we were in a classroom and he was talking about the regulator and I don’t really like I don’t like wearing gloves and I don’t really like wearing socks and shoes; it’s something about having things covered. So when we were talking about having the regulator in our mouths and it’s fine, you can vomit through it, you can breathe through it, obviously breathe through it, but do what you like through it. I just thought I didn’t want it in my mouth. What am I going to do? I might panic under the water? I want to take it out and then I can’t breathe. I was a junior doctor. It was my first holiday that I’d had with a pay cheque. It was a long time ago in 1994. And I thought, actually, Louise, this is ridiculous. You’ve paid this money to do this course. This is the basic PADI course and I was at a nice resort. Come on, just get with it. And so once I got in the water, I actually was woken up to just a whole new world. Just seeing wildlife, seeing these fish in the coral. And then there’s something very Zen-like about being under the water. Now I do a lot of yoga, I wasn’t doing yoga at that time. But there’s something very powerful about hearing your breath amplified and the calmness of being below the water. And for any of you that have done any sort of diving, it’s quite addictive, actually. But that’s me just as an aside, really. I can’t imagine even how you get into freediving or what it must feel like. So tell me how you got into freediving.
Nina McGowan [00:11:10] Well, yeah, I had similar scuba background. Twenty years ago. I was travelling, did my first open water course in Honduras, stayed on for four months, didn’t leave the place, and came out a dive master and ended up being a wreck tour guide. So I was that much into this completely abstract space, which was nothing to do with our society. And there was no English language,there was no even the way your body, your body language is completely different. So you make up everything. And it’s an intuitive space in a lot of ways. So I was actually on holiday in Egypt when I discovered freediving. I added on a couple of days in Dahab, which is up the coast from Sharm, and it’s a kind of little hippy town in the Old Testament lands of the Sinai Desert. And it attracts a lot of people who are interested in meditation and other ways of experiencing the body, really getting into all of this and in a lot of ways that it suits with this biohacking concept that you become more in tune, your access in your parasympathetic nervous system. I suppose you are breathing down, trying to go through the vagus nerve into the body because there’s no way you’re going to go underwater for 2 minutes or go down 20, 30, 40 metres without being completely calm and being able to not bring the anxiety of the situation or the idea that you can run out of air with you. So it’s about being able to relax, and I guess the yoga is the mind and body connection, you know, so you’re fine in your mind, you know, in the situation, you have to relax and you tell your whole body how to do that and how to release tension because under water you use up oxygen quicker in a tense body. so you have to be soft. It will allow you prolong your dive. Also in your mind you have to mitigate the anxiety. So there’s a lot of practising about being in tune with yourself that freediving will really show you. And it’s a great teacher. If you’re in the water, it’ll say you’re not hydrated enough. I’m getting muscle cramps. You didn’t sleep properly last night. You can’t do this. You’ll find that your dive is limited by these external factors. So for me it’s a great tally and it really fitted in. But also when you’re 20 metres down on a line and you’re looking out into the blue, you can’t see the surface, you can’t see the bottom, there’s literally nothing around you, there’s no visual clutter, there’s no stimulation. And again, you’re not even listening to the metronome of the regulator, the inhale, exhale, you’ve held your breath. So it’s really quite silent. You kind of get a bit of a mental reset and you are left in this state of awe, which is just the most wonderful thing. And it may only last a second or two, but this state of awe, the remembering about this face will last the rest of your life. It can be quite profound. As you say, it’s very meditative. So I suppose it’s these moments of accelerated meditation that really keep bringing you back to go, my god, you know, I can’t feel my weight, a sense of no gravity. So it doesn’t matter about your body shape or how you usually sense yourself on land. It’s completely novel, it’s a real lived experience. You come back up and you go, wow, you know, that was incredible. And you’re within a community of people who look after each other so well. So that really gave me an addiction to it, I suppose. And it happened during COVID. So my other work had been kind of put on standstill. So I really kind of got into it and I kind of progressed quite quickly and entered a couple of competitions and no-fins was my chosen. I was a breaststroke swimmer as a kid growing up by the harbour in County Dublin.
Dr Louise Newson [00:14:55] Explained to me what no fins means then.
Nina McGowan [00:14:57] So well, you might see freedivers. Sometimes they wear this thing like a mermaid tail that’s like a monofin.
Dr Louise Newson [00:15:02] Yes.
Nina McGowan [00:15:02] It’s a big triangular fin and they put both their feet in. It’s amazingly powerful. But with no fins I have no mask, I just have the nose clip of my nose because, you know, your hands aren’t there to swim over on your nose, to hold to equalise your ears. So we use the nose clip. It’s like a modified breaststroke. So I go down and I come back up in breaststroke, basically. And it’s wonderful feeling because you catch the water in your hands. You can feel that water pulse off your feet as you go through, you know, a sensation of the fluid around your body as well is something that you can make a rhythm and pace out of and mentally get into this mode or feeling. It’s a wonderful energy.
Dr Louise Newson [00:15:51] So how deep do you go?
Nina McGowan [00:15:53] Well, the deepest I’ve gone is 53 metres in free immersion. Free immersion is the discipline we are pulling down the line. So I’m always leashed onto the line so I can’t go missing. And there’s always spotters and safety divers around that can watch where you are in that moment. So you know you’re safe and you’re free to allow yourself to fully be there and see how far you can go. So in no fins, I’ve done 48 metres, which would be the equivalent of I think it’s about 160 feet down and then 160 back.
Dr Louise Newson [00:16:23] Wow.
Nina McGowan [00:16:23] Yeah. Over 2 minutes 10 seconds. Well the record dive I did was 43 metres. So that was a world record at the World Championships in Turkey last October, which was just incredible. My coach Rafael, the guardian angel Rafael, he’s a Brazilian national record holder who I’d met in Egypt and he’s got a PhD in physics, and he’s got a head full of numbers. He goes, Nina, when you turn 50, you can get a world record. If you stick with this, I think you’re the strongest no fins in your age group. So, I mean, to turn 50 as well as I was telling you earlier, is such a crazy idea mentally to get over. I thought if I throw this idea of getting a world record as outrageous as it seemed, but it would eclipse the 50th birthday and this would be the thing that I would focus on for 2022. So, yeah, I went over, I represented Ireland, I dived and I cleared the record by 3 metres and now I’m a world record holder in that class. But I mean, I have to say I think it’s wonderful that the governing body CMAS (Jacques Cousteau he set it up in the fifties) the World Underwater Federation, they bracket their competition groups 50 to 54. I can keep doing this up until my mid-eighties, and I fully intend to. Why not? And keep scoring, you know, keep on the podium, which I think it’s great. It’s a great impetus to keep going.
Dr Louise Newson [00:17:49] But it’s absolutely I mean, when you approached me, I obviously, of course, I did some Googling, having a look, and even just looking at the pictures, I just find incredibly trancing but also very empowering. But, you know, I think it says something when you start a sport, seriously, when you’re in your late forties, it means that no one’s too old to try something different, are they? And I think just listening to you, even those of us that will never do deep sea diving or freediving, actually the power of our bodies, the power of breath, the power of our minds is something that we can always learn. And I used to think I could never meditate. My brain is always active, it’s always full. And I remember reading books, how to meditate, and I remember lying in bed. This is probably about twenty years ago thinking about what I’d read and how do I read this way, or do I do it this way? Or what am I supposed to be thinking of now? What am I supposed to be visualising that I could never meditate because I was too busy worrying about how to meditate. Whereas with Ashtanga at the end of my practice, I always meditate and I go into this very trance like state. But it’s so I just clear my mind. I don’t think about what I’m doing, I just clear it. I get everything out of my mind. I don’t let any thoughts come in and when your breathing just calms, your whole body just relaxes and it’s the most amazing thing, but it’s something we all can do, and we all do it in different ways. I know.
Nina McGowan [00:19:20] Yeah.
Dr Louise Newson [00:19:20] But just hearing how you are in the sea is so important. I think when we’re always pulled and pushed in other directions, aren’t we? I have never, ever been this busy in my entire life with work, but I actually feel strangely calm because I have this ability to focus on the here and now, you know, now I’m recording this podcast with you, Nina. I’m not thinking about what I’m going to cook for supper or what my next meeting is or what I’m going to have for lunch, or what happened this morning when I was trying to find something for my daughter to go to school. You know, it’s all different times. And I think if you can focus your mind so you’re focusing on the here and now, that’s a really powerful thing to be able to do, isn’t it?
Nina McGowan [00:20:07] Yeah, it’s actually it says in that flow state where you’re completely immersed in whatever it is you’re doing. I was in the Bikram yoga, the hot yoga is what I’ve really it’s been my main practice for two or three times a week. And I say to people, it’s like taking the dog for a walk, the body, you let it do its thing, you know, let the dog run around the field and my mind just kind of goes into a…yeah, you’re just completely in the moment. It’s such a physical and in some ways difficult to exercise that you the intensity just makes your mind follow as you go along. I suppose that’s not a great way of explaining. But there’s whatever activity allows, you really become engrossed in that moment. It doesn’t have to be this sat down meditation. Although I love to sit, I’ll wear a big pair of those kind of headphones, you know, the ones that you see, the guys on the runways who are landing the planes, their noise excluders, you know, to try to limit the amount of stimulus coming in. And I’ll wear some eye patches and I’ll kind of sit in a very comfortable way, maybe put cushions under my knees and then just really sink into the breath, you know, and try to get down slower and slower. The longer exhale, then the inhale is a great method, if you do that for a couple of minutes and as people show you had your breathing techniques, but it can really work, if you set aside 20 minutes a day to do this. It can change your life, you know, dedicated meditation space. But anything; walking, listening to music, I love a pair of regular headphones with my dance music on and go for a walk and just move your body as you go and really enjoy it as much as you can. So I’m going out there to enjoy this. You know, since I stopped boozing, I suppose I don’t go to nightclubs as much, but I’ll still go out to bars. And I think it’s more punk now. It’s more subversive to be completely laser-focused when everybody around you is kind of really tipsy. So I find a kind of a leverage in this that completely suits where I’m at and people can move through their lives and change their relationships to things. It’s that fluidity and the being able to surf the changes that are going on and find positive ways of relating to everything because you know, nothing is static. COVID has shown this, that you need to be able to flip and change what it is that you do and your approach and meditation and being engrossed in something, not attaching to ways and methods that you’re used to, but always find a new way to do things, keep things exciting. You have to see it in these kind of ways. If you can see things in a new way, you’re continually looking at things in a child’s eye, you know.
Dr Louise Newson [00:22:49] Which is so important because I think, you know, especially, the menopause and the perimenopause is a real time for reflection, actually, because a lot of it signifies loss of fertility, loss of our periods, which can be good for a lot of women. But it’s also a new phase in our lives. And I think it’s so easy to just carry on the way you’ve always been or to blame external influences, why you are certain way or why you’re in a certain job or a certain relationship, but actually having the tools to really decide how we’re going to take things forward, but also use our bodies in a really positive way. And I think there’s so much about which diet to have, which exercise to do. We’re always setting ourselves up for failure, often because we don’t exercise enough or we eat the wrong things, or there’s a new fad or there’s a new supplement, or there’s a new something we should be doing. But I think a lot of even in medicine, I often think about the basics. And the most basic thing about our bodies is breathing and thinking. And so the way you so eloquently describe how important it is to go back to the basics. And even if people can’t fully meditate, as you say, just lying or sitting and concentrating on breathing and clearing your mind, has got to be really positive, hasn’t it?
Nina McGowan [00:24:10] Yeah, it will become easier as you go along. I think we’ve built up the idea of meditation being a difficult thing. People don’t even want to approach it, but I think sleep is key. If you want to make a change, I would think make your rest period really the most nourishing thing you can do for yourself to start out with. And you know, I’ll take that effervescent magnesium at night to calm the muscles and make sure that you give 8 hours, whatever. I’ve started using those wax earplugs just to cut out all noise at night, which I think it’s a great tip so that you just get a completely you don’t get any aural stimulus coming in to wake you up. But sleep first, and diet absolutely key wheat I think is really can affect people. And in our culture we can’t get away from it. So if anybody wants to change their diet, I’d say pull out wheat first and see how you get on with it. I think in particular, the gut bacteria has been something the microbiome that I’ve paid a lot of attention to, and I find the cravings for stuff. You know, this can really enter your mind because your whole system we’re symbiotic with the gut bacteria that have evolved with us over millions of years. I’m a host to millions, but I think that wheat eating gut bacteria in particular can act as brokers for neurotransmitters that are built in the gut, the serotonin and the dopamine. So it’s like, get me a doughnut and I’ll make you feel better. So if you stop eating wheat, you can starve these out and lessen the cravings and this may take a while. So, when some of my friends said, well, how do you crikey, how do you start keto? How do you start low carb? How do you start moving away from inflammatory compounds when I’m so craving them? It’s like, go slow, take them one at a time, see how you get on. So the wheat, it takes a while because it’s in everything, in so much processed foods.
Dr Louise Newson [00:26:05] Yeah, absolutely. And I think, you know, the ultra processing of foods, the sugar content and it is everything that we do when we change, it’s got to be a gradual change and we’ve got to do it for the right reasons. And we’re all different. But actually, the more change you make, the easier it is. And like you might my diet, I’ve changed a lot and I don’t crave doughnuts. In fact, someone gave me when I actually wouldn’t eat it because it would trigger a migraine. It would make me feel awful. So I’m quite happy not having it. But probably ten years ago I would have probably had one or two doughnuts, you know, but it takes quite a long time. But I think that’s the same with any of these lifestyle changes as well. So I think it’s just been really enlightening listening to you. What I’m also hearing is that you’re not always a really calm person. You’ve got this high energy as well. And so to be able to flip from being someone who goes out dancing to being a freediver who you know is a world champion, to be able to flip and adapt our body, I think, is just the most incredible thing because we’re adapting all the time, especially when we’re menopausal. So before I finish, I’m very grateful for your time that can you just give your three tips for those people who maybe have listened thinking about breathing and meditation and relaxation, maybe just thinking about it for the first time. What are the three sort of priorities that you think if someone wants to change their lifestyle in a positive way, especially mentally, what are the three things that you would recommend?
Nina McGowan [00:27:37] Well, I think I mentioned two there. I think prioritise sleep, really protect that space. And while you’re if you plan to change your life, prioritise your sleep, give it a lot of space, give yourself a few weeks to really get into a rhythm and then start from there. The second would be if you’re changing your diet, I suppose, take things slowly and take one day at a time. So it would be the second thing. And for me, the last two years since I’ve been started on supplementation with estrogen, I’ve been living on a mantra which is basically if you take the step, the bridge will appear when you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s a bit of a leap of faith and you have to just put a little bit of energy and a little bit of go. And I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m open to whatever happens and let’s go. And it’s that mental that kind of to cross the chasm when the way is clear, you just have to take the first step.
Dr Louise Newson [00:28:35] I love that.
Nina McGowan [00:28:35] And the bridge will appear. Something will happen and just have faith that you’re going to be clever enough and supple enough to figure it out as you go along. Have some faith in yourself.
Dr Louise Newson [00:28:44] Oh, I love that. I really hope my bridge comes soon. Thank you ever so much I think there are so many messages to hear and listen and thank you ever so much for your time and good luck with everything going forwards. We’re all going to watch what you do in the future with a lot of interest. So thanks, Nina.
Nina McGowan [00:29:01] Thanks so much, Dr Louise.
Dr Louise Newson [00:29:06] For more information about the perimenopause and menopause, please visit my website balance-menopause.com. Or you can download the free balance app, which is available to download from the App Store or from Google Play.