Originally published May 10, 2006
It took me quite a while in my early days of coaching to realize that my athletes didn’t understand many things I took for granted. I had swum at such a high level for so long, that I had gone beyond the teaching aspects of the sport, and just wanted to train these swimmers. What I’ve learned from teaching so intensively in recent years — and from reading some of the recent posts on our site — is that there is no skill too basic to continue to teach. How to tread water is one of those skills, and if you think you know all there is to know about this "simple" skill, think again.
Some swimmers have a natural ability for treading water. For them, staying effortlessly afloat in deep water is second nature — something they don’t even have to think about. For others, however, and especially for beginning swimmers, this fundamental skill — the skill that determines whether a swimmer will progress to the deep end or be relegated to paddling in the shallow end — is totally elusive. Most beginning swimmers perceive that it takes tremendous strength and willpower to tread water. They see it almost as a "trick" that only good swimmers know.
Actually, treading water does involve a kind of trick — a sleight of hand. It is, as they say in the magic business, all in the wrist. The key to treading water is "smart hands." That’s a term Barbara uses when she teaches non-swimming adults how to tread water. "Smart" hands are hands that are AWARE of the water. They are hands that know how to REST on the water. Hands that know how to move THROUGH the water at a steady pace (perfectly matching the resistance level of the water) without creating turbulence or bubbles. Smart hands know how to feel for subtle differences in pitch and pressure. Smart hands know how to work WITH the water rather than against. A person with smart hands can tread water effortlessly, and can turn and spin with the ease of a synchronized swimmer. It’s all in the wrist.
It’s sometimes hard for beginning swimmers to accept that what they do with their hands is so important. They are eager to learn to SWIM and, to them, the hands seem inconsequential. Many competitive swimmers fall into the same trap. They think fast swimming is all about pull patterns and stroke rate, and too many of them have less-than-smart hands or "hard hands," hands that seem totally unaware of the water as they push, push, push — trying to gain advantage OVER the water rather than working WITH it.
So, here are some thoughts on how to tread water, and how to develop "smart hands."
Why Do It:
For ANY swimmer, it’s good to understand that even the subtlest movements can pay dividends in the water. For beginner or intermediate-level swimmers, learning how to tread water brings a sense of confidence — of knowing you’ll really be OK in deep water if something goes wrong, and you need to rest.
Ideas on How to Do It:
1. An easy way to learn how your hands work, is to sit on a kickboard and play. The kickboard gives you enough buoyancy to keep your mouth above the water, and allows you to stop worrying about how to get AIR. It allows you to focus on what your hands are doing.
During this period of play, focus your hands on a sculling motion, moving them back and forth with a slight change in the pitch of the hands. Move your hands side to side, sweeping them back and forth in front of you, always feeling the pressure of the water on the palms of your hands. Remember: If your palms are facing in one direction, your body will move in the OPPOSITE direction. If your palms are facing the bottom, you’ll be giving your body leverage, or lift. If you gradually point your fingers down (palms facing back) and continue to sweep your hands back and forth, you’ll start to move forward.
Try to move yourself around the pool, simply by varying the pitch of your hands as you continue to scull. While you may think this is easy, you’ll quickly realize (as did our summer camp swimmers), that sculling is a very challeging workout for your forearms. For you competitive swimmers, sit on the board, and go a few 50s as quickly as you can. You’ll see what I’m talking about.
2. While the next few images and sequences on the video are really treading water, don’t move to this until you feel comfortable with how your hands are working — or until you feel you have "smart" hands. These images and clips will give you some different ideas about HOW to tread water.
First we start by adding a very WIDE flutter kick. Sweeping the legs far in front, and far behind the body. The idea here is to show the water as many large surfaces as possible, not for the sake of speed, but for the sake of leverage. Try to slow your movements while still keeping your mouth above water. All the while, you’ll continue the in and out sweeping, or sculling movements with your hands. With the combination of sweeps from the arms and legs, you should eventually learn to stay comforable in the water.
3. Another idea is to try an alternating arm-sweep, and egg-beater kick. While the hands continue to sweep back and forth, they’ll do so independantly now, and in opposition to the legs. While this can seem confusing at first, once you get the rhythm, it will quickly become natural. This method allows some to better manage their energy level because of the alternating use of the muscles.
4. Try this when you think you have hands that are ready for the National Honor Society. Start by treading water. When you feel comfortable, stop using your legs. Most people find that treading without the legs takes more energy than treading with the legs. But if you ever get in an emergency situation (a bad cramp in both legs, for example), it will come in handy. If you are stranded for a long time, you could alternate between arms and legs and better manage your energy.
How to Do It Really Well (the Fine Points): Personally, I believe the KEY to being comfortable and confident in the water is knowing that you can get air whenever you need it and for as long as you’ll need it. It’s largely about energy management. If you can stay comfortable in the water with minimal, soft, SMART movements, you can pretty much hang out all day long without working hard at all.
If you’re stuck in water and need to tread water for a while, consider this: The higher you try to hold your head, the more energy you’re going to use. If you can learn to be comfortable treading water while holding your breath with your head JUST under the surface of the water, and then bobbing up to the surface using some of the techniques shown here, you can develop a rhythm that would really save a bunch of heartbeats. This will take a bit of practice if you’re a beginner, but it also depends on your mindset (you’ll pick it up very quickly if you’re in the middle of the ocean watching your ship pull away without you!). The goal is to stay as comfortable as possible while still being able to breathe when you need to.
For many people, learning these skills can mean the difference between a future in aquatic-related activities, or staying away all together. For advanced athletes, you should realize that every time you’re in the water, you’re teaching yourself something. During your next practice, if you catch yourself treading water while listening to the next set, be aware of how you’re doing it. Instinctively, you’re discovering the easiest way to keep your head out of the water.