Swimming can be one of the most enjoyable ways to relax and get in shape, but over half the world can't swim. This is a staggering amount of people considering over half the world is water. In 2015, there was 3, 536 drownings reported in the United States. There is just no reason for this. Learning to swim is not governed by the lack of resources to the sport. For many, it's one big factor that holds them back from learning how to swim; their fear of water. Sometimes people don't even realize it, but then they try to learn the breathing or head into the deep end of the pool and begin to panic.
Feeling panicked in the water can come in many forms. The most common is a tightness in the chest and the sensation that you are drowning. This can set off alarms in your head that you need more air, which in turn causes your muscles to tighten. When the muscles begin to tighten they become heavier in the water so you begin to sink.
The Buoyancy test
The human body has a natural floating point. Each of us is different from the other. Our floating point is determined by weight and muscle to fat ratios. People who are all dense muscle with extremely low body fat percentages will sink more than someone who is more a larger body fat percentage and lower muscle density. These two people can be the exact same weight but will float at different buoyancies. Another example of this would be a rock and a piece of wood of the same weight. The wood will float while the rock as we all know will sink immediately. The human body is just a combination of both of these dense to lighter ratios.
If you are able to float in the water and can comfortable push yourself back to the surface, a great test to see where you are on this scale can be done in the deep end of any pool. Position yourself vertically in the water as if you are doing to tread water, but don't. Relax your entire body. Use the breath that you have to start allowing yourself to sink. Slowly let the air out of your lungs out. At first, nothing will happen but once you reach a certain point where the air in your lungs isn't keeping you up anymore, you'll begin to sink. Continue to slowly let the air out of your lungs. Eventually, your body will stop. For some people that may be the bottom of the pool, for others that might be just below the surface of the water and for the rest, it could be somewhere in between. The two main things to remember when doing this test is:
1. Keep your body completely relaxed. Don't scull or use any part of your body to help position yourself.
2. Let your air out slowly. Don't breathe back in at any point. Just release your air out.
Small steps in comfort
Now before we get to the point where we should be testing our buoyancy, let's take a step back and talk about the swimmers who have an even stronger fear of the water. These swimmers may have experienced a dramatic episode around water or just never had any opportunities to learn. We've seen both at MySwim. To work on this we always start by building up trust with the swimmer and the water. There are way too many people who believe they need to fight the water in order to move, float, or do anything. When you fight the water, it fights back and always wins. Think of the water as your friend. Trust it to help you be buoyant in the water and it will return the favor.
We've never found the "throw them in and they'll figure it out" approach has ever worked with anyone. If the pool you are using has steps, start small. Just sit on the edge and dangle your feet. Move down the steps so that more and more of your body is covered by the water. Move your arms through it, practice your straight kicking. Gain an understanding of ways to manipulate and use the water safely. Finally, when you've reached the pool floor in the shallow end, continue to hold on to the wall and practice putting your face in. Blow some bubbles.
Continue to hold the wall at all times. Also, continue to practice moving in it. Feel the water around you and how it interprets your movements. Once you feel comfortable with these movements, including blowing out your air while your face is in the water, it is time to practice being submerged. This is the part that most people hate. For young kids, we call this "tea party" time. If you are comfortable enough to remove your hand from the side of the pool, do so. It helps to have access to both hands for this part, but if not then keep your hand on the side for security.
The first step here is to take a deep breath, staying relaxed through your body, attempt to sit down on the bottom of the shallow end of the pool. Again, depending on your muscle density ratio, this may be extremely difficult. The main reason is that I mentioned above to take a deep breath. I didn't say let it out. So right now your lungs are full of air. Air is lighter than water so it floats, which lungs full of air act as a buoyancy aid. This will help you float.
If you want to make it to the bottom of the pool, you have to begin to let that air out. Again do this slowly. If you force your air out too quickly, the panic alarms will go off and you'll begin to tighten up and struggle. By letting your air out slowly, you keep a small reserve in your lungs to help suppress the panic feelings. For adults, we suggest thinking of it like yoga breathing. Slow and steady. Focus your mind on the breathing, rather than the action. Continue to do this until you are comfortable with the notion of sitting on the bottom and getting back up to the surface without trouble.
From here, we have our swimmers start to move deeper water. We'll have them stop every few feet so they can become comfortable with that portion of the pool. The time we spend most is the deepest end. We find this is the best opportunity to teach floating and security without the aid the ground. By using the breathing techniques and along with learning how to keep your body relaxed and a small fast kick, we've found that people have a greater success in floating and being able to move back into a position of safety.
Finally, taking all of these steps will provide you with a slow and steady path towards becoming an efficient confident swimmer. Once you have conquered your fear start to work on jump into the water and then swimming back to the wall. Always perform these exercises with a partner or two that are extremely strong swimmers or while with a lifeguard/swim instructor. You should never attempt any new skill alone.
If you want more personalized training and additional insight into learning how to swim, sign up for our Swimmer Insider course. We will guide you through all the steps you need to become a confident swimmer.