Getting in the water can be incredibly daunting for some people. 20% of the UK’s adults are scared of the water or can’t swim. A lot of people doing triathlon or contemplating doing one don’t enjoy swimming or are new to the concept. So, starting out can be a tense process.
There are 3 main steps when getting started with swimming:
Putting your face in the water
This will make your life easier and you won’t then get a horrible shock if you get splashed.
Learning to float
Most humans will naturally float to some degree. Maybe not perfectly (men especially), but if you can learn to trust the water to support your body weight, you can learn to allow your body to relax.
Frantically trying to kick and pull will spike your heart rate and breathing rate, which are counter-intuitive to feeling that calm and zen feeling that being in the water can give.
My go-to when teaching to swim is to get people floating on their back – aiming for some sort of starfish type position. It takes some confidence that you might not entirely have, but the trick is to try and stay still and fight the urge to kick or pull to keep yourself stable on the surface. These things will lift you in the water, but then you will sink again to your starting point so there is no real gain. Once you find that you can trust the water to support you, you’ll be a fair bit calmer!
The second thing to do when getting water-ready is to do some sink downs. Take a big breath of air, sink under the water/push yourself under and breath out – then stand up. Simple! In practise, if you’re not so comfortable it can be a little challenging to start with, so really force the air out of your lungs. When you come to swim this will be key, as it will allow you to breathe in efficiently when the time comes.
The final stage to getting started in the water is getting comfortable on your front. My favourite drill to teach this skill is the dead man float.
Start face down, completely relaxed and floppy. You should feel your legs and arms hang down (for the vast majority). Then repeat the float but with 3 distinct changes:
- Lengthen your spine – pull your ears away from your shoulders, keeping your neck neutral
- Lift your arms up in front of you so that your ears are between your biceps (keeping your hands in the water)
- Engage your core – pull your belly button toward your spine, and squeeze your glute muscles.
For the most part, people should feel their legs raise up toward the surface – if not completely then at least in part. This gives us a starting position to work from in the water. From here, you can practically do anything with your arms and legs, and you should get smooth forward movement.
One point to remember; swimming is incredibly counter-intuitive. Human nature is to want to look where you are going – but this will drop your legs in the water and make it harder to pull and to breathe. Survival instinct is to want to lift your head to take a breath – but the same thing happens. Your brain will tell you to frantically kick your legs to keep you afloat and moving, but a smooth relaxed and slower kick will be far more productive and less energy-sapping. If you can overrule your panic and discomfort reactions, it will make your life in the water far easier.
About the author: John Wood is a triathlete and triathlon coach.