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How to Tread Water

Swimming in deep water can feel intimidating. Learning to tread water is a great way to become more competent, and overcome a fear of water. More importantly, it‘s a key aspect of water safety. This guide will offer some great pointers for learning how to tread water.

Sculling

Your arms play an important role in treading water. Stand in the shallow end of a pool. Move your arms back and forth right below the surface of the water. Stiffen your wrists as your do this, and sweep your hands in towards each other. Then sweep your hands out from your sides in this sculling motion.

A good way to picture this is to pretend that a dirty table is in front of you. Use your forearm and hand to sweep the imaginary crumbs back and forth on the table.

Once you get the hang of sculling, sit on a noodle. See if you can lift yourself by moving your arms back and forth in this sculling motion.

Flutter Kick

The simplest — but most exhausting — form of treading water is flutter kick. This type of kick is straightforward because of the easy scissor kick motion. However, it can wear you out quickly.

At the Wall

Move to a deep part of the pool where you can’t stand. Face a pool wall, and grab the gutter with your hands. If you have trouble gripping the gutter, prop your arms up on the edge of the deck.

Get your legs beneath you, and use flutter kicks. Since the goal is to keep afloat, the kicks may feel a little different than typical the flutter kicks you would use while swimming freestyle. To keep yourself steadily above water, you can kick slower and bend your knees more.

Regardless, you should keep your toes pointed and move your feet back and forth in a scissoring motion as you kick.

With a Floating Device

Hot Tip: Have Someone Help
When learning to tread water, you should never swim unattended. Make sure a water-safe friend, family member, or instructor is nearby to assist you if needed.

Once you’re comfortable at the wall, take a floating device — such as a noodle — and move away from the wall. Tuck the noodle underneath your armpits to keep afloat. Go to a deep part of the pool, but make sure you can easily reach the side. Now practice the same kick away from the wall.

On Your Own

As you transition to treading water without the floating device, make sure that you’re not too far from the shallow end or the wall. You want to make sure that you are in a safe environment to attempt vertical kicks.

Slowly take the floating device away and see if your flutter kicks and hand sculls can support you.

Breaststroke Kick

Flutter kick can be very tiring. Breaststroke kick, on the other hand, is more powerful and easier on the legs over a long duration.

At the Wall

Go back to the wall and grip the gutter in the deep end. This time, turn your back to the wall and prop your elbows on the edge of the pool like you’re relaxing there. Feel your back press against the wall. Move your legs underneath you. Follow these steps:

  1. Touch your legs together and make sure they’re straight.
  2. Bend your knees while you keep your legs touching each other. Bring your heels towards your buttocks. It should look like you’re sitting in a chair.
  3. Move your legs apart with your knees in the same bent position. Flex your feet as you bring your legs away from each other.
  4. Extend your feet toward the bottom of the pool as you snap your legs together. Feel them touch with your legs straight.

An easy way to remember this motion: Think about the cycle that your feet are going through. Repeat to yourself: “Up, out, squeeze together.” If you’re kicking properly, you should feel like you’re bobbing up and down in the water.

With a Floating Device

Now that you’ve got the gist of it, move away from the wall and practice with the noodle. Tuck the noodle under your armpits as you did before, and get your legs underneath you. Now practice the breaststroke kick.

On Your Own

Hot Tip: Float on Your Back
If you feel exhausted or panicked, float on your back. You can easily float without exerting much effort, and you can breathe as much as you want.

If you feel comfortable kicking with the noodle, trying treading water on your own. Take the noodle away and see if you can keep yourself afloat. Make sure that you’re near a wall or the shallow end, and have someone nearby who can help you get back to safety.

Eggbeater

Because of the bobbing motion, many swimmers don’t like the sensation of kicking breaststroke. People who frequently tread water often prefer eggbeater.

Eggbeater is the most complicated — yet also most energy efficient — technique for treading water. The kitchen appliance name comes from the way each leg rotates in alternating circular motions to create water pressure.

Transition from Breaststroke Kick

Coordinating your legs to rotate in opposite directions can be confusing. Before jumping in and attempting to eggbeater, transition from the breaststroke kick detailed above.

Start by using breaststroke kicks toward the pool floor to hold you up. Next, try alternating legs. Kick only one at a time. Then — while still alternating — change your thigh position to parallel the surface, knees wide apart. Instead of kicking down to the bottom, kick out to the sides.

This vertical breaststroke kick will be the foundation which you will eventually morph into eggbeater.

Other Drills to Try

If you’re having trouble getting the hang of eggbeater, try this drill on-land. Sit in a chair and scoot forward so that you’re on the edge of the seat. Move your knees as far away from each other as you can. Your thighs should be parallel to the floor, knees bent at about 90°, and feet flexed.

Start making counterclockwise circles with your right foot and lower leg. Try to keep your thigh fairly still while you do this. Stop. Then try the same with your left leg, but rotating clockwise. Now do both legs together.

If you’re getting confused with the direction that your feet are supposed to move, remember this pattern: Back, outside, front, inside. It’s that same pattern for both the right foot and the left foot.

At the Edge of the Pool

While sitting on the edge of the pool, put only your calves and feet in the water. Repeat the same steps you did in the chair. Try to feel the water pressure on the bottom of your feet. Imagine that you’re mixing the water, like an actual eggbeater would! Do this until the circles you’re making feel coordinated.

Hop Back In

Hop in the deep end of the pool and hold onto the wall. Start to eggbeater, and slowly scoot away from the wall. With the same good body position and technique you’ve been practicing, use eggbeater to hold you up. Try to create a lot of water pressure with your flexed feet. Isolate your body from your legs. Hold your upper body as still as possible, even if your legs are working furiously.

The eggbeater motion is similar to riding a bicycle. When one foot is forward, the other is back. You are simultaneously making circles with your feet.

Don’t Get Discouraged

Keep in mind that the eggbeater is the most complicated form of treading water. If you don’t get it right away, don’t get discouraged! It usually takes some time to pick up on it. You’ll get the hang of it the more you practice. If it feels confusing, you can always rely on flutter or breaststroke kicks to keep you afloat. With a little practice, you’ll be treading water like a pro!

Whether you're a novice swimmer or an expert, water safety is the most important thing you can learn. This guide explains how to tread water, an important safety skill.
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