Floating is easy, right? Either something floats or it sinks. This might seem like common knowledge, but what we have learned teaching more than 200,000 people how to swim is that there is more to floating—and specifically floating up—than meets the eye.
That’s why Foss Swim School identifies “Float Up” as one of the key elements of our learn-to-swim program, just as important as becoming acclimated to water and mastering strokes. That’s not to say we spend weeks and weeks just floating in the water, of course. But effective floating and confident mastery of the skills involved does take time and practice, and so activities and lessons that include floating and float-control skills are woven into what we teach students based on their age and ability.
Things students learn when they “float up”
Here are some of the key elements of floating up:
Learning to trust buoyancy:
Humans do float naturally, of course, thanks to the air in our lungs. Natural buoyancy alone isn’t enough to keep the entire head above water when motionless, but there is a bit of buoyancy to work with. The first thing students need to learn is to feel for and rely on the point where their body naturally stops sinking. Sinking can be a scary feeling, so knowing it will stop helps a brand-new swimming student learn not to worry so they can focus on other elements.
These lessons involve learning how to take in, hold and release air underwater. Since nostrils point downward, keeping the face forward so water can’t enter is important. Swimmers also shouldn’t look up to breathe through their mouth—water pressure will force air up from their lungs, lowering buoyancy.
Taking and releasing breath:
Skills that involve timing when to take a breath and when to release it are critical to floating and to swimming strokes. An instinct is to try and release breath above water, but since most strokes give swimmers just a moment above water at a time, this doesn’t work. We teach students to hum water out below the surface, so their moment above water can be spent breathing in.
Managing center of gravity:
The human body is less buoyant from the waist down than from the waist up. The lungs sit high in the body, while the pelvis and legs together are relatively dense and extend out like a lever. This tends to cause people to slowly rotate into a head-up position when floating. Teachers show students how to counteract that by using their muscles to try and lift their hips higher in the water than their chest, changing their center of gravity in a way that allows floating on their front or back.
Propulsive hands and feet:
Small motions with the hands and feet then augment natural buoyancy to keep the swimmer more or less level and on the surface. Adding just a little upward motion to a slightly buoyant body gives a swimmer just a few extra inches above water, enough to choose when to breathe and when to submerge.
Floating up while swimming:
Finally, these floating skills are applied when learning strokes. If you look at a competitive swimmer doing the freestyle, you’ll see the head is almost completely underwater most of the time, hips are high and they are essentially swimming downhill. In the butterfly and breaststroke, the swimmer’s head undulates below and above the water—each time they go under, they manage buoyancy and add a push with their hands and feet to their natural “float” back to the surface, giving them the time to take a breath.
Like every part of our learn-to-swim curriculum, floating is taught deliberately and progressively. Students don’t need to understand physics to know it when they feel it. By working with the natural inclinations of their bodies, any student can learn to float—and swim—well!