One of the most asked questions in swimming is, “Why can’t I float in water?” And, obtaining the answer can seem like a confusing mystery, especially when some people just jump in water and tread without moving a muscle. While others splash about, arms and legs moving rapidly, just to keep their heads above water. Then, we find out that much of this is due to the differences in our physiology. How annoying to think that some people are built in such a way that makes them better floaters than others. Truth is, there may be simple science behind this phenomenon, but it’s not the whole story.
It has to do with the word density (the ratio of mass to volume). In physics when something is said to be dense, it means to have component parts closely compacted together. Mass is a body of coherent matter, and volume is an amount of space, measured in cubic units an object or substance occupies. https://www.dictionary.com. In other words, density describes how much space an object/substance takes up (its volume) in relation to the amount of matter in that object/substance (its mass). https://study.com/academy/less…
If an object has a greater density than water, it sinks. If it is less dense than water, it floats…So, as it turns out, athletes with very little body fat might have to work harder to stay afloat in the water. To be healthy, our bodies need a balance of fat and muscle. https://www.scientificamerican…
What Can You Do If You Have Difficulty Floating in Water?
The good news is that the human body’s weight is measured with two-thirds of it being water. This factor gives us an advantage in our ability to float. Obviously, those with more muscle mass may have a greater inclination to sink in water than those with a higher fat to muscle ratio, but don’t despair. Those with greater muscle mass have other resources at their disposal. Floating in water can be mastered by incorporating other techniques that can circumvent a lack of buoyancy such as relaxing and not panicking. When we panic, our muscles tend to tense up making the body denser = tendency to sink. So, stretching across the water as if we’re lying down in a bed and breathing deeply, will actually help to keep the body aloft. More oxygen in the body will make the body more buoyant. In the scientific equation described above, oxygen is less dense than water, therefore, having more oxygen in the lungs will give the body a better propensity to float. Another effective technique is to lift the lower body up and toward the water’s surface by using the core muscles. This will increase one’s floating ability as well. Please note, that it need not be a prefect prone position. Work on staying up, being comfortable and relaxed.
Children age ten and under, can reasonably float well due to their ability to streamline their bodies in the water with ease. However, adjustments may need to be made once they begin to grow. This is due to maturation which causes their center of gravity and their center of buoyancy to shift. Their legs get longer and balancing themselves toward the surface of the water may require technique changes, similar to those discussed above, in order for them to stay afloat. If these children are comfortable in the water, say they’ve been swimming since infancy, these changes could be adopted relatively easily.
Mind / Body Connection Regarding Floating in Water
Scientists have pondered this connection with what we think and how those thoughts affect the body for years. The mind-body connection has been primarily used for diagnosing and maintaining health and treatments for diseases. Stress has been linked with all types of ailments that were once only thought to have biological components. This is a factor that must be mentioned in order to fully understand floating in water.
Regardless of our muscle to fat ratio and whether we can float on water or not, how we react in water will affect our outcome of floating. For example, some people with low muscle density who should be buoyant, will sink in water because they tense up, making their body heavier. While others with greater muscle to fat ratios, but with more relaxed attitudes, will have better floating outcomes simply because their technique can keep them aloft. This factor should give hope to those who are struggling with their ability to float in water. This may sound cliché, but sometimes encouraging oneself is necessary.
An Ideal Weight for Swimmers to Maintain Buoyancy?
Many coaches believe that there is an ideal weight for ALL swimmers. Don’t change your diet just yet! This philosophy doesn’t take into consideration the physiological differences from one human being to another, nor their eating habits, or out of the water activities like weight training. If a swimmer bulks up their torso, this will change their center of gravity/buoyancy and may force them to dedicate more energy using their arms perhaps in order to maintain their correct floating posture.
For complete accuracy in knowing the ideal weight a swimmer needs in order to remain buoyancy, usually flotation tests are conducted. The City of Tempe’s rowing team float test requires rowers to float, tread water or swim in place for 10 minutes. The Boy Scouts of America tests participants on swimming with sharp turns in the water, testing their ability to stay afloat and then continue to swim. Bainbridge Island Aquatic Center has their children age 6 and under float or tread for 1 minute.
Final Comments and Floating Advantages
Floating in water has a calming effect, making the body feel lite as air. It is one of the first techniques that swimming instructors teach because knowing how to float can also save one’s life. Like so many other swimming techniques, practicing correct technique should increase ability. Please note that there are several styles of floating to try. Here are a few:
- Jellyfish floating style is curling the body up with the knees tucked to the chest and the back flat and slightly above the water. The head is submerged, but the swimmer can straighten up and breathe while treading. Then go back to the jellyfish float. This is a popular survival technique.
- Vertical float style is putting the body in a position perpendicular to the water, or in a standing position. This would be used when treading.
- Horizontal float style lying back or forward in the water in a prone position. Whether the face is in the water or face-up, try to remain calm, finning the arms gently to stay afloat.
Give one or all of these different styles a whirl, relaxing as you do so, remembering to breathe deeply. Also, always try these techniques in shallow water first in order to maintain safety at all times. Move your arms gently and flap your feet in order to assist with staying aloft as well. The Red Cross has a great Swimming and Water Safety guide for FREE download. Take a look!
Let’s face it, we can also enjoy floating in water by using a flotation device. It’s a wonderful way to ease tensions and relieve stress whether buoyancy comes naturally or by way of a small purchase. Either way works! Try a pull buoy. It’s normally used for arm drills, but it can be used to practice floating. It’s small, lite weight, easy to carry.
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