Don't Sink. Learn to Float!
The concept of flotation is fairly simple; for an object to float, its density has to be less than the fluid it’s immersed in. Human bodies have a tendency to be more suspended, being roughly 50-60% water, but more often than not, new and beginning swimmers find their legs and quite often their entire selves at the bottom of the pool. This negative buoyancy often results in swimmers fighting to stay afloat, which in turn causes slower swims and frustrated, exhausted athletes. And when one gets frustrated, it boils down to two options; quit or get cracking.
To begin, it has little to do with your body composition. Fat tissue actually contains less water than lean muscle and coming from the anecdotal side, super lean runner types have been turned into great swimming triathletes (flotation included) as have larger beasts of the rugby variation. A lot depends on one’s ability to simply be in the water and be aware of what you’re doing or being relaxed and athletically aware. When you can train your body to be more naturally up, the savings in energy efficiency can be directed to moving forward.
Achieving this skill comes from a few key things, starting with frequency in the pool. If you’re not getting in the water at least three times a week, start by making the effort to get in even if it’s just for 20 minutes to reinforce the feel and very different environment of the water. If you’re at three times a week, then try for an addition 1-2 super easy 20-minute float sessions. Comfort in the water is a very underrated skill and is one you can really only gain with frequency.
With comfort in the water also comes a better body position and a more relaxed position. Even spread out snow angel style, if every muscle fiber is freaking out because your brain is going “Oh no, I’m swimming!” , you’ll sink. Also look at your head position; are you keeping your eyes on the bottom of the pool and nose pointed at a perpendicular angle with it and the wall as you breathe? Or are you pulling up and forward? Do you jerk your head up to breathe, or are you trying to be smooth from breathing to blowing out and back again?
Working with a pull buoy (or two if necessary) to teach your body proper positioning works as well. Having a pair of fins made with non-water logging, EVA foam will also help buoyancy, but also provide propulsion to again, help you learn on a muscular level how it should feel. It’s very similar to using a sled harness for someone learning better-run form; having the safety of the straps to keep one from falling allow the concentration to be in the lean from the ankles and drive up through the push. Mix the toys in from beginning to the end, and allow some days to have more use than others (but keep it under 50% of your workout to avoid dependency). Using these aides in combination with regular frequency in the water will help build the muscle memory your body needs to swim at its best spot.
Luckily, almost all triathlons are wetsuit legal, if not encouraged! If all this practice still has you sinking like a Baby Ruth, look at getting a wetsuit with a higher level of buoyancy in it, but also be sure that it is still race legal. USAT requires wetsuits be 5mm or less in thickness. Wetsuits made after 2013 should follow this rule, but if you purchase an older or used wetsuit, it is a good thing to double check.
Beyond training frequency and equipment options, a final option to consider is a shift in body composition. Have you noticed any excess fatigue when increasing your training load or injuries (minor or major) that linger longer than fellow athletes? How’s the power feel on the bike? Has it plateaued or decreased recently? While losing some fatty tissue or gaining a few pounds of lean muscle won’t guarantee to help these issues along with your buoyancy problem, it’s definitely something to consider.
Negative buoyancy can be combated with a combination of technique building and equipment use. But it will take patience and frequency, so don’t let frustration get the best of you in the first few weeks of trying something new. Better flotation is possible!
Coach Leigh knows that as gratifying as it is to conquer a challenging workout, triathlon is about so much more than how a swim, bike or run comes together on a given day. Her goal is to help an athlete establish a common thread of consistency and progress over a given period of time. Certainly in terms of speed, strength and power, but also in the development of a healthy mindset and the ability to let go and truly relax.