Everyone can, and should, learn how to float in water. Knowing how to float can save your life, and it’s the first step in learning how to swim freestyle. It may seem daunting, or downright impossible, but the first thing you have to do is believe that you can float.
The next step is to find an instructor. If you’re afraid of the water they will give you the confidence to overcome your initial fears and help you relax in the water, while in a safe environment.
Let’s start with a basic principle of physics: anything with a higher density than water will sink in water. The human body is, by weight, roughly two-thirds water. This means your density is similar to that of water. Therefore, you shouldn’t have to do much, if any, work to float on top of the water.
That said, your body composition can affect your natural ability to float. Very generally speaking, men tend to have greater muscle density than women. People with greater muscle density, or very lean muscle (a very low ratio of fat to muscle fiber), will have a greater tendency to sink. So, if you are young, a man, or a very athletic woman, good mechanics and technique will help you a lot. Nevertheless, your body still wants to float more than it wants to sink.
Your lung capacity can also make a difference in how easy it is for you to stay on top of the water. People with a higher lung capacity will float somewhat more easily, for two reasons.
First, they have a larger pocket of air in their chest. And second, they tend to have more oxygen circulating throughout their bodies. Oxygen is less dense than water, so the more oxygen you have in your body, the more buoyant you will be.
Now that you know why your body might be more or less inclined to float, here are three ways you can improve the way you float in water.
The key to floating is, ironically, a major challenge for beginners: You have to relax. As soon as you master this, you will be able to “swim.”
Practice in shallow water until you have confidence in your natural ability to float and get your face used to being in the water as this is another factor that can add to your fears.
If you can float, but you’re still tense, notice your breathing pattern. Deep breathing is not only scientifically proven to help your body relax, but it will also bring more oxygen into your body, which should make you more buoyant.
Look at the sky (or the ceiling if you’re indoors), and breathe in deeply. Fill your lungs with oxygen on each breath – feel the air travel all the way down to the lower end of your lungs (near the bottom of your rib cage). Hold your breath for a short moment and feel yourself essentially weightless atop the water. Exhale and repeat.
Slowly relax back into the water allowing your shoulders and head to recline as if lying down in bed. Small movements of your hands will allow you to stay face up with your mouth and nose out of the water, and continue to breathe naturally.
If your legs always sink, you can either reach your hands above your head or push off slightly from the bottom.
By reaching your arms above your head, you are creating a longer support above your waist, which gives you more leverage for lifting your legs up to the surface. At the very least, it will bring your legs higher in water.
Engage your abdominal muscles. Use your core strength to lift your lower body toward the surface. You might think about a string attached to your belly button that is pulling your torso to the top of the water. The link between your mind and your body is powerful. If you can simply imagine the string pulling your belly and your feet to the surface of the water, your muscles will probably organize themselves and make it happen!
Kick very gently. Don’t kick so hard that you have forward momentum. But very light and gentle, alternating leg movements will help force them to the surface and keep you balanced.
Of course, as you do this, stay relaxed. Methodical small movements with your hands and feet will help keep you stabilized and close to the surface of the water. You will notice if you do not move your legs they have the inclination to sink to the bottom.
Once you have relaxed and are floating on your back take a moment to enjoy the feeling of the water holding up and the easing of pressure off joints and muscles. For extended periods of floating you can use a pool noodle to help support you under your shoulders or knees. These should be used as aides to float and not relied upon competely to keep you afloat.