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To Swim, Or Not To Swim

Butch Hendrick

This is the first of a five part series on how to teach yourself to swim or become a better swimmer plus how to work with children in the water.

Water has an incredible attraction for us. Whether the ocean, a lake, water ride, or the back yard swimming pool, if it is water we are drawn to it and want to go in.

Oddly, the majority of us cannot swim. This may require a qualification as to what is swimming. Just because someone can get in a pool and go from one side to the other does not make them a swimmer. They may love the water, in fact they might spend every spare moment of time in the water. This love does not make them a swimmer or ensures they are capable of saving their own life. We as water related rescue personal are no different than the rest of the public except that when we go to the water we need to be better than average.

I always believed that swimmers are born, not created by continuously swimming laps. Most do not realize it until the middle years and for whatever reason suddenly learn how to swim. I recently had the opportunity to work with several SCUBA instructor candidates that began the course as pretty poor swimmers. One candidate had spent his life on or in the water and he was admittedly a poor swimmer. He could not swim 300 yards. Three lengths of the pool and he was basically done. In less than 10 hours using 7 key steps he was able to swim 440 yards in under 8 minutes. He was always a swimmer he just did not know it.

The 7 key steps to becoming a more confident and strong swimmer:

  1. Learn how to relax in the water.
  2. Get a magic watch, ring, or rubber band.
  3. Learn how to breath.
  4. Learn how to stroke and breath properly.
  5. Learn the proper head position.
  6. Understand how little kick is really needed.
  7. Learn how to bob or drown proof.

The Human Body

As the human body enters the water it needs time to acclimate, simply get use to being in the water. Temperature changes causes vasoconstriction, the blood moves away from the skin and toward the core. Blood flow also changes because the pressure on the lower extremities caused by being in the water. Again more blood moves toward the core. The kidneys go through a change based on the thicker blood flowing through them, which causes the need to pee.

Studies show that by simply going in the water we lose a portion (as much as 10 to 15%) of the bodies vital capacity, the ability to take a full and comfortable breath.

As the face gets wet most of us go through a process similar to Emerson Reflex. Blood and other chemistry changes take place simply due to the facial tissue becoming wet compounded by temperature changes to the face.

We have a tendency to compound all of this by taking far too big a breath and we often fight or ignore all of the basics, rather than letting the body have time to go with it and adjust.

Step 1 - 10 Minutes

The Human Body

For the most part we do not naturally stroke or breath properly in the water. We take too large a breath, make our bodies too stiff, and our timing is way off. Putting it all together just does not work. Stiff arms have weight, cupped hands are great but not in the beginning. First learn how to swim 500 yards comfortably and then work on speed.

Step 2 - 10 to 15 Minutes

The Human Body

It is very common even for those who consider themselves reasonable swimmers to over inhale, hence retaining far more air than they can get out. A few short quick breaths and we are retaining more CO2 than the body wants or knows what to do with and we are suddenly short of breath. The typical next step is to stop and try to catch our breath. Hopefully, you are not foolish enough to be treading water at the time or believe that you will be able to tread water and catch your breath.

Step 3 - 30 to 40 Minutes

The Human Body

The brain needs to be programmed or it will have a tendency to revert to past memory patterning. Breathing and stroke are not natural and they need to be properly programmed. The stroke should pull you through the water not push you up. Head position and breathing are important to make this work correctly.

Step 4 - 30 to 45 Minutes

The Human Body

We often seem to have difficulty in combining physical skills if the building blocks are not strong enough. Or, if the skills needed to support another skill are not strong enough. This is often the case when we attempt to combine the skills needed in the upper body for swimming with those in the lower body.

Since the upper body does most of the work needed for forward motion and the legs support the buoyancy with only slight forward motion, the upper body skills need to be strong. Then we can work more on the lower extremities. To often we concentrate on the kick while the rest of the body does not know how to support the effort or energy needed.

Anyone can drown! At no point should you venture into deep water where you cannot stand or where you cannot reach a point where you can stand. Even good swimmers do not venture across large bodies of open water alone or with out a support swimmers vest or vessel, unless they are completely comfortable with the concept that they can drown.

Step 5 - 45 to 60 Minutes

I often begin a long swim with a 5 count, one breath every fifth stroke. I may change to a 7 count for a long slow pace and then in current, swimming laps, or working on a quicker pace I often drop to a 3 count. The key to being a comfortable long or short distance swimmer is breath and once you can breath and stroke you are there. You have learned how to adapt to the type of swimming you want to do.
Lateral breathing helps those who feel as if they are getting a headache from swimming. Most likely you are holding too much CO2, simply not exhaling enough or long enough. More often than not you are not exhaling long enough.
Another real positive of lateral breathing is reducing the chance of chest or abdominal pain from lifting only one side of the body and over loading the muscle groups on that side.

The Human Body

The human body is basically made up of water. Our specific gravity or density is almost equal to that of water. Bone makes us a little heavy while our lungs make us a little light. For every pint of air we take in to our lungs we increase our buoyancy by one pound. For the most part the body wants to float with air in it and sink without it. The more weight we support above the water the more difficult it is to stay afloat. Body parts such as the head, shoulders, hands, arms, basically anything above the water causes a downward force. Learning how to relax and even recoup in water where you cannot stand up will be a great benefit to all of your water sports endeavors.

Step 6 - 30 to 45 Minutes

Bobbing was originally used for downed pilots and sailors lost at sea who might need to survive in the water for hours or even days. We are going to use the same techniques, but for a slightly different purpose, relaxation and short term survival.

Step 7 - Swim

Working With Small Children - 2 to 7 years old

You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink. This old adage may be truer than we know. Some children love the water as babes and then several years later they do not want to go near it. The opposite obviously happens as well. No one really knows why this happens, we believe it is due to a bad experience in the water, however it may simply be part of life or the growth process.

What is known is that some children are just born to the water while others need to be encouraged and cultured to enjoying the water. A problem with a child that loves the bath and not the pool could be as simple as the temperature. Or it could be the physical size or lack of bottom that is the concern. No matter how a child reacts to the water many of the basics are the same. Children are not stupid, they do not want to get hurt, and they do not want to drown.

Step 1

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For information on how you can help, or how RIPTIDE can help you, please contact us at:
P.O. Box 593
Hurley, NY 12443
tel/fax: (845) 331-3383
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