How Learning to Tread Water Better Will Make You a More Confident Swimmer

A recruit from Papa Company 189 treads water for 5 minutes during her swim assessment at Training Center Cape May, N.J., April 3, 2014.
A recruit from Papa Company 189 treads water for 5 minutes during her swim assessment at Training Center Cape May, N.J., April 3, 2014. (Chief Warrant Officer Donnie Brzuska/U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Preparing for any diving or rescue swimmer program will require significant pool time, focusing on various water confidence skills. You must be competent in the water, including treading, underwater swimming, knot tying, lifesaving, buddy breathing and swimming longer distances. You do not need to be a world-class swimmer, but you must have a level of competence and conditioning in the water to get through the training.

Here is a question from a future Air Force Special Warfare training hopeful:

Stew. I am preparing for AFSW and know there are a lot of pool skills and water confidence in my future. Are there good workouts to improve treading without hands, or is it all about technique and mobility? Thanks, Ben

Great question. Treading, like any pool skill and swimming, requires efficiency techniques, conditioning and the mobility/flexibility of the hips, knees, ankles and shoulders to create a full range-of-motion power kick and tighter gliding streamline. There are leg workouts that can help you as well. Here is the order of importance for you to improve your overall water confidence and treading/swimming performance:

1. Technique

Technique is the key to efficiency. The smoother you are in the water, the faster you will be, and that is all technique on how to pull your arms, kick your legs and get your body into a low-drag, streamlined position. The less technique you have, the harder any activity in the water will be. Take your time to learn and practice perfect form first. With treading, the power vectors created with your leg kicks must be in the downward direction; otherwise, you will not stay above water. Imagine kicking a soccer ball to the bottom of the pool (especially when using the breaststroke kick/egg beater).

2. Conditioning

Once you learn the technique, you will notice that swimming 500 meters or more is still difficult without stopping. This is a conditioning issue, and it does not matter whether you are a cross country runner; swimming is a new world, even for land endurance athletes. One of my favorite workouts to get into swimming shape fast is known as the 50-50. It works like this:

Warm up with a 500-meter warmup: Try to complete without stopping (one day, this will be your warmup.)

Repeat 10 times.

  • Swim 50 meters freestyle hard
  • Swim 50 meters easy (combat swimmer stroke or breaststroke)
  • Rest with a one-minute tread (no hands)

If you can eventually turn your rest periods from swimming into treading, you will soon see improvements in the treading department. To further improve your treading, you need to get in shape with treading. You can replace the 500-meter warmup swim with a 10-minute tread. Use your hands when needed, but work hard not to use them, and work on your kick tread as much as possible.

3. Mobility

For most people treading using the alternating scissor kick or the alternating breaststroke kick (aka the egg beater), hip, knee and ankle mobility prevents them from getting a full range of motion on the power kick. Try adding the "frog pose" from yoga, and you will work the hips, knees and ankle joints, as well as the connective tissue and muscles, to increase your range of motion and power in your kick. See the picture for the three-step variation: fitness columnist Stew Smith demonstrates the 3-step variation of the 'frog pose' in yoga. fitness columnist Stew Smith demonstrates the 3-step variation of the 'frog pose' in yoga: from left, the vertical tread pose, the 45-degree angle frog pose and the frog pose. (Photo courtesy of Stew Smith)

4. Don't Skip Leg Day

Your legs need strength, power and stamina. When doing calisthenics, do squats and lunges at moderately high repetitions, but add the jumping version a few days a week as well. This will help you create the power you need for an effective whip kick in the downward direction.

If you prefer a scissor kick over the breaststroke kick (egg-beater kick), swimming with fins will also help you prepare the hips, knees and ankles for the power kick to create downward force vectors so you stay above the surface. You can see both options in the group of military candidates in this treading video.

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