Drowning is a fear that almost every swimmer experiences as a beginner. Almost 46% of Americans fear the deep end of a swimming pool. 39% are afraid to submerge their head under the water. And according to drowning statistics, 4000 people lose their lives by drowning in America every year.
Why Do People Fear Deep Water?
Deepwater fear comes in many forms. Some have Thalassophobia (fear of deep water), others have suffered early childhood trauma (ie. a near drowning incident) while others avoid the water entirely because of fear of the unknown. The most common factor amongst all cases is lack of experience. Gain more experience, gain more confidence.
To conquer deep water you have to spend thousands of hours in it much like a pilot puts in thousands of flight hours. Deep water swimming cannot be learned overnight, these things take time.
Buoyancy can also be a major factor. In water: fat floats, muscle sinks. People with a lack of swimming skills but a lot of fat can easily gain confidence in deep water. Their bodies have good buoyancy and naturally stay afloat along the water’s surface. Furthermore, swimming in oceans or salt water can also increase a person’s buoyancy due to higher density making it the perfect recipe for those who can’t swim well but have fat.
Unfortunately, if you lack a lot of fat or worse, are packed with muscle (such as myself) swimming in deep water can be counter productive. Our bodies just aren’t naturally made for floating. But don’t let this stop you.
First and Foremost, Is It Safe to Learn Deepwater Swimming on Your Own?
Although lessons with a swim instructor do help, you can learn deepwater swimming on your own given the right circumstances. When you’re swimming alone, safety is the number one priority here especially when drowning may occur. To ensure the best results I recommend practicing in an indoor pool for several reasons.
An indoor pool is a controlled environment compared to outdoor pools, oceans, rivers or lakes. An indoor pool has no waves, no wind or rain, no debris or bugs (yes dead bugs are pretty common in outdoor swimming pools), the water is clean and clear, the air and water temperature is consistent and most importantly, there are lifeguards to monitor your safety at all times. Another benefit to using pools is the use of side ledges to grab onto at any time. In contrast, if you swim in the ocean you have to swim to the nearest boat, barge or shallow water in order to catch a break.
Where to Practice Deepwater Swimming: Public vs Private Pools
A highly underrated place to practice in my opinion are condo or hotel pools. Both condo and hotel pools have a deep end which is about chest high for an adult making it safe to practice without lifeguards at hand. Condo pools in particular are great resources because they are easily accessible (if you live in a condo) throughout the day and are often unoccupied and quiet compared to public pools.
In public pools you will have to compete with crowds consisting of noisy kids, loud music blasting in the air and a lot of swimmers from various backgrounds fighting for space; pretty intimidating for a beginner. To make public pool visits more enjoyable, avoid peak times. I recommend going around lunchtime or late evenings (before closing time is best). Avoid visiting public pools on weekends or holidays at all costs, you have been warned.
The only drawbacks for condo or hotel pools is that the water isn’t deep enough to practice deepwater swimming in its final form (see needle diving below) plus you will need to have regular access to one however, they are a good starting point. My recommendation for beginners is to practice in a condo or hotel pool for the first month or so in order to slowly gain confidence and then move onto public pools.
How To Overcome Fear of the Deep End
To overcome your fear of the deep end (especially on your own) you need a solid game plan. No one jumps out of a flying plane without a parachute and the same principle applies to swimming. We can overcome the fear of deepwater by implementing these five steps:
- Know your environment
- Swim along the outer lanes
- Always swim along the x-axis
- Wear a floatation belt
- Practice needle diving
Know Your Environment
We spend a lot of time in our room and the same goes for the pool. Spend enough time in one place and things start to become familiar. Ride a rollercoaster everyday and eventually the fear goes away. If you’re used to your room you can get used to a pool overtime. For beginners I recommend visiting the pool 3-5 times a week (weekdays only), 1-2 hours per session.
Get used to the shallow water, the slippery pool deck (wear pool sandals by the way), the loud sounds, the chlorinated air, the people coming and going. For the uninitiated, the pool is like visiting a busy train station for the first time. It will feel intimidating at first but you must dull your senses through repetition.
Get proper swimming gear, become familiar with the lifeguards, the regulars who swim often and the pool equipment at hand. Become familiar with the pool itself. Learn about the four corners, the shallow end, the drop off (where the shallow end slopes down and gets deeper and deeper) and finally the deep end itself.
Study the pool’s structure, the sidewalls or ledges, the entry ladders or steps, the backstroke flags, the starting blocks (for diving), the diving boards, the hot tub, the steam room, the showers, the changerooms, the bulkhead (movable platform which separates the shallow and deep end) and the lane ropes that separate the lanes. Get familiar with everything happening within a pool, just like your room.
Swim Along The Outer Lanes
Positioning is key. Where you practice or position yourself in the deep end makes a difference. Always swim along the outer lanes of the deep end for two reasons. The outer lanes have an entry ladder for you to safely and slowly enter the deep end especially if this is your first time.
Never dive head first into deep water (illegal in most indoor pools) and avoid jumping into the water feet first unless you are an experienced swimmer. The proper way to enter deep water or lane is by using the entry ladder or by slipping into water by first sitting on the ledge and gently lowering yourself in slowly.
The second and most important reason why we swim on the outer lanes is to have access to the ledge at all times in case of emergency. Swimming in deep water is a lot like floating in space for the first time. Since we will be spending a lot of energy in the beginning, we only need a few seconds per attempt. We can accomplish this type of practice only by grabbing onto the ledge whenever we get tired.
If you swim in the middle of the pool then your only option is to swim from one end to the other (25m to 50m usually) or grab onto the pool lanes which is not recommended. Pool lanes are flimsy and not guaranteed to hold you above the water. A lifeguard (and most likely other swimmers) will start shouting at you if they see you doing this so practice only along the outer edges of the deep end or pay the price.
Always Swim Along the X-axis
Now that we are in the deep end in the correct lane (with a ledge to grab onto at anytime) we can now start practicing for real. To move effectively from point A to point B we have to position our bodies horizontally and swim along the surface of the water ie. the x-axis. Proper swimming involves us doing laps along the surface of the water which gives us a readily supply of air. Rarely do swimmers spend time underneath the water. That’s more for deep sea diving or snorkelling (or just kids playing around for fun).
In most cases, inexperienced swimmers are unaware of the x-axis principle, panic in deep water and end up drowning by positioning themselves in a vulnerable vertical position bobbing up and down (y-axis). Being vertical or upright in deep water takes up a lot of energy (kudos to water polo players and synchronized swimmers).
If you are in a y-axis position, treading water is useful but only for a few minutes. No one can tread water consistently for hours and is seen only as a last resort for scanning your environment (where to swim towards) or in emergency (eg. boat capsized). In contrast, a swimmer in the x-axis can spend hours swimming consistently as their body’s weight is dispersed evenly along the water. The reality is: treading for seconds, swimming for hours.
As you swim in the deep end, always place your body in a horizontal position and swim forwards with your head in the water facing down blowing bubbles (or on your back with your face looking up). The second your raise your head or position yourself vertically e.g. 45 degree swimming (doggy paddling) the more difficult it will be to swim.
Wear A Floatation Belt
Now that we are familiar with the deep end, know which lane to swim in and understand the x-axis principle it’s time to add some insurance. Having a lifeguard around is good but wearing a floatation belt is better. A floatation belt is a device that you wear around your waist that keeps you up towards the surface of the water.
Traditionally this tool is used by seniors in order to train upright in deep water aqua aerobics but can equally be applied towards swimming. As you wear a floatation belt you will notice your hips rising naturally making it the perfect assistance tool for swimming or treading water.
When it comes to floatation belts I have two suggestions. First, get your own belt. Floatation belts are free to use at your local pool however they are of lesser quality. You want a belt that is big and appropriate enough for your size (the heavier the material the better) in order to hold your entire body up. If you choose to practice at another location eg. condo pool, etc. then it is best to bring your own belt. Second, always make sure to fasten your belt tightly around your waist. A loose belt can cause havoc by slipping up towards your chest accidentally or worse, falling off.
Finally never use a lifejacket when training in deep water. A floatation belt and lifejacket are not the same thing. A lifejacket’s purpose is to keep a body (usually non-swimmer) afloat with the victim’s face away from the water (ie. placing them onto their back if they were to go unconscious). A lifejacket is not built for swimming as its bulky padding will restrict your arms from moving effectively. The head rest alone will naturally flip your body onto your back which is not what you want when practicing. When you see kids in swimming lessons wearing lifejackets just remember that it’s just for them to practice starfish floats on their backs for fun.
Practice Needle Diving
Now that we’re practicing in the x-axis confidently, it’s time to practice a complimentary exercise in the y-axis. No it’s not treading water. Treading water is an advanced exercise (even harder than learning front crawl in my opinion) and not meant for beginners. The time to practice treading is months (or even years) later when you’ve gained enough competence to swim several laps consistently using front crawl, breast stroke or both. The best y-axis exercise to practice for beginners in deep water is in my opinion, needle diving.
Needle diving involves plunging ourselves down to the pool floor and then using it as a trampoline to bounce ourselves back up to the surface. When done correctly, the motion feels like a pogo stick. In shallow water, jump up as high as you can. When you reach your peak height, turn your body into a needle (arms straight and tucked to the sides, legs straight and together, toes pointing down). As you quickly descend, it will literally feel like plunging a needle down into the water.
When your feet reach the bottom of the floor go into a squat position (legs wide, arms and butt sticking out) and then jump up as hard as you can pulling towards the surface. With enough practice you want to gradually apply the same concept in deeper water. Start with waist deep water, then chest deep, then neck deep, and then finally deep water.
In deep water, start by facing and grabbing onto the wall with both hands and feet like spiderman. Using your arms and legs, push your body as high up (and away from the ledge) as you can before becoming a needle. Doing dip or pushup exercises in shallow water may help with this move.
In order to reach all the way to the bottom of the pool make sure you are about two metres or more below the water’s surface and forcefully clap both hands together above your head using straight arms. If done correctly the force of your arms closing together will accelerate your descent downwards. Common mistakes performing this move include bending your arms, not clapping hard enough and clapping too early (if your hands are out of the water you’re clapping too soon).
Note that you cannot perform this exercise wearing a floatation belt or with assistance so it is crucial that you practice good form in shallow water first before attempting this in deep water. Usually beginners forget their form when in deep water and end up not plunging deep enough for their feet to touch the bottom. This results in a limbo effect where the swimmer is just submerged underwater and has to forcefully scrounge back up to the surface. Though not impossible, it is better to take advantage of the downward and upward momentum so practice thoroughly.
Learning needle dives is not a necessity. Like I said earlier, most swimmers rarely swim under the water but if you want the final piece of the puzzle when it comes to conquering the deep end, this is the final step. After you have mastered needle diving try head first diving but not from the pool deck. The difference between a needle dive and head first dive is that in head first, you have to perform a forward somersault downwards and claw your way to the bottom of the pool. Bouncing up motion is the same. Needle diving is good for fast access to the bottom of the pool while head first is better for retrieving things since your looking forwards eg. scavenging or deep sea diving.
Deep Deep Thoughts
For beginners, deep water swimming can be scary but with enough practice, be very rewarding. You end up learning a skill that can save your life or someone else’s should that ever happen. Just remember to follow the gameplan outlined in this article and share your progress with other swimmers as this is a journey.
Months or years from now you’ll look back at this moment and say to yourself: I conquered my fears. Next!
Frequently Asked Questions
How long will it take to overcome my fear of the deep end?
It depends. With regular practice e.g. 3-5 sessions a week, 1-2 hours per session a complete beginner can learn to swim and gain confidence in deep water within 1-3 months.
Can I train in deep water using a kickboard or pool noodle instead?
You can but they are not as good as using a floatation belt. A kickboard is primarily used for front kicking drills while a pool noodle is used for fun. Both a kickboard and pool noodle are not safe to use for deepwater swimming as they cannot hold a person up and can slip away easily. A floatation belt fastens tightly around your waist and is guaranteed to keep you body up towards the surface.
Can I use a snorkel mask to train in deep water?
Should I take swimming lessons or hire a swim coach before swimming in deep water?
Both are good options especially for the first few sessions as having an instructor or swim coach with you can increase your confidence level and provide you with instant feedback on your performance.
How long does it take to learn swimming?
To swim competently ie. swim several laps consistently in a 25m or 50m pool takes about 1 or 2 years of practice. However, to swim comfortably eg. putting your head underwater, moving around the pool using strokes such as front crawl may take several months.
Which stroke should I learn first as a beginner?
For complete beginners, start by learning front crawl. Front crawl will take several months to learn and is the foundation towards the advanced strokes: breast stroke and butterfly. Back crawl is also good but a completely blind stroke looking towards the ceiling and incorporates a totally different breathing technique with your face out of the water.
Should I practice floating on my back (or front) in deep water?
Floating is just a relaxation test, not a prerequisite to deep water. Floating on your back or front is largely dependent on your level of buoyancy. For example, a person with a lot of fat will have a far easier time floating perfectly versus a similar person in weight or size but with muscle. Instead, practice swimming in deep water along your x-axis by doing front crawl drills.