How To Stop Your Legs From Sinking

How To Stop Your Legs  From Sinking

The  Ultimate Guide To Balance & Alignment In Freestyle Swimming

Introduction

Stopping your legs from sinking doesn’t just magically happen.

The human body isn’t designed to float horizontally. Honestly, I don’t even think we were created to swim. Sinking legs is a problem practically every human faces when first learning to move through the water.

The fact is, our legs naturally sink. Keeping them up and afloat takes body control and skill. You have to learn to manipulate the forces at play to get your head, hips and heels aligned.

I’m assuming you picked up this guide because you want to know how to stop your legs from sinking.

I think that’s awesome.

It immediately tells me that you have your priorities right. Getting your alignment right is the key to faster, efficient swimming.

Don’t believe me?

Why do you think so many triathletes love their wetsuits? Why do I see so many age groupers swimming with pull buoys between their legs, all the time?

Because the wetsuit, the pull buoy & the buoyancy shorts all stop your legs from sinking! And as a result you can swim faster for longer.

If you are a runner or a cyclist transitioning into triathlon, I’ve written this guide for you.

If you’re struggling to balance out your body. If swimming a length or two exhausts you and you can’t swim without having to stop. If you want to cope better with non wetsuit legal swims. I have written this guide to help you too.

This is my attempt to teach you how to balance your body and align yourself in the water. It brings together all my knowledge on the topic. The 12,000+ words in this guide cover a lot of what I have learned from years of coaching triathletes and hours of studying them swimming. The videos and practical tips come from many late nights watching and analyzing the strokes of people just like you.

In this guide, you’re going to learn why your legs sink and the root causes of sinking legs that I see most often. I’ll show you how to address and fix each issue and answer the most common questions I get asked.

How Body Composition Affects Flotation

Have you ever said:

“I lack the natural ability to float and so I tire quickly.”

“My bone density is unnaturally heavy so I can’t swim very fast”.

“I have below average buoyancy so I can’t swim well.” 

If you’re using “natural flotation” as an excuse for your lack of progress in the water, you’re misguided. And I want to start this guide by showing you why.

I’m not going to be an asshole about it. I have worked with thousands of runners and cyclists that struggle with this. If anything, I am extremely empathetic to how difficult learning to float and balance in the water can be. 

But, your body composition is not a limiter on your ability to swim fast. Your technique, or more specifically, your ability to get into and hold the correct position is.

Yes, your body composition does play a role in how well your body floats. But your “floatability” does not affect your swim potential. At least not at the AG Triathlon swimming level. 

Stick with me as I explain why. There are some numbers involved but I’ve kept it simple and it’s worth your time to understand:

 

Floatability. 

We measure floatability using something called a specific gravity ratio (sp gr)*. The lower an object’s sp gr (specific gravity ratio) the better they float. 

Water has a sp gr of 1.00, the average human body has a sp gr of 0.974**.  All this means is the average human body is less dense than water. And that means most of us humans can float to some degree. 

*Specific gravity is the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of a reference substance (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Specific_gravity) 

** https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1469-1809.1935.tb02118.x

Despite the body (as a whole) having a lower sp gr than water, only a small percentage of tissues in the human body floats very well.

 

What Floats? 

Lungs: 

The only real floatable part of the human body is the lungs. 

Your lungs are like two big bags in your chest that fill with air, like balloons. The bigger your lung capacity, the more air you hold in your chest and the higher your upper body will float.  

Your lungs are the most important part of the floating equation. Without your lungs your body (and mine) would sink like a rock. I’ll demonstrate that for you in a bit… 

 

Fat:

Fat also floats. Fat has a lower sp gr than water. So the more fat you carry on your body, or rather the higher your body fat percentage is, the better your natural float-ability will be. 

 

What Sinks? 

Pretty much everything else in your (and my) body. 

Your bones, muscles, and other tissues found in the human body all sink. 

Bone density and lean muscle mass have a negative effect on your floatability. Athletes with heavier bones and more muscle will have a higher sp gr. The more muscularly dense you are, the higher you sp gr and the faster you will sink. 

In my 18 years of coaching I have worked with people that have an overall sp gr higher than 1.00. These people do not float naturally. People that sink do exist, but having a sp gr higher than 1.00 is less common than you think, and it’s likely you aren’t one of them. Of the thousands of athletes I’ve worked with, an overwhelming majority float when they are taught how

This guy floats – if he does, chances are, you will too! 

 

In my experience, 99.5% of people have a sp gr lower 

than 1.00 and float just fine. They just have to learn how.

 

How To Test Your Natural Floatability

I define natural floatability as the following: 

“How well your body floats as determined by your body composition.”

The simplest way to test your natural floatability is the Mushroom Float. 

 

The Mushroom Float Test 

Here are the steps to do a mushroom float:

  1. Do the test in the shallow end of the pool where you can stand.
  2. Take a deep breath in and then hold your breath.
  3. Lift your feet up off the floor and lower your head into the water
  4. Tuck your body into a ball, bring your knees up to your chest and hold your shins with your hands.
  5. When you need to breathe, stand up.

 

The test is very simple. But to get accurate results, it’s important 

that you perform the test correctly.

 

{1} Make sure you take a deep breath in. 

  • Fill up your lungs with air before you lift your feet and drop your head into the water.

{2} Relax your body as much as possible

  • You can swing the results by tensing up. Being tense suggests your floatability problem isn’t body composition, but rather mindset or fear.  

{3} Don’t wear heavy clothes. 

  • You will increase your sp gr by wearing board shorts or heavy clothes. Do this test in swim wear that isn’t baggy and doesn’t collect water. Time to bust out the budgy smuggler. 

 

The mushroom float is an unbiased test of your natural floatability as determined by your body composition. If you don’t fill your lungs, or you tense up or wear heavy clothing you swing the results. You aren’t testing your actual floatability. 

When this test is done correctly, 99.5% of people will float up to the surface within seconds of tucking up into a ball. 

 

My suggestion is that you try the Mushroom float test a few times. 

{1} First, prove that you actually float naturally. 

{2} Then, try exhaling while you are tucked up in the ball.  

 

When you exhale, you will probably sink. 

This is because your lungs are the only part of your body that actually floats. When you empty them, you sink. Your pelvis and femurs along with your glutes, quads and hamstrings make your legs very heavy. With no air in your lungs, your hips and legs pull your body under. 

There’s a reason that the mushroom float position keeps you up on the surface. Even though your legs are heavy, the tucked position changes the way forces that act on your body in the water. In the next section we’re going to take a look at those forces. 

 

Forces 

Whether you fit into the 99.5% of people that float or the 0.5% that sink, one fact is constant for everyone. Your chest floats better than your legs. 

There are two forces responsible for your floaty chest and sinky legs.

{1} Buoyancy which is an upwards force. 

  • It supports or pushes up on your body and causes you to float 

{2} Gravity which is a downward force. 

  • It pulls down on your body and causes you to sink 

For you to float up on the surface of the water, the force of buoyancy must be greater than the force of gravity. 

 

Where Gravity > is greater than > Buoyancy; You Sink 😠

Where Buoyancy > is greater than > Gravity; You Float 😊 

 

The force of buoyancy is strongest around your chest. Because of your lungs, your chest has the lowest sp gr in your body. It is the least dense part of the body. This is where the force of buoyancy is strongest so we call the chest your center of buoyancy in the water  ^1

The force of gravity is strongest around your legs. Your legs have a higher sp gr than water, so the force of gravity is strongest through your legs. 

The way gravity acts on your body is a little weird. There isn’t one specific spot gravity pulls down through. Unlike buoyancy, which always pushes up through your lungs, the force of gravity can shift. The exact location gravity pulls through will move based on your body position. It generally pulls down through the area of your hips. But it can move up towards your belly button or down toward your knees, depending on how you are positioned. We call the point that gravity pulls down through the “center of gravity” ^2 

To float, the center of gravity and the center of buoyancy must align. Gravity must pull down in exactly the same line as buoyancy pushes up. With both forces pushing and pulling in the same place, you float level. 

This is why you float in the tuck of the mushroom float. During the mushroom float test, your legs sit underneath your lungs. So your center of gravity and center of buoyancy line up, one on top of the other. As a result you bob up to the surface. 

You don’t swim freestyle tucked in the mushroom float ball though. And this is where the sinking leg problem is born. 

As you stretch out your legs, the center of gravity begins to move down towards your feet. The further the center of gravity moves from the center of buoyancy, the faster your legs sink. 

 

The Dead Man’s Float 

We now know the center of buoyancy always pushes through your chest. And we learned that the center of gravity pull shifts as your body position changes. The Dead man’s float demonstrates this for us very nicely. 

 

Here are the steps to do a dead man’s float:

 

Phase 1:

{1} Begin with a mushroom float by 

{2} Taking a deep breath in and then hold your breath

{3} Lift your feet up off the floor and lower your head into the water

{4} Tuck your body into a ball, bring your knees up to your chest and hold your shins with your hands.

{5} Once you’ve floated up to the surface, release your legs and begin to extend them out behind you 

{6} Notice how your legs sink as you open up your body 

{7} When your legs have stopped sinking or you run out of breath, stand up

 

Phase 2: 

Repeat the test again. The second time you do it, as you extend your legs out behind you, stretch your arms out in front of you at the same time. 

What we see in Phase 1 of the dead man’s float is that your legs sink no matter what. The legs have a higher sp gr than your chest and the water so they sink faster!

Nearly every adult’s legs sink when doing the dead man’s float. 

Mine absolutely do! 

 

As you stretch out the center of gravity begins to move down towards your feet. The further the center of gravity moves from the center of buoyancy, the faster your legs sink. 

 

In all my years coaching, I’ve only had a handful of people that can float in this horizontal position (without kicking). The sp gr in their legs is lower than water and they are able to balance without moving. In most cases, these clients have been women and have had a higher body fat percentage at or around their hips. The extra fat decreases the sp gr in the legs which helps keep them level on the surface. 

 

Understanding that your center of gravity shifts is the key to your sinking leg problem. 

By changing your body position you can keep the center of gravity close to the center of buoyancy. The closer you keep these two points, the better you will balance. 

 

There are a few ways we can do this:

 

{1} Increase the amount of fat on your hips and thighs. 

Fat floats. If you have more fat around the most dense part of your body, you shift the center of gravity forward. 

If you carry a higher percentage of fat on your hips and thighs, you will balance better. While this is a potential solution, it isn’t practical for your triathlon performance.  It’s likely to negatively impact your bike and run times and effort.

 

{2} Kick more and kick harder. 

Every time one of your legs kick down there is an equal and opposite reaction pushing up. The upward push lifts your legs in line with your hips and head keeping your body balanced. 

If you have a good kick, you can keep your body balanced by increasing your kick tempo and the force of your kick. 

This is a highly effective solution. And it’s something you will want to learn and practice. But you have to manage how you kick. Too much kick will use a lot of energy that could be better spent elsewhere on race day. You need to use your legs in your freestyle, but you need to strike a balance. 

 

{3} Manipulate and control your body positions 

By changing your body position you can keep the center of gravity close to the center of buoyancy. The closer you keep these two points, the better you will balance. 

By making subtle adjustments to your body position you can change how well you balance. So fixing your sinking leg issue comes down to technique and how well you can find good body position. 

 

This is why I began this chapter by saying:

“Your body composition is not a limiter on your ability to swim fast. 

Your technique or positioning does.” 

If you get into the wrong positions you will sink. Using the wrong technique, you increase the distance between your center of gravity and center of buoyancy.  As that distance increases, your legs sink deeper. 

When you find the right technique, you will float. You will stop praying for a wetsuit legal swim. You’ll finally be able to throw away your damn buoyancy shorts. You will finally find efficiency and speed in the water. 

 

When you find the right technique, you will float and finally find efficiency and speed in the water. 

 

The rest of this guide is dedicated to explaining changes you can make to positively affect how well you float. 

I’ve identified and explained the 15 most common technique mistakes I see triathletes make and give you the exact steps to fix each one. Let’s get into it!  

 

*https://www.amazon.com/Applied-Biomechanics-Connections-John-McLester/dp/0495105864/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1526981953&sr=1-1&keywords=9780495105862 Page 235 

* The density and temperature of the water you are swimming in plays a small role. 

 

The sp gr of salt water is 1.025 (up from 1.00 in freshwater). Because salt water is more dense than freshwater, you will float higher in the ocean than you do in the pool.

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How To Stop Your Legs From Sinking - Root Cause 1

How To Stop Your Legs  From Sinking

The  Ultimate Guide To Balance & Alignment In Freestyle Swimming

Fixing Your Sinking Leg Problems

Root Cause No 1: 

Holding Your Head Too High 

Imagine your body as a seesaw or teeter-totter. One end of the line runs through the crown of your head, then down your spine and finally out between your legs. If you lift your head up, that end of the see-saw rises and the other end (your legs) drop. 

You can feel this see-saw effect right now with a little experiment. Lay down on your belly with your forehead resting on the floor. Keep your hands at your side. Now lift your forehead up off the floor and feel how your hips push down into the floor. 

The exact same thing happens in the water. If you try the Balance Drill you’ll feel how lifting your head to take a breath causes your hips and legs to drop. Clearly showing you the effect that lifting your head has on your hips and legs. 

If you hold your head too high, your hips and legs will sink. 

Why It Happens

As a human, the responsibility for your survival lies with the primitive part of your brain *1


The operation of this part of your brain is mostly out of your conscious control. Years of living as a land creature has ingrained an operating system that views the water as a threat. Holding your face underwater is simply not normal!

When you lower your face and ears into the water, your primitive brain recognizes a threat. So it sends out signals to let you know that you can’t breathe in water! “Dude, this is not a place you can live! You should 100% get out of here!”

Keeping your face submerged is NOT natural! The natural response is to lift your head up out of the water! 

If you were to relax your head and neck into the water you would be going against your natural survival instinct. 

This is  the most common reason new swimmers hold their head too high. The higher you hold your head, the easier it is to quieten the very nervous, primitive brain. To the primitive, survival brain, the closer you are to the surface of the water, the closer you are to safety. 

*1 – http://www.mindspring.com/~divegeek/primitive.htm

How To Fix It 

Relax your head, neck and shoulders! 

To do that  you’ll have to rewire your primitive thoughts. This rewiring comes through building a better association & relationship with the water. Learning that the water can be a safe place. This is a process and for some people it takes a fair amount of time. 

To start building a better association with the water, I recommend you play in it. Play games with your children or your friends. Go to the water park, play around in the splash pool; have some fun. As you enjoy your time in  the water your fear response will begin to subside. You will find it easier to relax your head and neck into the right position. 

Breathing bobs will also help to ease your fear and get you more relaxed and comfortable. As you do the bobs, be very intentional about quickly inhaling and then slowly exhaling. Control the flow of your breath as much as you can. Really focus on the quick air in and long air out. When you are intentional about your breath it tells your primitive brain it can relax. “Dude, you’re going to be ok.”  

 

 

 

Finally, doing the Balance drill with a kick board will help you to relax your head into a good position. Doing the balance drill with a kickboard is a great introduction to holding your head in a great position. It makes holding your line and relaxing your head much easier with the support of the kick board. 

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How To Stop Your Legs From Sinking - Root Cause 2

How To Stop Your Legs  From Sinking

The  Ultimate Guide To Balance & Alignment In Freestyle Swimming

Fixing Your Sinking Leg Problems

Root Cause 2: 

Looking too far forward 

Looking forward is a very easy mistake to make. It is one I personally struggle with. It is common in both beginners and competent, experienced swimmers. 

You might have your head at the right level in the water, so you’re not holding it too high. But if you’re straining your eyes too far forward it can cause your hips to drop. 

What’s interesting about this root cause is; your hips may not drop while your face is in the water. Depending on your flexibility you could actually look fairly far forward and still keep your hips up. 

Depending on your flexibility you could actually look fairly far forward and still keep your hips up.

But when you look too far forward the hip drop happens when you turn for the breath. 

Here’s why; as your eyes creep forward your chin moves away from your collarbones and chest. As a result your mouth ends up being deeper in the  water than your forehead. So, when you turn to breathe you’ll have to lift your head higher to make sure your mouth clears the water. It’s this head lift that causes the hips to drop. 

 

 

 

 

When your eyes look downwards your mouth sits at the same level as your forehead. So to get your breath your head doesn’t need to lift for your mouth to clear the water. And as a result your hips stay in alignment. 

Common Causes 

This mistake is usually caused by wanting to see where you are going. 

I personally struggle with looking too far forward. I spent years sharing lanes in 25m pools with 6 to 8 other 6ft+ tall swimmers. This setup makes for a great team environment (and a lot of drafting). But in crowded lanes you’re constantly trying to make sure you’re not going to swim into people. So you look forward. With enough repetition, it became a bad habit that stuck.

You may have a similar problem if you swim in a new pool that you aren’t familiar with. Or if  you swim in a pool without lane markings on the bottom or flags at each end. 

In open water a more common cause is being lazy when finishing the sighting movement. After the sighting stroke you need to get your head back down into a neutral position. If you drop your head down but keep looking forward your mouth will be in a bad position for the next breath. 

How To Fix It

Depending on your flexibility you can get away with looking forward to a limited degree. Eyes directly down is ideal, but there aren’t a lot of swimmers that actually hold this position. Provided your hips stay on the surface you can look forward. 

You will have to experiment (or get a video analysis done) to find what’s right for you.

{1} Work The Balance Drill 

The Balance drills will help you find a good neutral head position. You can experiment with how far forward you look while keeping your hips on the surface. 

{2} Adjusting For the Breath: 

If you do look forward, you will need to bring your chin closer to your collarbone as you initiate the breath. This can be hard to control as a beginner without affecting some other part of your stroke.  In general  you want to limit your head movement as much as possible. The more you move your head, the greater the probability of downstream problems. 

{3} Practice The Superman Drill

The superman drill will let you play with the degree to which  you can look forward when you breathe. 

{4} Finish Your Sighting Stroke Correctly: 

Don’t save your sighting practice for the open water. Practice your sighting regularly in the pool. Work on it regularly during workouts.  Learn to return your head to a neutral position after the sighting lift. The more you practice lowering your head to the right place the better. 

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How To Stop Your Legs From Sinking - Root Cause 3

How To Stop Your Legs  From Sinking

The  Ultimate Guide To Balance & Alignment In Freestyle Swimming

Fixing Your Sinking Leg Problems

Root Cause 3: 

Lifting Your Head to Breathe

 

You have the best chance of keeping your hips and legs up on the surface when your head is down in the water. The moment you introduce the breath, the chance of your hips dropping increases. 

You can have the perfect head position through your stroke cycle. But if you lift or over rotate your head when you turn for your breath, your legs will drop. 

The lifting of your head to breathe is a chicken and egg situation. Dropped hips will cause you to lift your head and lifting your head will cause your hips to drop. 

The lifting of your head to breathe is a chicken and egg situation. Dropped hips will cause you to lift your head and lifting your head will cause your hips to drop. 

As we talked about in the previous section, when your eyes look downwards your mouth sits at the same level as your forehead. So to get your breath your head doesn’t need to lift for your mouth to clear the water. And as a result your hips stay in alignment. 

But, your sunken hips will pull your mouth deeper in the water. + of your head causes your hips to drop further which will cause you to lift your head even higher. It can become a vicious cycle! 

Here’s a video I did  with Dave Erickson from Endurance Hour a few years ago that explains it. Try to not to laugh while I almost drown 🙂 

 

Why It Happens

There are two common reasons why you’re lifting your head for the breath. 

{1} Your Hips & Feet are Too Low 

  • It’s caused by your dropped hips and legs. They’re pulling your mouth down deeper than your forehead so to take in a good breath you have to lift your head. 

{2} You’re Still Lifting Your Head

  • If your hips are in a good position and you’re still lifting your head, your primitive brain is to blame. You lift your head because you lack the confidence to keep your mouth close to the surface of the water. Your primitive brain and it’s survival instinct says; 

 “Dude, you’ll breathe in water if you’re this close, we need to get way away from here to get in a good breath” 

If you don’t feel like you can get a good enough breath in without choking, you will lift your head high. High enough to a point where your primitive brain is comfortable no water will go  in along with the air.  The higher you lift, the bigger the hip drop effect will be. 

How to Fix it:

First determine which is the likely cause for lifting your head. A video analysis will help you work out if the root cause is because your hips are low due to one of the 15 root causes. 

If it’s a confidence problem with keeping your mouth close to the water here’s what you can do. 

{1} Practice Crocodile Breathing

Getting water in your mouth is an unavoidable fact of swimming. You’re surrounded by the stuff. It’s pretty much impossible not to take in some water at some point. Crocodile breathing helps you to combat your fear reflex. It will help get you comfortable breathing when you have water in your mouth. 

{1} Find a spot in the pool that you can stand comfortably. 

{2} Slowly lower your head into the water so half of your mouth is below the surface of the water and half of it is above the surface

{3} Practice breathing “over the top of the water” in your mouth. Slowly get comfortable breathing when you have water in your mouth. 

 

 

{2} Progress To Side Crocodile Breaths 

{1} Find a spot in the pool that you can stand comfortably. 

{2} Rotate your head as if you were getting into the side breath position you would liket to hit when you swim freestyle. 

{3} Slowly lower your head into the water so one eye, one ear and half of your mouth is below the surface of the water and half of your face is above the surface. 

{4} Practice breathing “over the top of the water” in your mouth. Slowly get comfortable breathing when you have water in your mouth. 

 

{3} Move To The Side Kick Drill 

Each of these drills will help you get confident keeping your mouth close to the surface when you take a breath. 

Growing this confidence usually takes time. Your primitive brain is taking care of your survival by making sure you don’t breathe in water. So fixing it is often not as simple as flipping a switch or doing these drills once. You’ll literally need to rewire your brain to be ok with the risky breath position. 

Children pick it up faster because their primitive brain hasn’t been active for as long as yours.  At the end of the day, the more you repeat it the more comfortable you will become. 

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How To Stop Your Legs From Sinking - Root Cause 4

How To Stop Your Legs  From Sinking

The  Ultimate Guide To Balance & Alignment In Freestyle Swimming

Fixing Your Sinking Leg Problems

Root Cause 4: 

Over Rotating

Over rotating is one of the most common mistakes I see Age Group Triathletes make. You need effective rotation in your stroke, it helps maximize propulsion. But the appropriate degrees of rotation is often misunderstood. Rotating too much will cause your hips to drop!  

When you over rotate a couple things happen. I’m going to break these down into subsections and explain each of them. We can link why each of the errors are causing your hips to drop back to your over rotation issue.

Why It Happens 

There are generally two reasons why new swimmers tend to over rotate. 

{1} Thinking More is Better. 

One of the first things you’ll get taught when you learn to swim is the importance of rotation. Most YouTube videos and online guides will emphasize the need to avoid “swimming flat” and to reach and rotate. Without any guidance on how much or how to effectively rotate new swimmers will go from too little to too much rotation very quickly – more is not necessarily better! 

{2} Not Enough Core Strength to Control the Rotation

If you aren’t able to stop the momentum that comes with your rotation from side to side, it is very easy to rotate past the point of utility and move into over rotation. To stay in the right rotation range we need a strong core to stop and then reverse the rotation once we have hit the optimal point. 

Let’s take a look at the stroke faults associated with over rotation and how to fix them:

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How To Stop Your Legs From Sinking - Root Cause 4 - Problem 1

How To Stop Your Legs  From Sinking

The  Ultimate Guide To Balance & Alignment In Freestyle Swimming

Fixing Your Sinking Leg Problems

Root Cause 4

Over Rotation Problem 1: 

The Scissor Kick 

If you rotate past a point that you are able to control it, you run the risk of rolling over on to your back. 

When you rotate, you create momentum. As one shoulder comes out the water the other rolls down beneath the surface. You need to be in control of this momentum. If you aren’t it will continuing through 180* and you’ll end up on your back! 

Your brain knows you aren’t supposed to roll onto your back. So if you don’t have the core strength to control the momentum, your brain takes over and finds a way to stop the roll! 

To prevent a 180° roll your brain forces one of your legs out wide to stabilize your body. This stops the roll, but it also drops your hips. 

To prevent a 180° roll your brain forces one of your legs out wide to stabilize your body. This stops the roll, but it also drops your hips. 

The wide kick is commonly referred to as a scissor kick. Instead of narrowly kicking up and down your legs scissor wide apart and then back together. 

The problem with the scissor kick is that it’s stopping you rolling by kicking sideways. While you’re kicking sideways, you’re unable to kick down. With no downward kick there’s no upward force to keep your hips and legs up on the surface. 

How To Fix It 

{1} Limit Your Rotation 

The scissor kick is a downstream problem caused by how much you are rotating. If you limit your rotation you will go a long way to solving the problem. 

{2} Brush your big toes together 

You want your kick to stay small and tight. Kicking up and down, not side to side.  Get your big toes to brush up and down against each other with every kick. You’ll know the movement is staying small enough and it’s up and down, not side to side. 

{3} Increase your Stroke Rate 

Over rotation and the scissor kick often happen when you glide too long out in front of your stroke. A long stroke can be more efficient than a short stroke, but not if it’s killing your forward momentum. 

If you’re too focused on extending out in front, your bottom shoulder may be dropping too deep into the water. As the bottom shoulder drops your legs split to stop the roll. 

Decrease the length of your glide and increase your stroke rate. This will limit your rotation and cut the scissor kick.

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How To Stop Your Legs From Sinking - Root Cause 4 - Problem 2

How To Stop Your Legs  From Sinking

The  Ultimate Guide To Balance & Alignment In Freestyle Swimming

Fixing Your Sinking Leg Problems

Root Cause 4

Over Rotation Problem 2: 

Pushing Downwards not Backwards

If your shoulder drops too low into the water once you have entered and begin to extend, the rest of your arm is almost certainly dropping too low too. 

You know you are pushing down when there is a big gap between your ear and your bicep and shoulder . 

 

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So the push down on the water helps lift your head up. When your head lifts, your hips sink so pushing downwards has a direct effect on your hip and leg position.

The push down on the water helps lift your head up. Like a seesaw, whe your head lifts, your hips sink. 

Most good swimmers have a small amount of downward force on the water at the start of their pull. But the earlier in the movement you begin to push water backwards the more effective you pull will be. And less of an effect there will be on your hips and legs. 

Why It Happens 

Pushing downwards early in your pull usually happens for one of two reasons.

{1} Lack of confidence in your breath

You’re pushing down to lift your head up higher for the breath. You lift your head because you lack the confidence to keep your mouth close to the surface of the water. The higher you feel you need to lift your head, the deeper you push down. 

{2} Poor Flexibility Through Your Chest, Shoulders and Lats 

Your upper body flexibility affects how quickly you can start pushing water backwards. The less flexible you are, the longer you’ll apply downward pressure on the water. The more water you push down, the higher your upper body lifts and the deeper your legs will sink. 

How to Fix It 

You want to be using your arms to drive water backwards and propel you forward, not  to lift you up. 

If you’re pushing down because of reason 1, go re-read the breathing  section. Work on getting comfortable breathing low to the water with Crocodile breathing.  Then learn to stabilize through the breath using your core. Do this by practicing the Balance and the Side Kick Drills.

 

If you’re lacking flexibility through your lats, it’s time to start mobilizing. 

{1} Hang from a bar. 

One of the simplest ways to improve your flexibility to help your pull is simply to hang from a pull up bar.  Hold the bar with your hands shoulder width apart, try to keep your head in a neutral position and just hang. The goal is to get your body to hang in a straight line. 

Suck your belly button into your spine and squeeze your butt cheeks together to tighten up your core. Don’t cheat by arching your body to help make it easier. You’ll place extra strain on your back and won’t actually be stretching correctly. 

{2} Do Yoga 

I’ve found yoga to work a lot better for me than any stretching routine. Yoga hasn’t just helped increase my flexibility. It’s also taught me how to breathe and helped strengthen my core. 

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How To Stop Your Legs From Sinking - Root Cause 4 - Problem 3

How To Stop Your Legs  From Sinking

The  Ultimate Guide To Balance & Alignment In Freestyle Swimming

Fixing Your Sinking Leg Problems

Over Rotation Problem 3: 

Breathing Too Late 

The timing of your breath might be to blame for your over rotation, scissor kick and early push down. 

The timing of your head turn is critically important  to maintaining your balance. If you turn or return too late you will over rotate, your legs will flay and your hips will drop. 

{1} Timing the Turn

You want the head to start turning to the side right was your opposite fingertips enter the water. 

{2} Timing the Return 

You want your head to start turning back into the neutral position right before you get into the catch. What I mean by that is as you begin to push water backwards with the bottom arm, your head should be starting to come back. 

If you wait until that arm has entered and extended before you turn your head you’re not going to get a good breathe in. 

When you turn your head late but return it at the right time you’re not going to have enough of a window to get in a good breath. Your inhale will feel short and rushed. You’ll quickly begin to feel the oxygen debt build as you work through the lengths. 

If you start to return your head downwards too late you’ll throw off your body’s balance. This is when you over rotate, scissor kick and feel your hips and legs drop. You will also lose out on a big proportion of your propulsion. 

Why it Happens 

The late breath usually occurs because you feel you need more time to inhale. Either because you’re short of air or because you want to get your mouth well clear of the water. So you hold your head out the water a little too long in the hope of getting a little more air into your body. 

Sometimes breathing late is simply a timing issue. You’re just not nailing the exact moment your head needs to start turning and returning. If you don’t have the right rhythm your timing will be off. 

How To Fix It  

There are three points to focus on to get your breath timing right. 

{1} Starting the breath at the right time 

{2} Making the inhale quick 

{3} Returning your head at the right time 

Let’s work through each of them to make sure you get the breath cycle right. 

{1}  Starting the breath at the right time 

When you think about the exact moment to turn your head, it’s easiest to relate it to what one of your arms is doing at the moment your head should start to move. You have two choices here; 

{a} You can either work on turning your head as the fingertips on your recovering hand enter out in front of your head. 

{b} You can work on turning your head as your pulling hand passes your shoulder on it’s way to finishing the stroke at your hip. 

Both of these two happen at the same time (in a balanced stroke).  Some swimmers I’ve worked with find it easier to focus on when the hand enters. While others find focusing on the back end simpler. 

Here’s how you can work on that timing: 

{a} Balance +1 Drill 

The Balance +1 Drill will help teach you to hold your body position through the breath, but we can use it to learn the correct breath timing too. When doing the Balance + 1 Drill you will want to focus on turning your head to breathe before the elbow and hand of your pulling arm has passed your shoulder. The goal is to get the head to turn early, to feel like you are “pulling” yourself to the breath. 

{b} Breathe Like A Champ Drill 

The Breathe Like A Champ Drill is a good test of whether or not you have the timing of the breath right. As you did in the Balance +1 Drill, you will want to focus on turning your head to breathe before the elbow and hand of your pulling arm has passed your shoulder. The difference with this drill is you don’t have the extended arm out in front of you to stabilize your body, making it a lot more difficult to keep yourself aligned through the breath. 

{2} Returning Your Head at the Right Time 

We can use the same drills to help you get your head back down early. Typically, the earlier you start the breath, the quicker your head will come back to the neutral position. You’re goal is to start bringing your head back down right as your pulling hand passes underneath your shoulder. 

The Breathe Like A Champ Drill will help you use the return of your head to power up the propulsion of the catch and pull. If you turn your head too late you will need to rely heavily on your kick to move you forward. If you get the timing right, you’ll feel yourself shoot forward with every pull.  

You can also use a One Arm Freestyle stroke to help you with the return timing. Swimming with one arm (and breathing to the same side) will tell you if you are leaving your head out of the water too long. You should not be able to see your hand recovering back over while your face is to the side. By the time your elbow passes your ear your head should be well on it’s way back into the neutral position.  

{3} Making the Inhale Quick 

Between the turn and return is how long it actually takes you to inhale. 

You only need to turn your head enough to get your mouth out the water, grab the breath and then turn your head back down. There isn’t a big window of time to get this breath in, you have to be quick and confident to get it right. 

To build confidence in a quick breath, go back to the breathing drills. Work on the breathing bobs and crocodile breathing drills. Work on making the inhale short and sharp while doing the bobs. Get comfortable having water in and around your mouth. While still getting in enough air. 

When you’re comfortable with those move onto the superman and side kick drills. Work on keeping your head low (lifting up will cause your hips to drop) and making the breath fast. 

{a} Superman Drill 

{b} Side Kick Drill 

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How To Stop Your Legs From Sinking - Root Cause 4 - Problem 4

How To Stop Your Legs  From Sinking

The  Ultimate Guide To Balance & Alignment In Freestyle Swimming

Fixing Your Sinking Leg Problems

Over Rotation Problem 4: 

Pulling Through Too Early

We know that your center of gravity shifts up and down depending on what position your body is in. The further up your body the center of gravity moves, the better you will be able to stop your legs from sinking. 

One way we can shift your center of gravity forward is by adjusting when you catch and pull through. The thinking goes something like this: 

Your lungs are the center of buoyancy and the pivot point of your balance. By shifting more of your body weight forward in front of your lungs you can balance out your body and keep your hips up. 

I’m 187cm (6ft2) tall.

 

But if I raise my hands up above my head I add an extra 70cm+ to my total height and have a lot more weight distributed forward ahead of my lungs. 

If you pull through too early you spend a lot of time with very little weight distributed ahead of your lungs. With less weight shifted forward your center of gravity moves down towards your hips. And as a result your legs sink. 

Why it Happens 

There are two primary reasons I see swimmers pulling through too early. 

{1} The need to push down to support your body 

If you feel out of balance or like your sinking the temptation will be to go to your arms for support. When you begin to push down with your arms you get the lift up which helps you feel like you’re no longer sinking. But that push down also starts the pull through very early in relation to the recovering arm.  Your pulling arm drops deep into the water. Disappears past your shoulder before the recovering hand enters. 

{2} You Lack Confidence in Your Breath  

You’re pushing down to lift your head up higher for the breath. You lift your head because you lack the confidence to keep your mouth close to the surface of the water. The higher you feel you need to lift your head, the deeper you push down. 

How To Fix It

{1} Catch Up Drill 
 A lot of coaches rely on the Catch Up Drill to help teach you how to keep your weight distributed forward for longer.

 

If you are not familiar with Catch Up, here’s how you do it: 

It is regular freestyle, with a pause out in front. You  must wait for the recovering hand to touch the extended hand before it can pull through. Only once your hands touch can you pull through for your next stroke. 

Waiting for your hands to touch keeps more body weight shifted forward ahead of your lungs.  The touch gives you a physical cue to keep exchanging one arm for the other out in front of your head. 

The catch up drill can teach you a great lesson in staying extended and not pulling through too early. But it’s not a great way to swim freestyle.  

Waiting for your hands to touch out in front disrupts the continuity of your stroke. It halts forward momentum. While your lead arm waits for the recovering arm to enter and touch you STOP moving forward. This means you have to re-generate your speed from scratch with every pull. 

When  you swim Catch up freestyle you stop/start/stop/start which isn’t economical. And every time you stop, you’ll feel your hips sink. 

{1} Front Quadrant Freestyle 

Front Quadrant Freestyle takes the benefits of the Catch Up Drill without killing your momentum. 

Most distance swimmers use a Front Quadrant stroke as it is very efficient. Swimmers like San Yang, Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett are the poster child for this stroke. 

But. There is a but… Front quadrant swimming doesn’t work for everyone. And isn’t always right for open water. I’ll talk about that more in a second. 

No matter how you swim, you need to keep the concepts of front quadrant swimming in mind. This is what keeps your weight distributed forward ahead of your lungs, helping keep your hips up. 

To swim Front Quadrant Freestyle; wait until the recovering arm has passed the line of your head before you start your pull.

You could say that Front Quadrant Freestyle is 3/4 Catch Up Stroke. You start to pull through when the recovering elbow is inline with your ear. Instead of waiting for your hands to touch before you pull back.

If filmed from above we want to see some part of you hand extended out in front of your head at any time in the stroke cycle. You must make sure the lead hand stays extended out front during the recovery of the other arm.

If  the lead arm disappears past the head before the recovering arm enters the water, you have a problem. Your shoulder will be dropping too low. You’ll be pushing down too much. Your hips will sink and it will slow you down.

3/4 Is A Rough Guide

You can adjust the length of time you keep the lead arm extended based on:

  • Your body type
  • The distance you’re swimming
  • Your speed
  • The water/weather conditions.
  • Long distance / Slow speed / Flat calm water = More Extension
  • Short distance / High Speed / Rough Water = Less Extension

 

In the pool, you have the opportunity to be more patient with that lead arm. You can keep it extended and ride your line as long as it doesn’t kill your momentum.

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How To Stop Your Legs From Sinking - Root Cause 8

How To Stop Your Legs  From Sinking

The  Ultimate Guide To Balance & Alignment In Freestyle Swimming

Fixing Your Sinking Leg Problems

Root Cause 8: 

Poor Posture And / Or a Weak Core

Your belly (abs), mid and lower back make up the muscles in your “core”.

Your core is the link or bridge between your floaty lungs and sinking legs. It’s what holds the line of your body together. You need your core engaged to take advantage of the buoyancy from  your lungs. You can only leverage how much your lungs float if there are no breaks in the connection to your legs.

When you have a solid connection through your core you shift your center of gravity forwards. This will bring your hips up to the surface. 

Try this; push down slightly with your collarbones and lean forward over you lungs. As you do the connectivity of your core will bring your legs up to the surface. If your core is weak however, your legs won’t float up. 

The role of the core in your stroke goes beyond keeping your legs up. When you connect your arms and legs using your core your body will be in good swimming posture. 

Coach Gerry Rodrigues from Tower26 calls this connection through your body tautness. He has a great way of explaining the idea.  He says you want to be more like a straight uncooked spaghetti stick than a noodly cooked piece. Your core is what helps maintain that straightness and posture.  

Why It Happens 

The western lifestyle is probably the biggest culprit.  

Most of us have poor posture and weak or disconnected cores. We sit too much and we spend too much time hunched over the screens of our phones. We spend most of our days with our cores relaxed and turned off. It’s become our normal and it translates to poor swimming. 

How to Fix it

 

{1} The Temporary Fix: Buoyancy Shorts 

 The best temporary fix is a pair of core or buoyancy shorts. This is the one most Triathletes will go to first. They compensate for your disengaged core, bringing the hips and legs up onto the surface. Some of my athletes use these shorts from time to time, but they can create a problem when you become dependent on them. 

The problem is, wearing the floaty pants too often will give you an inflated sense of your swim fitness. This seldom transfers to good speed on race day. You look fast on Strava during training, but when it actually matters, you won’t have the core strength to perform. 

{1} The Solid Solution: Strengthen Your Core

The permanent fix is to work on your core strength. Fixing your posture and strengthening your core is worth investing your time into. Both in and out of the water. 

{a} Improve Your Core Strength On Land 

Incorporating a core strength routine into your training is a great place to start. Doing yoga will also help improve the strength of your core. 

Fares from MySwimPro has a great video that breaks down the 10 Best Core Dryland Exercises for Swimmers. 

{b} Improve Your Core Strength In The Water: 
  • Use A Snorkel 

I like to have my swimmers use a snorkel when working on their posture.  The snorkel helps teach you how to keep your head still and maintain a good line down your spine. This will go a long way towards helping you master your balance and alignment. It also removes the need to breathe. So you can concentrate exclusively on your body position. 

  • Strap on The Ankle Locks 

When I was a swimmer, ankle locks were my worst nightmare. I hated using them! But I recognized how valuable they are to alignment and core stability. They teach good posture and will help you learn how to stop snaking through the water. 

  • Fundamental Drills 

In the water, the Balance drills and Side Kick Drills need to be your focus. Each of these drills has been mentioned previously, and each will work on isolating your core and legs. Removing your arms from the equation will force your core to activate.

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