Why Treading Water is So Hard (+Tips to Get Better)


If you want to feel safe and comfortable in the water, learning how to tread is a must. The only problem is that learning how to tread is a lot easier said than done. Novice swimmers face a few common struggles when treading that are fairly difficult to overcome without proper knowledge or training.

Treading water can be difficult for the following reasons:

  • the average person cannot naturally float at the water’s surface
  • heavy demands on the cardiovascular and muscular systems
  • extreme fear of deeper waters detracts from treading ability
  • more effort doesn’t necessarily equate to better results

Each of these variables can hurt a person’s treading capability if they aren’t handled appropriately. These variables will be analyzed in greater detail in the subsequent sections. Read until the end to receive a couple of tips and tricks on how to tread water with greater efficiency.

Why Treading Water is So Difficult

There are a few barriers that a novice swimmers must cross if they’re to tread water successfully. Sadly, not all beginning swimmers can push past these barriers, so the learning process for treading water is sometimes viewed negatively.

To fully understand why treading water is so difficult, we’ll take a look at each of these variables on a case-by-case basis. To begin, let’s discuss the problem of human buoyancy.

The Average Person Cannot Naturally Float at the Water’s Surface

One of the root issues with the difficulty of treading water has to do with how humans are inherently structured.

The average human has a body composition that supports a neutral buoyancy (source). This means that the typical person will have an equal tendency to either sink or swim, remaining in a seemingly weightless state between the surface of the water and the bottom of the water.

The logic behind this phenomenon is that the body density of the average human is practically equal to the average density of water. As a quick reference, the body density of the average human is 985 kg/m³, and the average density of water is 997 kg/m³ (source 1 & 2)

Consequently, it is not the natural inclination of the average person to float at the water’s surface. Instead, their body tends to hover slightly below the water’s surface and slightly above the water’s depths in an “in-between” state.

For a person to keep their head above water, most people must expend energy to do so. If the average individual left their body to do its bidding uninterrupted, they would eventually sink and lose access to the oxygen above. This constant battle to stay near the water’s surface can wear a person down quickly, as we will discuss further in the next section.

As a side note, there are a few outlying individuals that are not neutrally buoyant. For example, people with high amounts of body fat and low amounts of muscle mass tend to have positive buoyancy, giving them the ability to float effortlessly on the water. On the other hand, those with low amounts of body fat and high amounts of muscle mass tend to have negative buoyancy, causing them to sink rapidly in deep waters.

For further information on how negative buoyancy works and how to best combat this phenomenon, click over to Why Can’t Some People Float? (Everything You Need to Know!).

In short, human buoyancy level may complicate treading in most cases, but not all cases.

Heavy Demands on the Cardiovascular & Muscular Systems

If you’ve ever attempted to tread water before, you’re already well familiar with how exhausting it can be to sustain such a high level of physical effort. If you haven’t ever attempted to tread water before, let me try to put these physical demands into perspective.

When treading water, both the upper body and lower body must work together to counteract gravity. The arms move back and forth in what is known as a “sculling” motion, whereas the legs repetitively kick in a rotary fashion.

Various major muscle groups in the upper and lower body are under constant activation with these treading movements. As a result, oxygen must be supplied all across the body to help fuel this prolonged activity. This is why treading is largely considered an aerobic activity.

The activation of such a vast assortment of muscle groups does not only demand a high degree of oxygen from the cardiovascular system. It also burns a significant amount of calories rather quickly. When actively treading water, the body will typically burn through energy reserves at a rate of 11 calories per minute (source). That’s roughly equivalent to the number of calories you would burn running at a pace of six miles per hour!

Unlike other popular forms of cardiovascular training, such as running or biking, people cannot simply stop treading if they want to take a break, particularly if they’re in deeper waters. As soon as a person ceases to tread, they’ll start to gradually sink underwater, so long as they’re not positively buoyant. For this reason, they can afford no breaks.

When you consider all these factors together—the amount of muscles involved, the hefty oxygen requirements, and the relative lack of rest—it’s no wonder why people think treading water is so difficult.

Extreme Fear of Deeper Waters Detracts from Treading Ability

Furthermore, the majority of people that don’t know how to tread are terribly afraid of deep waters. In certain cases, this fear may be so severe that it prevents novice swimmers from venturing away from the safety of land. Such extreme fear is classified as aquaphobia in the medical community.

The symptoms associated with aquaphobia disrupt a person’s ability to tread effectively since their minds are so distracted with fear that they can focus on little else. Common symptoms of those who have aquaphobia include the following (source):

  • accelerated heartbeat
  • chest pressure
  • difficulty breathing
  • dizziness
  • fainting
  • fear of water that is disproportionate to the actual danger
  • nausea
  • persistent sweating

With a sudden onslaught of these symptoms, learning how to tread water is the furthest thing on a person’s mind when in the presence of water. Therefore, comfort is absolutely key to mastering this skill.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the capacity to overcome these innate fears and calm themselves down to a reasonable level. As a result, those with aquaphobia forgo learning how to tread water in favor of ridding themselves of their short-term anxiety.

More Effort Doesn’t Necessarily Equate to Better Results

Another complication of treading water is that trying harder often doesn’t make the situation any better. Treading water is unique in that its effectiveness stems more from the technique than raw effort.

Contrary to popular opinion, flailing the arms and legs around aimlessly will not keep you positioned at the water’s surface for long, regardless of how much energy you’re exerting. It’s far better for the arms and legs to move in a slower, calculated fashion than a frantic, haphazard pattern. This way, you not only save yourself energy in the long term, but you also sustain yourself at the water’s surface much more easily.

Sadly, many novice swimmers instinctually thrash around with their arms and legs in an attempt to simulate treading simply because they don’t know any better. Unlike other land-based physical activities, like football or weightlifting, you cannot tread water through brute force alone. The technique takes precedence above all else.

For those who don’t have access to accredited swimming instructors, it can be difficult for beginners to refine their technique to optimum levels. After all, beginners do not know what solid treading technique looks like, even if they claim to know otherwise. To make matters worse, this lack of knowledge is compounded even further by self-bias.

Consequently, it is typical to see bad treading habits develop in self-learners. Ironically, this leaves them in an even worse position than where they started.

Additional Tips on How to Tread Water with Ease

Even though treading water is largely perceived as a tricky activity to non-swimmers, you shouldn’t let this discourage you from stepping outside your comfort zone. To make the learning process less burdensome, here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when trying to grasp the ins and outs of treading.

Master Vertical Sculling and Eggbeater Kicking

As aforementioned, technique is the most critical element of treading water effectively. For this reason, you need to nail down the fundamental mechanics of treading. Treading is typically broken down into two components: the vertical scull and the eggbeater kick.

Sculling describes the continuous back-and-forth movement of the arms that exerts a downward force on the water to lift you near the water’s surface.

To properly scull, you should optimize the hands’ surface area for maximal leverage in the water. You can accomplish this by moving the hands in a fluid motion so that the palms are catching the most water possible. In addition, you want to make sure that you elongate the range of your sculls. Frantic hand motions will not translate into upward lift very well.

You can see exactly how to practice the vertical scull with proper technique in the following instructional video:

The second half of treading is based around the eggbeater kick, alternatively known as the rotary kick. With this kicking style, the legs move circularly in an alternate fashion so that there’s always some source of propulsion lifting the swimmer.

In a proper eggbeater kick, your hips should be located directly under the shoulders. As a mental cue, think of yourself as sitting in an underwater chair. Your feet should be flexed, not pointed, to provide the most surface area to get maximal power from the legs.

A properly performed eggbeater is shown in the tutorial video below.

Once you’ve mastered these two elements separately, you must work on synchronizing and timing these elements together. From there, you’ll be well on your way to treading water effortlessly.

Always Keep Your Lungs Slightly Filled with Air

In addition, it’s important to maintain a slight reserve of air in the lungs at all times to promote buoyancy. The more air you keep in your lungs, the better you will be able to float.

The underlying reason for why this phenomenon holds has to do with Archimedes’ Principle. In short, Archimedes’ Principle states that any object immersed in a fluid—either completely or partially—will experience an upward force equivalent to the weight of the displaced fluid.

With the lungs inflated with air, there will inevitably be more fluid displaced since the chest cavity will take up more room in the water. This extra displaced fluid results in a greater upward force to counteract gravity, which makes staying at the water’s surface a great deal easier than when the lungs are empty.

This practice will preserve energy, allowing you to tread for slightly longer than normal. However, to execute this breathing technique, you must keep calm and stay in control. Otherwise, your breathing pace will get out of hand, and you’ll be unable to alleviate some of the energy burdens of treading.

Practice Floating at the Water’s Surface

Lastly, it is to your benefit to get comfortable floating at the water’s surface for those times when you need to break from treading. Since treading water is a full-body workout, it’s no wonder how physically taxing this activity can be. Knowing how to orient your body to support flotation at a moment’s notice can save precious energy and afford you the breaks needed to help refuel your stamina.

Although the larger majority of people can manipulate their body position to rise in the water, certain individuals may not have the body composition to support flotation under any circumstances. Typically, these individuals have abnormally high amounts of muscle mass with little to no body fat. These individuals are considered negatively buoyant.

If you would like more detailed information about why more muscle mass equates to less buoyancy, click over to Is It Harder to Float if You’re Muscular (Solved!).

The Bottom Line

Treading water has a high degree of difficulty due to flotation troubles, considerable physical stress on the body, aquaphobia, and the fact that overexertion does not equate to better results.

Although the prospect of treading water may seem intimidating from a non-swimmer’s perspective, don’t let this stop you from trying it out! Treading water can offer you great benefits if you devote the time to learn this elusive skill.

Sources: 1 2 3 4

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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