Sounds like a book title and I think I could probably write much on the subject(s) in the future :-)

Many coaches have come across “the sinker”, and I certainly have had my share.  The sinker has less buoyancy than the average adult onset swimmer, finds it difficult to stay level, hips/legs drop quickly first and often the torso follows and down they go.  Often this swimmer will resort to using fins to gain enough momentum or use pull buoy (sometimes two) in order to stay on surface to swim comfortably across the length of the pool, or some number of laps.  Or worse walk away from the sport, frustrated unable to overcome their sinking problem  Typically sinkers are male, heavy trunk and lean legs, but also those heavier with high percentage of body fat too.  Although it is generally accepted that body fat is more buoyant than lean muscle, I have seen some very lean guys, tall and thin, bob effortlessly on the surface and easily remain level, where some not lean, heavy profile, sink to the bottom of the pool.

One of the toughest challenges for a coach (at least for me) has been getting “the sinker” level on the surface, hold balance position in Superman Glide and right/left skating positions, building a solid platform the swimmer can operate from. I recently had another opportunity to work with a “sinker” and go through this process again.

The Sinker:
This sinker’s profile, male, 6′ tall, very lean build; non athletic type, somewhat unaware of where his limbs were in space.  Starting in Superman Glide light flutter kick, full tank of air, slow exhale – he would stay at surface for a few seconds then hips drop, torso next, and down to the bottom of the (shallow) pool.  After several repetitions of this process with little progress, I did notice he could at least stay at the surface for a few seconds.  Normally I break out the pull buoy so “the sinker” can feel being level, then remove and try without, several repititions until some balance was achieved.  But this time I decided to try something different since I knew the pull buoy would not help much in this case given his ability to sink so quickly.

Doing a quick review, he could stay level for a few seconds and then immediately began sinking, and as he sank tension set in making “sinking” maters worse.  But recalling he was not that athletic – breathing deep, getting a big tank of air may mean something different. Often when one breathes in deep they fill their stomach first before filling the lungs, never really expanding their lungs to capacity.  So I had him do breathing exercises on deck for about 10 mins feeling the lungs expand without filling stomach first; stand tall, engage core tucking belly button to spine, breath deep into lungs, feel them expand – then exhale slowly like playing a long single note on a flute and feeling a sense of relaxation.  This was a very new feeling to him and awareness of lung capacity.

Back to the pool.  We practiced the breathing exercise again standing in shallow water – tall body, head-spine aligned, engage core, expand lungs to capacity, exhale slow and gentle. Doing this also put him into a very relaxed state while waist deep in shallow pool.  Now in Superman Glide he could stay level for almost 8 seconds before gravity took over.  I had him do several repititions of superman increasing his time in a level position.  The cue to reset was he felt his hips sinking, don’t kick more, but rather stop, get a fresh tank of air, expand the lungs to capacity, then start Superman Glide again.   As a consequence the swimmer became very aware of hip position and level/unlevel feelings, as well as about how much air he needed in lungs to stay on surface before sinking.  Now the question was: How can this sinker-swimmer remain level, relaxed, head-spine aligned longer than 10 seconds to imprint position and linear balance that is so critical?

Many (or most) TI coaches tend to discourage the use of the snorkel since it’s important for the novice swimmer to go through the ‘process of discovery’ learning to breathe without altering their stroke.  It’s not always a pretty process, but a necessary one.  I’m not a snorkel advocate either, and have tried them out with a few swimmers with limited success, but found it really did not warrant the $40 investment in most, if not all cases.

However introducing the snorkel to “the sinker”, or specifically *this sinker*, in drills first, he was now able to get enough o2 holding 50% lung capacity and above, and could hold Superman Glide for a full pool length, hips not dropping and/or sinking to the bottom; holding and maintaining good linear balance had been achieved.  And same when moving to lateral balance in right and left skate positions.  Initially short reps of skate and increasing in that position until lateral balance, skating a full length with head-spine alignment and holding a clean edge was achieved, e.g. 10 seconds in superman, 5 seconds skate; 10 seconds superman, 10 second skate;  5 seconds superman, 15 seconds skate, and so on.   Regardless of number of repetitions in drills however, if feeling of hips started to drop, that was cue to stop and restart in Superman Glide. Timed breathing was used with the snorkel too; expand and fill the lungs, exhale slowly and gentle for 10 seconds, then quickly empty and refill lungs back to capacity.  Also, the snorkel served as a terrific cue giving immediate feedback when swimmer was out of position or sinking.  If head-spine became out of alignment, hips sinking, snorkel would drop below surface and swimmer takes in water.  This is great especially when a swimmer is practicing on their own and coach is not around to tell them they’re out of position. It’s not as easy as it may seem to drill/swim with a snorkel, normally two to four inches remain above the surface and it takes just a subtle change in position for “down periscope” and swimmer is sucking water.

I had this student keep the snorkel ‘full time’ through more advanced drills and achieving an established whole stroke, operating with closer to full tank of air swimming and drilling.  Now it was time to ween off the snorkel and still maintain lung capacity while swimming without the aid of a snorkel, and I expected this would be a very tough process for him (and me). But to my complete surprise, after a few laps of nodding drills, chin to shoulder in skate — this swimmer, once an almost hopeless sinker, was now remaining level in whole stroke, swimming easily AND breathing rhythmically, head-spine aligned, holding patient lead arm suspended out front when rotating to breath (no head lift) with little to no interruption in stroke.  He was quite surprised how easy it was to get his breath without the snorkel.  I noted breathing in freestyle is really easy when balanced, level and head-spine are aligned (streamlined) – it’s only us humans that add complexity making breathing difficult.  This all underscores the priority of having excellent balance and streamline first – and continuously refining in every stroke and drill.

I will still hesitate to use the snorkel on a sinker.  Each swimmer is unique and it is important to use every method as possible to get “the sinker” not to sink, level and balanced without the aid of artificial buoyancy or breathing aids.  But before breaking out the pull buoy quick fix, I will most likely introduce “The Sinker and the Snorkel” from now on.