How to Tread Water – Techniques and Drills

Learning how to tread water is an important basic swimming technique the novice must master to gain water confidence. Treading water consists of moving your limbs to keep your head above water and your body afloat in a vertical position.

A man smiling while treading water.
Knowing how to tread water allows you to feel secure and relaxed.

This article will show you two different ways of treading water, a popular style and then my own personal style. It will also give you a sequence of exercises to learn this technique.

Treading Water Using a Popular Style

One of the popular ways to tread water consists of sculling water in a horizontal plane with your arms and flutter kicking in a vertical plane with your legs:

Basically to scull water you extend your arms sideways at shoulder level and then sweep them forward and backward at the water surface and push with your palms against the water. The pressure of your palms and forearms against the water creates some lift that keeps your body afloat.

The flutter kick also provides some lift that helps to keep your body afloat. To flutter kick, you kick alternatively with each leg forward then backward with a long supple leg. Your feet should point toward the bottom of the pool.

Treading Water Using My Personal Style

I learned how to tread water as a child, and I don’t remember if we were given precise instructions on what we should do with our arms and hands. As a result, the technique is less refined, but it works well for me:

What I do is the following:

  • My arms are angled at about 90°, with my forearms horizontal and pointing forward, my palms turned downward and my elbows close to the body.
  • Then I make circles with my hands, they move down and outward, then up and inward, then down and outward again and so on. What I basically do is to push down the water in a circular motion.
  • My feet also do a circular kind of movement that is similar to a breaststroke kick. The initial position is with my knees bent and my feet in their natural resting position.
  • Then I move my feet down and outward while they go in plantar flexion, then they move up and inward in dorsiflexion. So what I basically do is to push down the water with the inside of my lower leg and foot.

Learning How to Tread Water – Popular Style

To learn how to tread water using the popular style, you can practice the following exercises:

  • First, practice the swimming exercises given in the sculling water and flutter kick articles.
  • Then grab a swimming noodle, place it around your back and under your armpits. Make sure the swimming noodle by itself is enough to support you in the water.
  • Using the swimming noodle, practice sculling water and flutter kicking simultaneously.
  • Practice these motions up to the point where they provide enough lift to support you in the water even without a swimming noodle.
  • Finally, when you feel confident enough, remove the swimming noodle and attempt the technique without floatation devices. In the beginning, only do this under the supervision of an experienced swimmer or a lifeguard.

By the way, some instructors use the breaststroke kick or eggbeater kick as alternatives to the flutter kick, but I think they are more challenging to master as a beginner.

Learning How to Tread Water – Personal Style

To learn how to tread water using my personal style, you can practice the following swimming exercises:

  • Practice the breaststroke kick on dry land.
  • Practice the breaststroke kick in the water using floatation aids.
  • Grab a swimming noodle, place it under one armpit, around your back and make it exit under the other armpit. Make sure that the swimming noodle by itself is enough to support you in the water.
  • Practice the arm and leg motions in a vertical position, first separately and then together.
  • Practice these motions up to the point where they provide enough lift to support you in the water even without a swimming noodle.
  • At that point, make sure to have a friend or a lifeguard supervise you, then try to tread water without a swimming noodle. At first, do short repeats, then slowly build up your endurance.

Conclusion

Knowing how to tread water has several advantages in addition to giving water confidence:

  • It also allows you to cover short distances in the water.
  • It allows you to stop in the middle of a swim and to orient yourself while swimming in open water.
  • It allows you to stop to recover your breath if you have swallowed water.
  • It allows you to stop to rinse your swim goggles if they are fogged up.
  • etc.

So it is worth spending some time learning this basic swimming technique. Good luck!

13 thoughts on “How to Tread Water – Techniques and Drills”

  1. I can tread water for a very short time by sculling without using feet, but when I tried your personal style, I can’t seem to keep my mouth out of the water long enough to breathe comfortably, I haven’t been to the pool in a while and this was one time, I do wish I could learn to tread water efficiently someday! need more inner thigh strength perhaps?

    1. I think it’s more related to pushing down the water at the right angle with the inside of the lower leg and foot. The way you catch the water with your legs is similar to the way you do this in the breaststroke. So maybe practicing the exercises for the frog kick in the breaststroke could help you…

      1. Zonuna Pachuau

        Christophe thanks for replying! I’ve tried concentrating on the pushing down part before, didn’t work too well for me, but, here’s what I found out today, I scull side to side with my hands, set my knees wide, and I concentrate on the pushing out part rather than the pushing down part, which, I think, follows naturally (for me)! needs a few adjustments though! All your frog kick and treading videos have been really really helpful!

    1. Reny, could it be that you have a low body fat percentage? That could be an explanation why it is more difficult for you to float.

      But with practice it should be possible for you to be able to tread water using the techniques presented above. Just be patient, it can take quite some time to master the techniques discussed in this article.

      1. Nadene Gilbert

        I’m not a swimmer myself but I think nervousness has a lot to do with it. The more contracted your muscles are the harder it is to float. The more relaxed you are, the more relaxed your muscles are and the easier it is. That’s advice I got from a swimming coach a long time ago. What do you think Christophe?

        1. Sure, nervousness can be a factor. However, I think that it prevents people to use proper technique rather than causing muscles to be contracted.

  2. I’m not very professional in swimming but to tell the truth, I began with your site and then gradually with a similar site and… finally I succeeded! You maybe ask, what’s the success?
    Very simple: I don’t scare of deep part of pool! I can swim and enjoy of water, swimming and more important of all: I can water treading and the most important “egg beater!” I really owe you and the other youtube video about swimming. Now a question please: An amateur (like me), how long should usually be able to do water treading? In other words, “how long” is natural and good for a regular guy? Obviously, I’m not a young, strong, professional water polo player. Thank you a billion!

    1. Hi Hamid,

      I’m glad that you were able to succeed in learning to swim, being able to enjoy it and now even be able to do water polo! :-)

      Now, as for your eggbeater question, I can’t give you an answer. I never learned the eggbeater as a child, and a few years ago when I tried to learn it I had to stop because I have some issues with my knees (did Taekwondo in my youth, had two knee surgeries, you get the picture).

      That being said, for the two water treading techniques I show above in the article, I think I can do them for a few minutes in a row without a problem.

      Hope this helps.

  3. I would like to say that when swimming sometimes when you are nervous, you may thread too fast. This is not good. So remember to calm down.

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