One of the most basic things to learn when you’re first getting started with swimming is how to tread water. Treading water allows you to stay afloat vertically with your face above the surface of the water. This isn’t the only way to stay afloat; you can also float on your back for instance. But treading water is useful because it allows you to stop and look around or talk to someone while looking at them.
There are many ways to tread water. The most common way is the dog paddle, but that’s not a very efficient way to tread water. You can also do the frog kick, flutter kick, or eggbeater kick, and combine that with sculling, which is an efficient way to move your arms to help you stay afloat in the water. You can even tread water using only your legs or only your arms, though that will obviously be less efficient.
In this article, we will be going over how to tread water. We’ll cover the most popular and effective ways to tread water and answer common questions such as how many calories you can burn and why it’s so important to know how to tread water. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
What is treading water?
Have you ever seen someone floating vertically with their head above the water, looking around, perhaps even holding a conversation all while in water that’s deep enough that their feet can’t touch the bottom? It might not be obvious, but they are generating an upthrust using their arms and legs beneath the water, and that’s known as treading water.
When you are treading water, you are not necessarily moving in any direction. You’re just trying to stay afloat in place. With your body in an upright position, you are free to look around and examine your surroundings. It’s a useful technique to know if there’s a commotion and you want to see the excitement or you just want to get your bearings. Also, you might want to tread water for a bit if your goggles are leaking or digging into your head and you want to deal with it.
There is no right or wrong way to tread water, but there are certainly efficient and inefficient ways. Any movement that helps you to stay afloat in an upright position can be considered treading water. However, there are known, popular styles that are taught because they are energy efficient. With experience, you can add your own variation to a style to tweak it to suit your needs.
Treading water is not the most efficient way to stay afloat; that would be floating on your back. That said, you should still try to relax and conserve your energy. The idea is to use the minimum amount of energy to keep yourself afloat. Your movement should be controlled and precise, instead of panicked and disorderly. It should not look like you are flailing around in the midst of drowning if done right.
Top water treading techniques
Many of the top water treading techniques were inspired by popular swimming strokes such as the butterfly and breaststroke, such as the flutter, frog, and bicycle kick. An experienced swimmer can tread water using only their arms or legs. As a beginner, you should use both starting out. The techniques below involve using both leg kicks and arm strokes.
Also note that even though we ask you to keep your torso in an upright position for all of these kicks, that does not always apply to the rest of your body. Often your legs will need to be raised up and bent as if you were sitting in an invisible chair. This helps keep you from sinking, and is also why floating on your back in a completely horizontal position is easier to stay afloat. Conversely, if you straighten your whole body, you are more likely to sink to the bottom. Let’s go over each kick in more detail.
The Doggy Paddle
The doggy paddle is a primitive, instinctual way to tread water. You will often observe this being done by children who have little to no swimming experience, and by animals such as dogs which this technique is named after.
Since the doggy paddle is synonymous with being a beginner, many are often embarrassed to do it because they fear getting ridiculed. However, the fact that it keeps people afloat means that it has some value for an absolute beginner.
Now, the doggy paddle is not very energy efficient nor is it going to make you look good, but it makes the list because it works and it’s something you can always default to even while panicked.
In case you’re not aware of what it is, the doggy paddle is when you paddle like a dog (video reference above) which sort of looks like you’re crawling on all fours while keeping your head above the water. Check out the video below to see how a human does a doggy paddle.
The Bicycle Kick
As the name suggests, the bicycle kick follows a motion that is similar to rotating the pedals on a bicycle. To be clear, that means that each foot makes a complete circular motion in an alternating pattern. If done quickly enough, it is able to generate enough upthrust to keep you afloat.
The leg motions of a bicycle kick should be done from an upright position. The downside of the bicycle kick is that you could fall left or right without support from your arms. To ensure you stay in place, you need to move your arms in a circular motion backwards to steady yourself.
This is one of the easier water treading techniques because, like the doggy paddle, it’s very instinctual, particularly if you know how to ride a bike. Scuba divers often use the bicycle kick if they are holding equipment in their hands.
The Flutter Kick
The flutter kick looks sort of like you’re walking on water, except you’re using the bottom of your feet to perform alternating kicks. When flutter kicking horizontally, it’s a great way to propel yourself forward. Since you’ll be doing it vertically, you’ll help keep your head above the water and prevent yourself from sinking.
Some notes on how to do the flutter kick. Have your toes pointed downwards. Start the kick from your hips and thighs, not with the knees. Each kick should be narrow and quick; we’re not trying to do a scissor kick here (more on that below).
A common mistake beginners make with the flutter kick is that they may feel the need to fold over into the bicycle position. The bicycle kick is not a bad way to tread water, but then you’re doing a completely different kick. Also, like the bicycle kick, the flutter kick has a tendency for you to fall left or right unless you have your hands keeping you steady.
Depending on how powerful you use the hips to start the kick, you can easily rotate your body in place. For instance, if you initiate a strong kick from your left hip, you can rotate your body to the right (clockwise direction). This is fantastic for looking around your environment using only your legs.
The Scissor Kick
The scissor kick is named as such because, when looked at it being performed from the side, your legs make an upside down “V” shape kind of like a pair of open scissors before they close together as if you’re snipping something with your legs. The analogy breaks down a little bit here because, as seen in the demonstration video, your legs need to bend to generate force for the kick which the blades on a pair of scissors can’t do.
Here’s how to do it. Begin as you always do in an upright position. Tuck your heels beneath your body and extend the top leg forward (pick one of your legs to kick forward) and the other will extend backwards (kick backwards). This is the part of the movement that generates enough thrust to keep you afloat (or propel you) in the water.
After kicking, your legs should be fully extended and in the upside down “V” shape. Snap the legs back to a trailing position. It should happen naturally, seeing as how your legs aren’t normally extended forward and backward that far. Let your legs glide through the water as you conserve energy for the next kick. Then repeat by tucking your heels beneath your body again for the next kick.
The Frog Kick
The frog kick is a propulsion type kick that mimics the leg motions of a, you guessed it, frog to generate upthrust and keep you afloat. Similar to the scissor kick, it requires more energy per kick than say a flutter kick due to the explosive nature of this movement.
Start by keeping your legs vertical and side to side with each other. Next, like the scissor kick, tuck your heels beneath your body but have your knees pointed outwards and away from the body. As the feet are being brought beneath your body and almost touch, you kick outwards and downwards simultaneously to create the necessary upthrust to keep you afloat.
The Eggbeater Kick
The eggbeater kick is one of the best ways to tread water, but it’s also one of the most complicated. First, why is it called the “eggbeater” kick?
Imagine the motions the whisks of an eggbeater makes as it rotates and now imagine if your legs moved in circular motions similar to that. That’s how the eggbeater kick works in a nutshell.
Here’s a more detailed explanation. While keeping your body vertical in the water, bend your legs so that your thighs are parallel to the floor, far apart to give your legs space to rotate without hitting each other. Basically, it’s kind of like you’re in a sitting position with your legs spread apart.
Next, you should keep your thighs as close to parallel as possible with your knees bent, and try rotating your lower legs such that one moves in a clockwise rotation, and the other moves in a counterclockwise rotation. The timing of the rotations is such that they should not meet in the middle. So if one is coming towards the center of your body, the other should be rotating outwards.
It’s even better if you can incorporate some motion with your arms. However, in the meantime, you can hold your hands horizontally and move them back and forth (this is known as sculling). Your instinct is probably to move them up and down to propel yourself, but this uses up more energy and one of the goals of treading water is to conserve energy.
Ideally, what you should be doing with your arms is very similar to how you’re kicking during the eggbeater kick. You want to move your hands in a circular motion forwards and backwards. This is what allows you to stay in the same position.
As difficult as this technique is to describe over text, it’s well worth learning (check out the video above to get some visuals). With enough practice, you can master this technique and conserve much more energy while treading water.
Treading water without using your hands (legs only)
We just listed a bunch of different kicks you can do and they can all be done without the use of your arms. It will be more difficult but it can be done. You may need to do this if your hands are occupied, injured, or you’re rescuing someone.
Also, legs only techniques are often used in water sports like synchronized swimming or water polo. For these sports, it is crucial for one to have great endurance in addition to proper leg technique to remain upright for a long period of time.
Treading water without using your legs (arms only)
There are also ways to tread water using only your arms. You may find yourself in this situation if your leg is injured or cramped up, so being able to tread water with only the use of your arms is crucial for your safety.
The most common way to tread water with only your hands is to perform vertical sculling. To do this, the motion is like you are about to clap your hands together but before they reach, turn the palms of your hands backwards and push outwards as if you were doing a half-hearted breast stroke. You are essentially moving your arms horizontally in the water back and forth really quickly. Another method is to make a circular motion with your arms similar to the eggbeater kick.
Why should you know how to tread water?
The main reason you should know how to tread water is that it’s crucial for your safety in the water. Interestingly enough, I’ve met people who were excellent swimmers but were terrible at treading water. It seemed like their swim instructor was so eager to make their students fast swimmers that they forgot to teach them the basics.
You might be thinking, “If someone is already an excellent swimmer, shouldn’t they already know how to tread water?” Again, if you only know how to do the various swimming strokes, that does not mean you know how to tread water efficiently or at all. Swimming and treading water are two distinct activities.
What’s the distinction? For example, what if you were injured or are suffering from a cramp while swimming? Let’s say you suddenly couldn’t kick with one or both of your legs, or couldn’t use your arms for some reason. Do you know how to stay efficiently afloat using only your arms or only your legs?
Also, what if you need to carry someone such as during a rescue attempt? Or what if you were holding something in your hands? Can you still stay afloat using only your legs and carry the person/thing you are holding?
Another example, what if you just needed to stop and look around? Being aware of your surroundings is a must especially if you’re swimming outdoors. You never know when the weather might suddenly change or the reason for some sudden commotion. Treading water allows you to slow down, look around, and figure out what’s going on around you.
The most practical reason for treading water – when water has leaked into your goggles and you want to clear it out. Otherwise, you will be swimming blind. Well, I guess you can expose your eyes to the saltwater/chlorinated water, but it’s not going to be pleasant; better to just tread water for a bit as you adjust your goggles.
In order for you to be a well-rounded swimmer, you need to know how to swim and how to tread water. It’s crucial not just for performance but also for your safety. It’s better to have more options to work with after all.
Treading water allows you to keep your head above water which means you are also free to communicate with the people around you. For instance, it’s beneficial if you have a coach teaching you a new swimming style or a friend that you yourself are trying to teach or at least talk with.
Again, in an emergency situation, you can stop and ask someone close by what the commotion is all about. Communication is also crucial for team water sports which we will discuss in the next section.
Water sports such as synchronized swimming or water polo rely heavily on water treading which helps them maintain balance while performing the other actions required for the sport. The kicks that you learn while treading water also carries over to the kicks performed while swimming or scuba diving. As such, if you know how to do one activity, you are already halfway there in the other.
Treading water is such a major skill that it is taught even in the military as an essential skill to survive dangerous situations.
Frequently asked questions
How long can you tread water for?
The average (untrained) person probably couldn’t tread water for very long because they don’t know how to maximize their movements such that they are generating maximum upthrust with minimal effort. If they aren’t sculling with their arms and are flailing around in a panic instead, then they won’t last very long. Due to this extreme inefficiency, they may only tread water for less than a minute before they run out of energy and can no longer keep their head above water.
If you have some training, you could tread water for much longer. For instance, one of the requirements in order to pass the Open Water Diver course (the minimum required course in order to be a certified scuba diver) is that you need to tread water for 10 minutes straight without stopping or using a flotation device. Keep in mind, this is a minimum, meaning ideally you should be able to tread water for even longer.
In the US Navy, SEALS are required to tread water for a minimum of 5 minutes while wearing 12 lbs (5.4 kg) of lead dive weights and twin 80 tanks, neutrally filled, with fins on.
Next, according to Indian-published Limca Book of Records, the current world record for longest time spent treading water was set in March 1997 by then 19-year old Ashish Singhvi who treaded water for 85 hours. We are unsure if it was 85 hours straight or if breaks were allowed (e.g. to use the bathroom, take naps, or to eat/drink), but either way, that is incredibly impressive.
If we had to make an estimate how long the average trained individual could tread water for, it would be somewhere between 10 minutes to several hours long if their life depended on it, such as in the case of a shipwreck. However, shipwreck victims would probably try to find a piece of driftwood or float on their backs, plus there is a lot of variance depending on an individual’s swimming experience, body shape, physical fitness, and so on, so it’s quite difficult to nail down an exact number.
How many calories does treading water burn?
Believe it or not, treading water is an incredible way to burn calories. You can burn approximately 11 calories per minute just by treading water. This is comparable to someone doing a 6 mile per hour run which is respectable, or swimming for a similar amount of time. The benefit is that treading water does not place any stress on your joints, so it’s much more sustainable in the long run.
Doing the math, if you tread water for one hour, you can burn over 600 calories. Even just treading water for 30 minutes will burn over 300 calories. You don’t have to do it all in one go; you can tread water for 10 minutes at a time and then take a 5 minute break in between. In around 40 minutes, you could get a great workout in.
Treading water burns calories equivalent to walking or cycling for twice as long as you’ve been treading. As you can see, for your time spent on this exercise, you are getting some great returns on your efforts in terms of endurance and burning calories.
Despite that, the major issue is that most would probably find treading water quite boring. But, if you’re doing it in the comfort of your own pool, nothing is stopping you from watching a show on a tablet nearby or listening to music.
Why is it so difficult for some people to tread water?
It can be harder for someone to stay afloat if they are exceptionally lean. The reason for this is that fat is buoyant and can actually help someone stay afloat more easily than someone with low body fat. Conversely, muscle is very dense – denser than water, meaning it will sink when submerged. Ironically, most swimmers are very lean and muscular, meaning they have to work harder to stay afloat.
For this reason, it’s not accurate to assume that because somebody has a higher body weight, they are more likely to sink than someone with a lower body weight. The important distinction here is body fat percentage. Even if two people weigh exactly the same, the one with higher body fat percentage will find it more easy to stay afloat than the leaner individual.
Other than body fat percentage, another factor has to do with technique. Someone with less experience may not be performing the movements correctly, meaning they are wasting energy and getting less out of each movement.
Another factor is whether you are trying to stay afloat in saltwater or freshwater (i.e. lakes, ponds, rivers, springs). The abundance of salt in saltwater increases one’s buoyancy, making it easier to stay afloat in saltwater compared to freshwater.
Furthermore, breathing technique is also important. Air is definitely buoyant – try submerging a balloon or anything inflated with air and it will shoot right to the surface. So if your lungs are full of air, you will be very buoyant. Rather than exhaling too quickly, you can purposefully hold your breath for longer and you will be so buoyant you practically don’t even need to use any other technique to stay afloat. Breathing out too quickly means you aren’t taking advantage of this benefit.
As you can see, there are many ways you can tread water and stay afloat. There are also many benefits to doing so, the most important of which is safety. If you are learning how to swim, one of the first lessons that should be taught is how to tread water because it’s how you can stay afloat and stay safe. Do not underestimate how important the basic treading techniques are if you plan on doing any kind of water sports.