My Feet and Hips Sink When I Swim. How Do I Fix It?

Fix your sinking legs once and for all with these tips and videos from swim coach Andrew Sheaff.

Photo: Getty Images

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Establishing an effective body position is one of the most important skills to learn in triathlon swimming. It’s the foundation for fast and effortless swimming, and without it, swimming is always going to be a challenge. Many triathletes still have issues with their body position, even those who have accumulated significant swimming experience. What’s the most common and most problematic body position issue? Legs and feet that sink when you swim. If you’ve experienced sinking legs in the past, or you’re experiencing them right now, you know what I mean. Sinking legs lead to slow and exhausting swimming. Let’s take a deeper look at why that’s the case.

RELATED: A Complete Guide to Triathlon Swimming

Why your legs sink when swimming

When your legs are sinking, it’s going to cause an instinctual reaction to kick your legs. It’s perceived as a threat to your ability to stay afloat, and your brain is going to do everything it can to make sure you can breathe. Unfortunately, the legs use a lot of oxygen, and because you’re kicking hard, you’re going to be burning through air. And because it’s a threat, that going to create a lot of stress and tension in your body, elevating your breathing further. As you can imagine, constantly being out of breath is not going to be conducive to your endurance!

To make matters worse, legs that ride low in the water create a lot of drag. To create speed, you want to slip through the water with as small a profile as possible, with as little drag as possible. When your legs are sinking, it’s going create a lot of resistance, which is going to slow you down considerably. It’s almost like swimming with a parachute on.

As you can deduct by now, sinking legs on the swim can be a big deal, and you want to do everything you can to solve this problem as quickly as possible and as easily as possible. Sinking legs aren’t an all-or-nothing phenomenon, but a matter of degrees. However, any degree sinking of the hips and feet while swimming is going to promote these issues. If your legs are sinking at all, or if you need to kick really hard to keep them up at the surface, it’s an issue you want to address right away.

Learn how to fix your sinking swim legs once and for all.
Learn how to fix your sinking swim legs once and for all. (Photo: Getty Images)

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How to fix sinking legs when swimming

Below are five strategies that you can use to improve your body position to get and keep your legs up at the surface. You may notice the absence of strategies involving kicking. While kicking can be effective at improving your body position, it’s best used as a supportive means of doing so. As described above, the legs use a lot of oxygen, and you’ll want them fresh for the bike and the run. The strategies below are more effective, and they don’t come at a cost.

Find your lungs

Great body position in the water is all about effective flotation. Effective flotation is all about understanding how the air in your lungs keeps you at the surface of the water. Without it, you’ll sink! Finding your lungs and feeling their support is much more of a sensory experience than a physical skill. Try the exercise below. For some, it might improve your sinking legs straight away. For others, it’s the foundation for the skills we’ll learn next.

Get your head in position

Once you understand where your lungs are and how they support you in the water, you want to use that knowledge to improve your position. When moving through the water, your body is like a seesaw. On one side is the head and the other side is the legs, with the lungs in the center functioning as the fulcrum. Just like a seesaw on the playground you can raise one side by pushing down on the other. To lift the legs, you can learn to press the head and the chest down into the water. How much you need to press will depend on the individual. Use this drill to figure out the best head position for you to keep the legs at the surface.

Learn to lift your legs

Pressing the head is a top-down approach for raising the legs. To make sure you solve this problem once and for all, you want to take a bottom-up approach as well. Many triathletes try to improve their position in the water by kicking down rather than lifting up. By creating tension in your back and in the backs of your legs you can learn to ‘pull’ the legs up to the surface. Understandably, that probably sounds a little odd, and it’s something that has to be felt to be appreciated. To learn how to execute this skill, try this drill. Executing it effectively requires you to create tension in the right places.

Improve your breathing technique

The biggest breathing technique issue that contributes to sinking legs is lifting the head. As we discussed earlier, a key skill in keeping the legs at the surface is keeping the head lower in the water. While it’s great to find an effective head position, that’s not going to do much good if you lift your head every time you breathe. Instead, you want to learn to turn and roll the head to breathe in conjunction with your body roll. Doing so ensures that your head stays in line when you breathe. One of the most effective ways to learn this skill is the stroke and roll drill. It exaggerates the rolling sensation so that you can learn to breathe without lifting the head.

RELATED: How to Breathe When Swimming

Be patient with your pull

Lastly, some triathletes struggle with the initial portion of their pull, which can cause or contribute to their sinking legs. Many triathletes mistakenly assume that they need to pull hard when the hand enters the water, they try to ‘catch’ the water by applying pressure. However, doing so doesn’t positively impact the pull, but it does negatively impact body position. By pushing down on the water, you’re going to push your head and chest up, which sinks the hips and legs. Instead, you want to wait until your hand is pointing down before ramping up the pulling pressure. Try the drill below to get a sense of the position you should be in when it’s time to pull hard. It will help keep your hips up at the surface and improve your pull.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Andrew Sheaff is the swim coach at the University of Virginia.

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