Remedy For Sinkers Part 2

Are you a sinking swimmer?

I have published this second part a few days after the first part. From some comments received after posting the first part I want to clarify a few things:

1) A full-body sinker is not the same as a leg/hip-sinker.

I would define a ‘sinker’ as someone who, once they have established true balance (entire body line parallel to the surface) the neutral position of the head is below the surface of the water.  This means we need to find a way to bring that body line higher in the water so that the effort to get to each breath does not wreck the swimmer’s streamline and forward momentum.

Full body sinking is primarily a buoyancy problem. Leg/hip sinking is primarily a balance problem. As I half-jokingly say, if you are a true sinker, you still need to learn to sink in a balanced position. Balance is critical to the overall solution for a sinker. Anyone with legs hanging down will have far more trouble.

Consider a torpedo – they are heavy, and will sink to the bottom when static. But they are balanced. They will sink evenly (as far as I know about the old World War II kind). So, once propulsion is applied and water begins to flow over the fins, the torpedo experiences lift and it able to hold at a cruising depth.

In fresh water my legs will sink after about 4 or 5 seconds, without some gentle flutter of the feet. But I can swim at any tempo with my hips continually brushing the surface with no kick at all because (I believe) I am harnessing the principles I have spelled out in these 6 assignments. So I am taking what works for leg-sinkers an applying it at a much greater level of detail to a full-body sinker.

This approach is based on the precepts at the heart of the TI technique for every stroke type, in every swimming scenario:

  • First, we want to minimize all opposing natural forces as much as possible (those forces that oppose the swimmer’s forward movement and waste his energy on unnecessary actions).
  • Second, we want to harness any natural forces that can be used to our advantage.
  • Third, then we generate with our own bodies only what force is necessary to finish the job.

The TI technique is loyal to these precepts – not any particular look or style. That a particular look or style has emerged in the TI stroke from those principles is secondary, though many people mistakenly think that is what we try to accomplish with a swimmer – to make them look a certain way. No, a swimmer is built from the inside out, and that common outward appearance – in all kinds of human vessels – is the manifestation of genuine efficiency inside the body. These precepts in the mind of a skilled coach can provide, or be developed into an answer to any swimmer’s problem or need.

2) I am not claiming I can cure every sinker because I have not worked with every sinker. I am pointing out my latest strategy for helping those who struggle with this because I earnestly desire to crack this problem for more people. So, this is my thoughtful approach I am testing – I like the results so far. Even so, I have laid out what I feel are the general principles for the solution. When I am working with someone personally, I am much more intuitive and customized about how to apply these, reading subtle points in the swimmer’s body and depending a great deal on the swimmer’s description of what is happening inside his own body.

I would be pleased to hear from sinkers who try these and coaches who work with sinkers to expand my own understanding.

1408 sinker 2

Here are the final 3 of 6 assignments you may work on, in order. These will not likely be quick-fixes, but will build increasingly subtle skills of sensitivity and body control that you will develop from your deep practice of them. See Part 1 first.

Assignment 4 – Increase Stroke Frequency

Slightly but increase stroke frequency slightly to make velocity more steady. Do this, not by pulling faster but by simply speeding up the recovery a little. Keept the Catch/Hold about the same steady speed.

This may sound counter-productive to the previous point – but what we are trying to do is lower the amplitude of acceleration/deceleration curve. A static vessel with more mass, more density will have more inertia to over come to get it to move forward. If the swimmer allows his body to slow down too much on each stroke the body will sink slightly lower and more force is required to get the body going again.

Like a train moving down the tracks, a ‘heavy’ swimmer cannot afford to slow down as much as a ‘light’ one can – the start-up energy consequence is much higher.

Assignment 5 – Lower Pressure Of Catch

In combination with the previous task, compensate for higher Tempo with lower Catch pressure.

The idea is to to trade one kind of work for another and keep heart rate the same, or even lower it. This is easier said than done, but it is ultimately what you need to accomplish. At first, a change in the body or stroke, the practice of a new level of skill will raise the heart rate because the body and brain recruit far more resources to work on solving the problem than they will need to use later on once it is perfected and automated. But once the swimmer discovers and memorizes the new skills, it will gradually get easier and easier to do it. Heart rate will lower as a benefit of the improved skill.

The trade-off is this: a high-density swimmer at slow tempo is deeper in the water and slower because of inertia – he will require more effort to get up to air, and re-accelerate to keep moving forward on each stroke. At a slightly faster tempo, the swimmer will require less effort to get to air, and less acceleration per stroke. By trading the work of higher force per stroke with the work of higher Tempo – in theory, he will be able to achieve a lower heart rate, while swimming slightly faster.

Assignment 6 – Minimize Vertical Forces

You must minimize all vertical force vectors you generate and/or transfer through your body.

This will require the examination of many fine details in the stroke cycle – and it will be an ongoing process of refinement. Swimming more easily will come from the accumulation of many small advantages, not a one time fix.

A high-density body will suffer the magnified effects of exerting any effort in the vertical direction, against water or against gravity. For every action there is an opposite reaction – any push upward will activate gravity to push harder downward. Any drive downward will pull the body mass downward below its already deep neutral line and take longer for water pressure to push that body back up to the neutral line. The high-density body must stay on that neutral line to make swimming as easy as possible.

This is one of the reasons why (I suspect) many high-density swimmers struggle to get to breath. Any movement that sends force downward into the water will carry the dense-body swimmer deeper, and farther away from easy breathing. And it takes too long to wait on water pressure to push back up and even the forces. The swimmer cannot afford to send any forces in the vertical direction.

Some specific instructions on body parts and stroke sections:

The entry and spear has to be directed forward to the target on a ‘ski-jump’ like path, not downward at a straight angle. Enter the water at 45 degrees but then as the spearing hand approaches ideal depth, level out and extend forward, not downward.

The hip drive pushes forward, sending force out through the shoulder, rather than downward toward the bottom of the pool.

The hips have to be leveled:

  • Thighs pointing straight behind the body, like when standing straight up at attention. If they are angled downward even slightly this means the hip may not be level and the core is not engaged properly. The thighs need to be in line with the rest of the body to keep an entirely straight and parallel (to the surface of the water) body line.
  • Flatten the lower back just slightly – as if taking a little of the curve out of it.
  • The belly button should pull inward – belly button to spine, they say.

Carefully practice and imprint head position for breathing (at a LOW rotation angle) – learning to be more loyal to head position than to the breath itself… at first. Do shorter repeats where you can work between breathing so you deeply memorize what it feels like and how to form it. Keep your laser lead underwater and pointing down the lane. If it is pointing up at any angle into the sky, even the slightest tilt of the headwill shove the hips down farther, which is deadly to your overall ease in swimming.

Carefully practice timing of breath – you cannot afford to take a late breath, as the body starts decelerating and sinking slightly. Breathe as early in the stroke as possible, and take just a quick sip of air – brief, partial air exchanges.

The kick, even if a flutter kick instead of a 2-beat, needs to be compact as possible, and generated as if from the ankles alone (though this will engage the hips in a proper way). A slight, compact kick may also seem counter-intuitive since most sinkers kick desperately to try to push the body up – but all that kicking (directed by a land-mammal instinct) is probably doing as much harm as the good intended, unless it is formed exquisitely well.

It would be a great benefit to work on ankle flexibility also – higher density bodies tend to have more stiff ankles for the same reason runners tend to. Stiff ankles make it hard for the feet to get a ‘grip’ on the water in each press. Think of how a swim fin flexes to get it’s grip – that’s what we want our foot to feel like. 90 degree ankles actually pull you backward in the water no matter how hard you try to kick with them. Better not to kick with stiff ankles but learn to let the legs slide behind the body with minimal kick.

We want to minimize the liability of flailing legs – those that stick outside the body line envelope and act as massive drag-brakes – they might push you up but they kill forward momentum to do so. We want to eliminate their need to be used for lift as much as possible.


I really hope this helps someone out there who is working on this. I wish we could work together because not only do I have great compassion for those who are discouraged by this condition, I believe we can bring a great deal of ease to your swimming too.

Take some hope from these ideas and get back to work!


Back to Part 1


10 responses to “Remedy For Sinkers Part 2

  1. Matt: Got all your pointers and will try to integrate them. One question: because of the sinking problem, one approach I’ve tried is to use physics to reverse the mean density problem, by taking a big breath, and not letting it out during the intervening 2 and a half strokes. But that means a huge exchange out and in of breath during a very small time (mouth above water) window. Should I try to finesse it a bit more by letting most of it out in the 1/4 second just before my mouth is in position to intake? Or is the whole maintaing a larger lung volume effort just a distraction, and I should just concentrate on the basics?

    • Playing with air volume in the lungs is a tough one. Because the heart rate is dictating how much (how quickly) you need to exhale CO2 and inhale O2. It is the third or fourth step we might take. But first, work on improving body alignment, then balance, then rotation angle, then lift – let’s see how much you can improve position and lower heart rate (lower oxygen demand) with those.

      But it is a good general habit to allow very small bubbles out of the nose underwater, and then what I call ‘clear the hatches’ or clear the airways by a little blast of air out the nose and mouth at the last micro-second before the mouth touches the air (like how dolphins clear their airways coming up to breath). This clears the water out of the way and gets the lungs ready to immediately inhale. Waste no time above the surface inhaling. Get the head back down into best streamline position as quickly (yet smoothly) as possible.

      I have heard of others trying or recommending this approach of holding most air in the lungs. I think it should be explored. I should try it myself to see what affect it has on my heart rate and relaxation (holding breath tends to cause us to be more tense throughout the inner body). We need to be careful that a solution like this does not end up causing another problem at the same time. Everything in the swimmer is intricately interconnected – we can’t treat body parts as isolated pieces doing an independent job.

      I cannot over-emphasize the importance of building that frame in the body so that forces transfer through the body better, as well as water flowing under (and lifting) the body better – this will go a long way toward improving a sinker’s position. I just got a comment today from a ‘sinker’ I coached 3 years ago in Sweden and he said these things have helped him – his head is still a bit under the surface but he’s not struggling to get to air anymore. I believe his body-frame and alignment are so much better that he’s enjoying the benefits now.

      Many ‘large’ men or athletic women that I’ve seen with higher density bodies also have tendencies toward ‘powering’ through the water, and an overall sense of body tension (holding breath too!) – the brain subconsciously always looks for a power solution to the survival situation. We’ve got to help those kind of swimmers unlearn that instinct, then build the frame, then learn to be very sensitive to the frame and the flow of water and how they transfer forces. They are strong but don’t necessarily have good core tone or control.

      Becoming ‘smooth’ is a real challenge, but smooth is not a personality style or preference, its a physical characteristic of something that is working fluently with the laws affecting the whole aquatic situation, inside the body and out. So becoming ‘firm but smooth’ is a very universal, very practical objective for all swimmers.

    • Mat ….thank you! This has been very informative. I am 6 ft 3 inches, 200 ibs I lift heavy weights, my torso is so narrow and my feet are size 16. Decided to finally learn to swim this summer and someone at the pool recommended TI. Done so much studying and practicing. I have come a long way, but found I still have stramina issues.The life guards would offer generic adivice: slowdown! Most of them have higher body fat ratios and I am realizing offer their own sincere but one-size-fits-all advice getting angry when you dont listen.Part of the reason I go fast has to do with avoiding sinking.Yesterday, tried some of your advice for correcting breathing on the the right. I only focused on the “leveling out” and creating the pudding feel: I have seen progress! I thought your suggestion was too trivial to make a difference. But it has. I have an engineering degree so I am very analytical. I watched so much of that Shinji video and copied Terry in the demo. Still I had this problem. You have made me realize that there is some customization required still required. My goal for now is to be able to swim 50 yards without being out of breath. My SPL is 22 for a 25 yards….that needs work.Thanks!

      • Hey Lloyd,

        Thank you for the description of your discoveries and encouragement. I am glad you are finding a useful idea here.

        You can’t easily change your body density so you have body position and water pressure to work with to get the lift you need. Once you get your body parallel to the surface, then you have to find that very fine line between stroking fast enough (higher tempo) to get some lift (like a heavy torpedo will use lift to glide at the surface) while easy enough to prevent premature exhaustion. And you need to fit breathing in there frequently enough but keep relaxed but do it smoothly enough that it too does not further promote exhaustion. So, the smoother and more efficiently you can make those strokes (keeping drag as low as possible), and the longer average body line you can maintain the easier swimming will be for you.

        Please feel free to email me any time. I would like to hear your report on progress and problems you run into.

        Also, you may sign up to receive blog posts on my new blog home at I noticed you signed up here on this WordPress blog, but, as of September I’ve discontinued new blog posts here and have continued them on that new site.

        Best Swimming Regards,
        – Mat

  2. OK, hold on the breathing change. Lot’s of other details that will fill my attention span, and still need tuning.

    Funny, I went for a lake swim today trying out my brand new wet suit. It was hilarious. I was anticipating better buoyancy but this seemed ridiculous. All those hours in the pool developing the ability to finesse a breath without too much of a bob (it used to be a lurch to the sky) now seemed like overkill. Without any effort, just turning my head put my face at half goggle level with my mouth half out of the water. More than enough room and time for air. Just to be silly I took my time and left my head relaxed to the side for longer than necessary, and I got a long smooth stroke with my face exactly at the same half-covered water level on the right side. Interestingly, on the left, a purposely long breathing duration revealed still some bob up then down, even though the new buoyancy no longer requires it! (It’s possible I have solved and corrected the bobbing problem on the right in the pool without the help of extra buoyancy, but not yet on the left). So it’s interesting, the wetsuit buoyancy allows some game playing (slower tempos and artificially prolonged breathing side glides) that reveals some residual inaccuracies in my form that show up clearly when looked for.

    Another change that the extra buoyancy brought was a “ploom” on each kick. (I was using standard 2bk). I figured this was cavitation due to toes or some part of the foot breaking the surface before kicks. I very rarely get this in the pool, but when it does happen, it generally requires stronger than usual kick that is mis-timed somehow or positioned too close to the surface. I tried to eliminate any bad knee bend and get a small amplitude snap today, but the “ploom” still persisted. I guess I could have cautiously lowered my legs until the “ploom” quit, but I feared this might be a regressive move, after the huge effort to train my hips and legs to stay high, so I just continued kicking like that. Any ideas?

    • Hi Su-Chong!

      I am thrilled with your description of your observations of such fine details. And you seem to be equally fascinated by the new puzzles that a new water condition or circumstances (wearing a wetsuit) pose for us.

      For the kick, in a higher than usual buoyancy situation – yes, the legs seem almost useless so high in the water. In salt water, even without a wetsuit, my form allows me to ride high in the water – my heels will easily touch the surface and pull air (bubbles, or cavitation, as you suspect) into the water. It looks (and sounds) powerful but it is actually a vortex we have created by infusing air into the water around our feet and causes the water pressure to lower, and thus we get less traction per kick. Bubbles are a bad sign.

      And I would say that having your hips – and legs aligned straight behind – at the surface is higher priority than getting a kick in. Too many people use the kick to keep the hips up, but once the swimmer learns to keep the hips (and subsequently, the legs) up by balance, rather than by pushing, this frees the legs to be used for other purposes. At least, the legs should not disrupt the streamline of the body, at best, they cooperate with active streamline and synchronized propulsion. The legs tend to be more of a liability than an asset, so the first step is to minimize their drag liability, the second step is to recruit them into a cooperative movement pattern.

      And, regarding how to form the kick I discovered by experimentation over time that there are better ways to shape the 2 Beat Kick. I began to appreciate that it is not a linear kick, it is a rotational kick. So the motion is rotational (3 dimensional), not simply vertical, or (worse) horizontal.

      Try this simple change of shape and focus while forming and executing your kick – and focus on just one leg at a time, at first – instead of lifting the heel (which will cause it to touch the air), or dropping the knee straight down (which sets up for a vertical kick), bend and angle the knee inward just slightly (like a girl with a miniskirt, trying to sit discretely with one knee pulled close to the other). Keep the other leg straight. This will encourage the big toe on that foot to also point inward (‘pigeon-toe’ it is called in American English). This will cause the heel to point at an angle to the side, rather than up toward the air. Then to execute the kick, sweep that big toe in an inward to outward arc, a crescent moon arc, where, once the leg is straightened the big toe finishes pointing outward, in the same direction your belly button is pointed (since you just executed a rotation and your body is angled in that direction now).

      I don’t know how well that can be understood and imitated by my typed words, but this is how I form a very compact (no splash, no bubbles) kick while riding high at the surface. I do hope to make a video examination of in the next couple months when I can get to it.

      But, I must admit, that with a wetsuit on (which is virtually never, in my climate) my legs are too high to avoid splashing. I really just let them slide behind the body to keep them out of the way and only press when I am at higher tempos and must bear the big, embarrassing “thunk!” sound and splash on each kick.

  3. Coach Mat, great post as always! One thing that you’ve alluded to, that I’ve used on sinkers is simply getting their speed up, and launching themselves off the wall across the surface of the water and using speed/inertia to keep themselves there.

    Increasing tempo/stroke rate will undoubtedly increase speed, but I’ve also watched people level out or even get slower when their stroke rate increased too.

    So then it comes down to working on perfecting propulsion, which in early stages becomes more about the stroking arm and hip/torso drive, and later we add in 2BK. That comment about minimizing vertical forces is important – we gotta get our swimmers stroking straight back, with their palm facing perpendicularly back the whole way. Often lesser skilled swimmers will be pushing water every which way, as their hand strokes back towards their hip. On sinkers, this can, as you say, magnify their sinking if any forces are pushing water upwards.

  4. This is almost like the science behind how a bicycle stays upright while in motion. A bicycle needs speed in order to stay upright. This is why, when a cyclist goes slow on a bike, the bike becomes harder to balance. The bike is unable to resist the weight of the cyclist and the weight of gravity due to the lack of velocity. However, a bike’s neutral point is vertical, but the same principal applies.

    It makes so much sense now.

    I’m a leg sinker, and I have gotten better over the months by using a better technique.

    my legs sink way deeper in the pool than in fresh water, and it’s because fresh water still has some(not a lot) minerals in it, so it is going to be denser than pool water, so that helps a little bit.

    What angers me is, people with great buoyancy can swim effortlessly while utilizing poor technique. There buoyancy is so great, that any form of motion immediately pushes them forward with no resistance.

    You’re right, It’s all physics.

  5. Pingback: Better Motivation For Sinkers (And Anyone!) | Smooth Strokes·

  6. Matt:

    Interestingly, a week later, I tried the wetsuit again in the same lake, and this time, trying to ignore the novelty of the sensation, concentrated on just swimming. I somehow managed to develop a kick with less cavitation “ploom” sound — I can’t tell if I was doing this by the rotation method you have described above, or some subtle variant that just settled in by experimentation and feedback, but I got there — and went 1600m, which for me is quite a feat.

    I was also developing my open water navigational skills at the same time, so it was a very productive swim. (I also confirmed that I can successfully strip off my wetsuit on my own after a swim, which was to prevent a repeat of the stuck-wetsuit disaster of my first open water race last year!)

    I’ve been back in the pool again since, and, thankfully, the ease of swimming in a wetsuit has not adversely affected my continuing efforts at improving my swimming as a sinker in the pool. I just mentally compartmentalise these different experiences as 2 different phenomena, I guess, with some insight from the wetsuit swimming helping to inform what I’m trying to achieve, ideally, with perfect balance and timing, in the pool.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think I will be competing in the September 6th Tri that I had hoped to do, as my left hip/thigh injury from a vehicle accident in May has not healed as fast as I had hoped, and I am just not able to run with any intensity, improving only very slowly since I re-started running again in late July. So I will not have the satisfaction of competing in a wetsuit until early next year. Oh well, more opportunity to methodically apply the excellent advice above in the pool through the fall and winter!

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