Finding your ‘feel for the water’ 

The holy grail of swimming?


One thing is for sure the words ‘feel for the water’ can be a mystery to many swimmers.

Some swimmers have it in abundance, other swimmers experience it fleetingly. One moment it’s there and the next it’s gone. Some days are good days for it and others you’d just like to forget in a hurry.

If this is you, you are not alone. Take comfort in the fact the same can be said for the very best swimmers out there. This roller coaster of a ride with water feel is experienced at the highest and lowest of levels.

The reason being is because no matter what your ability level, we are all human at the end of the day and that means we are constantly being exposed to life’s stressors. These impacts us weekly, daily, monthly & hourly. Nothing is constant, everything is fluctuating as our bodies are bombarded with different types of stress.

From training fatigue to levels of hydration, to how stressful work life is or how much alcohol you drank the night before a session…this ALL impacts how we feel when we swim. A lot of the time there is just no good reason for the fact that some days are good days and others are bad.

It’s best just to accept training is a roller coaster that you must learn to ride when its good and be prepared to take some punches along the way when it’s bad. More often than not there will be more average/poor sessions than great ones.

So, what is feel for the water?

Quite simply ‘feel for the water’ is a swimmer’s ability to make a sensory connection with the water.

This happens when you pull or press the water behind you from front to back during the propulsive underwater phase. When it’s good you feel like you are connecting the palm of a hand something resembling a solid object which allows you to lift and propel your body over your forearm and hand. This then allows you to accelerate and move forwards.

The simplest way anyway can start to experience feel for the water is to swim half a length with your hand closed then swim the other half with your hand open. What you feel when you open the hand you experience a greater sense connection to the water and a slightly stronger sense of pull against the palm of your hand.

It really can be as simple as that.

This is clever an interplay of ‘sensory deprivation’ and ‘sensory overload’. It’s a powerful way to teach swimmer to feel something we want them to feel. Take a sense away (close the hand) then open it again and suddenly the swimmer becomes more aware of water pressure against their hand (sensory overload).

Think of the palm of your hand as an antenna that searches for this sensation. This is feel for the water.

Your hand is simply a paddle that helps to accelerate you through the water, much like in rowing.

Some swimmers are born with this feel, but others can develop and improve it over time. Even if they come into swimming much later in life.

Doing drills like fists and sculling are very powerful tools to help swimmers develop this. Just be sure you are taught to scull correctly because it never ceases to amaze me how badly swimmers do these drills. Quite often they have no idea why they do them, what position they should be in or what they should be feeling, but they do them anyway. If in doubt, ask your Coach or find someone with a very good coaching reputation to teach you. It need not be the dark art some people think it is.

And be sure to ‘feel’ more than you ‘think’.

Many swimmers spend way too much time over thinking their stroke & technique. Particularly the analytical types out there, I’ll throw the perfectionists in there too. A lot of the time when these swimmers swim better and think less. They also enjoy it more too. This is because it opens their mind to the wonderful sensations they can feel as their body finds its way through the water. It also allows the natural flow and rhythm of their stroke to start to shine through.

As Bruce Lee once said:

‘Don’t think. FEEL. It’s like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all the heavenly glory.’ 

We can’t all develop feel for the water like what Olympic champions have. But you can do a lot to help you improve it. You just need to be more open to what your body is trying to tell you.