How to improve your feel for the water

Feel the water and swim faster – it really is that simple. But how do you actually 'feel' water? Swim coach Andrew Sheaff explains…

Jump headfirst into pool, are hands, trail of bubbles and blue.

Basically, the more effective you can feel the water, the faster you can swim. And luckily, our hands are extremely skilled in perceiving sensory information and producing very nuanced movements. However, there are two issues that triathletes will run into that prevent them from taking advantage of the genius of their hands.


Firstly, the hands simply aren’t as keyed in to the information the water presents as they could be. The water is a foreign environment and most humans aren’t naturally attuned to what the water is conveying.

Secondly, learning comes from novel experiences. When you’re consistently using the same arm actions with little variation, there’s not much reason to change.

Change your hand position

The solution is a simple one. Change the position of your hands as they move through the water. Doing so addresses both of the issues discussed above. It provides a novel experience for your swimming, and, more importantly, it helps you pay attention to what the water is doing.

When you change the position of your hands, it breaks up the water flow around your hand. When you open the hand back up, you can really feel the flow return.

As an added bonus, removing the hands requires you to use the forearm to move water backward. If you don’t, you won’t go anywhere. When you can learn to use the hand and the forearm, you’re able to move more water with each stroke.

Know your hand positions

All of the different hand positions below are effective for positively impacting your feel for the water:

  1. Swim with a closed fist (or hold a tennis ball)
  2. Swim with your pointer finger extended only
  3. Swim with your middle finger extended only
  4. Swim with your index finger extended only
  5. Swim with your pinky finger extended only
  6. Swim with your pointer and pinky finger extended only

Swim for 5-10mins, using one, two, or all of the different hand positions above. The key is to spend an extended period of time without the hands open. This gives you time to figure out how to use the forearm, and for the hands to become sensitised to the flow of the water.

You can perform regular freestyle or you can perform your favourite drills. Both are great options.

Then, open up your hands and be pleasantly surprised by what happens. You’re going to feel like you are swimming with dinner plates for hands!

Just as importantly, you’ll have more awareness of what you’re feeling as you’re moving your arms through the water. When done over time, you’ll find your ability to feel the water with each stroke improves dramatically.