How People Drown

Drowning is easy. In fact, it’s so easy that over 3,000 people annually in the U.S. succumb to it.

The process of drowning is very straightforward:

  1. Water enters the lungs of a person triggering automatic spasms to the larynx
  2. These spasms temporarily seal the air pipe in order to prevent additional liquid from entering the lungs (a natural defense mechanism)
  3. This “choking” sensation triggers a panic response which accelerates the person’s heart rate
  4. An accelerated heart rate coupled with a sealed air pipe causes generalized hypoxia, an inadequate supply of oxygen to the body as a whole
  5. Deprived of oxygen, the person’s cells shift to anaerobic metabolism and flood the muscles with lactic acid, causing rapid fatigue which quickly leads to exhaustion
  6. Unable to remain afloat, the person inhales additional water which accelerates the above cycle
  7. The continuing oxygen deprivation leads to cerebral hypoxia causing unconsciousness
  8. As the person loses consciousness, the larynx relaxes allowing the lungs to fill with water
  9. Unless rescued at this point, the person dies from either advanced cerebral hypoxia or myocardial infarction (heart attack)

Not drowning is also just as easy.

The key is to interrupt this lethal cascade of events as early as possible – and one of the best ways to do this is to become comfortable with the technique known as drownproofing.

One of my biggest beefs with the endurance sports community is that they never seem to teach this as part of their open water swim training (as least I’ve never seen it being taught anywhere).  Instead, they teach you how to tread water, swim faster, sight in open water, and navigate the chaotic scrum of the swim start.

But never how not to drown in the first place.

Whenever I work one-on-one with a swimmer for an open water lesson, the first thing we go over is drownproofing.  I make sure they’re comfortable handling any situation that might potentially trigger the drowning process.  

And drownproofing is really easy to learn – even a small child can do it:

So the next time you’re out in the open water with your swimming or triathlon training group, be sure to ask everyone whether or not they know how to drownproof.

And if the coaches don’t teach it – or if they don’t know what you’re talking about – you have my permission to nail them on it…

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2 Comments

  1. Michelle
    March 28, 2011

    I think the tri training groups fail to teach this method because 1/ tri newbies as a whole are completely freaked out about the swim leg already, and talking about how to avoid drowning will likely send them over the edge; and 2/ tri wetsuits provide so much buoyancy that it would be hard to drown while wearing one. When I’m upright in the water in mine, I feel like a cork bobbing around, with zero effort required to keep my head and neck above water. See you in a month or so, hopefully.

  2. diver dave
    March 6, 2011

    nice artical stever… many strong pool swimmers tend to quickly panic when they hit the open water swims and the lifeguards have to pull them out. i have told many tri swimmers who only train in the pool that they must add in training in the open water to get use to the chops and waves. be sure to rerun this when summer arrives this year


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