One of the beautiful things about the float tank is that it serves to rejuvenate the whole person — the body, mind, heart.
Broadly speaking, it’s a tool for homeostasis, an ideal environment that supports balance, health, and growth. This piece will look specifically at floating and athletics. For anyone who defines themselves as an athlete, or as a general pursuant of athletic endeavors, the float tank can be a powerful asset.
In this post, I’ll discuss individual athletes who float and how to look at this from a marketing perspective. I’ll also discuss past and present research, and share some thoughts on how the relationship between the athletic and floating communities might continue to unfold.
My interest in float tanks stems from personal and professional experience in the field of mindfulness and meditation, but it’s the reconnection I’ve felt with my body that has been the most fascinating and enjoyable. I played a number of sports growing up and, while my “official” career ended after one year of college soccer, I continue to dabble in club and casual sports, run, and spend time outside. Now that I’m over 30, my body is starting to chirp at me, asking me to take better care of it.
While this piece explores the intentional use of float tanks for people who define themselves as athletes — professional ballers or weekend warriors — it’s important to recognize that everyone has a body and can stand to gain from the physical, mental, and emotional support that the tanks provides. I hope this article honors that distinction, and focuses on the concept of an “athlete” not just as a subjective identity or grouping, but as anyone who enjoys using and connecting with their body.
Float like a butterfly, sting like Epsom salt
If you float with us in Portland at Float On, you might not know that one of the shop workers who ushers you into your float room kicks people’s asses in his spare time — not maliciously, but as a competitive Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighter. I asked Kevin Hughes to share some of his thoughts about floating and how he integrates it into his training:
For me, floating complements my recovery days the most. Those days usually include foam rolling, stretching, sauna, cold plunge and a 90 minute float. I think about grappling in almost all of my floats. If I just recently started drilling/using a technique, then I visualize that particular sequence of movements. I see myself doing it step by step from my point of view, then I visualize from a 3rd person perspective, as well. I also find that I can experience a competition days before it even happens, picturing the venue, how I will feel…etc.
On rare occasions, floating is just pure rest for me. However, most of the time, my focus is on future training sessions, whether it be a competition coming up, or just a moment to set intentions for that day or week’s training. I count a float as a training session, too. If I say, “Today, I’m going to get 5 training sessions in,” then floating might be one of them.
I’ve yet to meet an athlete who didn’t enjoy their time spent in a float tank. When I’m introducing floating to athletes who haven’t tried it or even heard of it, I always mention about how skilled we are at ramping up our central nervous system for a competition, lifting session, or sparring session. I then stress the importance of doing the exact opposite. Before floating, I didn’t spend nearly enough time focusing on rest and recovery, but being able to have planned moments of rest keeps me feeling productive and in charge of my schedule.
Thanks to Kevin for sharing his first-hand account!
While the research discussed later is essential, there’s tons of qualitative data from similar individual case studies and narratives. Let’s look at how some other professional athletes connect with the tank — and what better transitional vehicle than a joke?
Q: What’s a float tank’s favorite dish?
Float enthusiasts were treated to giddiness-worthy exposure for our industry during the 2017 NBA Finals when Steph Curry appeared in a Kaiser Permanente commercial with a narrative centered around floatation.
In it, we see Curry in the new Orbit tank, eyes staring straight upwards at the camera before he drops dramatically and deeply into the water, into the depths of his surprisingly-haunted unconscious sports mind. The tank is suddenly the Stranger Things “upside down” of basketball life. You can hear his critics doubting his abilities and talent. You see warped, evil hoops swarm like malevolent octopi, basketballs hurling furiously towards him.
Just as it appears that he might go totally bonkers, quit the NBA, and devote his life to walking the Appalachian Trail under the moniker #splashbro1, he gains a grip, cools his head, and relaxes his body. He calmly grabs a now-floating ball, as his inner narration says, “Calm, Strong, Focused,” and walks, nay, saunters towards a light filled opening of a long corridor towards the court. The tagline “Train the mind, and the body will follow” is imprinted across the screen.
Exeunt Steph Curry
I can only assume that the whole world then missed the rest of the game because everyone immediately drove to their nearest float center. Float tanks on national TV, Mom, we’ve made it!
The ad succinctly captured the purported benefits experienced by athletes — the tank leaves you calmer, stronger, and more focused. These qualities are helpful and enjoyable for us all, but for those whose jobs are directly correlated to their mental and physical performance and recovery — from Navy Seals to NFL linemen to professional archers — they are necessary for their work.
Steph Curry isn’t the only one who’s raised some sort of awareness for our industry. Tom Brady has one in his home. The Chicago Cubs have one in their locker room. The LA Dodgers might be following suit. Heck, I’ve even heard that the Dutch judo team incorporates floating into their training.
Yes, the Dutch judo team.
Once the dodgeball world embraces our practice, we’ll know we’ve truly made inroads into sports and training culture.
Mmmmkay, let’s dive into some of the concrete, suggested, and hinted at benefits from the current body of research investigating float tanks and the human body. Before we look at the most recent research, let’s take a super quick peek at what already exists in the float research canon pertaining to athletics and performance.
One sustaining theme as you scroll through hundreds of rows of research — it’s all pretty old, with most of the stuff pertinent to floating and athletics coming out in the 80’s and 90’s. Funding and initiative in the United States dried up for research as the commercial float industry was struggling during that time.
It was a surprisingly fruitful period, with some foundational and interesting work. Early research on blood pressure, along with work with hypertensives and people with arthritis illustrated the general relaxation response, while more sports-specific research dots the landscape.
Some titles are, “Flotation REST and Imagery in the Improvement of Collegiate Athletic Performance: Basketball” (Wagaman J. & Barabasz A., 1993), “Effects of flotation-REST on stress related muscle pain” (Bood, S. Å., Sundequist, U., et al, 2007), and “To float or not to float… is that the question? How to maximize your use of the Sport Psychology float tanks” (Bond J., 1997).
The variety of spellings, terminology, and writing style in the sparse research from the past 50 years shows a grassroots past, a passionate application of the float tank and its ideas onto populations like athletes, a willingness to ask questions. Perhaps past research was simply ahead of its time, happening in a period when our industry didn’t have the traction and momentum it currently enjoys. While some research was published in Australia and Sweden in the early 2000’s, we could be poised for a broader resurgence in the USA.
Current Research Initiatives
While Steph Curry represents floating from a societal and more commercial side of things, concrete data and research related to floating and athletic performance is starting to find its way back into the float industry.
We saw this clearly at the Float Conference when The Ohio State University and University of Cincinnati presented on their collaborative work with the Air Force Strong Team. Over the past year, hundreds of student athletes on their soccer, basketball, and football teams have floated over the course of a season. This effort is collecting a comprehensive data set on how and when to use floating to target an athlete’s peak performance while assisting in post-workout recovery. This data-driven approach to training is rampant across all sports as well as the military, and we’ll hopefully see float research continue to come out in more profound and definitive ways over the next few years.
The project’s overarching goal is clear: identify tools to increase performance and reduce recovery time.
The presenters couldn’t have been more explicitly excited when sharing their data and general thoughts concerning athletes in the float environment. I could spend the next 2,000 words detailing the findings, but it’s probably better to hear it straight from the people doing the research.
Here’s a broad overview of some of their very initial findings.
The float tank was found to reduce reported musculoskeletal pain/soreness, boost immune function, decrease heart-rate/blood pressure, increase circulation, reduce certain endocrine system markers, and contribute to general overall autonomic nervous system regulation. Again, keep in mind that these effects were found in varying degrees, and these are very early results.
From a narrative perspective, the float environment reduces the effect of gravity on the body and creates an ideal environment for reaching homeostasis, affording more resources to various bodily systems for recovery, healing, and integration. I like the comparison to ecology — if you want to remedy a disturbed patch of earth, often the best thing to do is leave it alone.
Also, from a historical perspective, when the government is an early funder or adopter of something, this can be a marker in that industry’s development and expansion. In recent decades, much of the computer and life sciences research has been driven by institutions like the military, prior to widespread economic and social adoption. I’m not saying that float tanks are the next brain–computer interface and that we’re going to transition to a Minority Report-like, pre-cog society, but I’m also not NOT saying that…
So, we’ll just leave that paradox inside that enigma and put it on the shelf next to The Great Mystery.
A Salty Suggestion
We couldn’t get through a post on athletics and floating without briefly mentioning the fact that the float tank is filled with Epsom salt (magnesium sulphate), long suggested as a boon to muscle recovery and soreness. Especially when it comes to athletics and floating, it’s tempting to hawk this claim as an added benefit for muscle recovery, but be careful. While research may eventually substantiate the claim that Epsom salt is a reliable tool to aid in recovery, there is really no science to back this up, the claim having survived thus far pretty much by pure anecdote.
While a deep understanding of the research out there isn’t essential, reliable knowledge is a powerful tool to allow you to pitch floating confidently to athletes, and avoid relying on anecdotal or unverifiable claims. This applies to knowing what is both known and not known. As stewards of this industry, it’s important to know what you’re talking about.
Inviting athletes to your center
Beyond being exciting and inherently validating, the visible adoption of float tanks by famous athletes creates a ripple of awareness that’s relevant for all of us in the float industry. The association is valuable in an incalculable but inevitably-true way. Connection with popular figures can boost overall awareness and, in theory, sales. “Oh you run a float center, isn’t that the thing Steph Curry uses?”
The combination of this growing base of research and the visibility afforded by icons like Steph Curry, are exactly the signs that the athletic world will continue to turn its eyes towards the float tank.This year was interesting, from an industry perspective, because it featured float tanks (or variations, thereof) in a few prominent cultural platforms, specifically Steph Curry and the upside-downificizer in Stranger Things.
It also featured some of the most high level and extensive pilot studies being done on elite athletes and their response to the float tank. While the exposure from popular culture will lift us up, future research will be something we can stand on to make verifiable claims about why specific populations (athletes in this case) should try our practice out.
Be wary of slinging claims that floating is going to make someone a better athlete, even if you wholeheartedly believe that to be true. Floating is never a shortcut, but a tool to integrate with other training. That said, I encourage you to check out the relevant conference videos mentioned above, and educate yourself so you can connect with existing athletes and clients in your center.
Ask them how they connect with floating. You may even consider forming a relationship with a gym or yoga studio in your area or, say, sponsor a local sports team. “Gooo, Floaterrrrss!”
Again, just be careful of using claims you can’t fully support to try to fill your tanks. Instead, open up the dialogue with that one client who floats at 7am after her 20 mile marathon training run. As we wait for the quantitative data on floatings effect on athletics and performance to pile up, we can also focus on the qualitative information, take a page from the phenomenologists’ book, and value the case study, the experience, and the story.
As you begin to understand how floaters at your center use the tank to integrate with their training, you can do more community outreach, perhaps eventually selling float packages to enthusiastic teams and gyms. After you connect with known clients, turn to the oblivious customers, the ones who don’t necessarily know what floating is, or how it could connect with their training.
If you have tanks to fill, consider carrying around a few free float gift certificates to hand out when people seem really interested. We use the gift card texting feature from HelmBot in case we forget physical coupons, allowing us to instantly send free floats to people we meet from our phones.
Remember, every community will have a different flavor of clients. Those populations will also vary across cities, where different centers support a variety of neighborhoods and clients. Are your clients cyclers or runners? Is your city more into team sports, or perhaps outdoor adventures like rock climbing and mountain biking? Are you surrounded by more gym rats or more yogis? Ideally, athletes that connect deeply with the practice of floating will do the heavy lifting by telling their friends, coaches, teammates, etc.
After all, individual floaters will always be our best marketers.
Our industry is growing, and this coincides with a greater awareness, not just of float tanks in general, but the range of specific applications towards which they might be useful. The recent interest in our industry from an athletics perspective is only part of a broader social learning process. Think of all the things they did with the coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy — surely a float tank has even more social and economic utility, right?
When asked what the integration of the floating and athletic worlds might continue to look like, Kevin said, “As sports develop and skills increase, athletes are willing to do anything that may increase their ability, even if it’s only by 1%. I have no doubts about what floating has provided for me — and as other athletes look to their competitive advantages, the growth will be nothing short of exponential.”
I think we can confidently predict that more mature research will continue to come out on floating and athletic performance. Although it will continue to focus on recovery of the bodily systems, research and its application might expand to incorporate visualization, sports psychology, somatic awareness, and sport-specific integration. We’ve yet to see the full effects of how it might be applied to populations that have experienced concussions, for example.
As athletes, coaches, and trainers begin to play with how the tank can serve them and their teams, it will also be interesting to see how/if this affects the hardware and software features of future float tanks. Sometimes, the beauty of being a blog writer, as opposed to an academic, is that you can wantonly ask such questions and let the future reveal the answer.
Finally, let’s end by honoring that every athlete is simply a human who uses their body more than most, and that the float environment is ideally suited to address the whole person. It necessarily honors the dynamic nature of the mind-body connection. A soccer player is not just a “ME KICK BALL, I LIKE SOCCAHHH,” sports program with legs, but someone with cognitive, emotional, and relational depth. Humans who play sports bring their physical, mental, and emotional selves to the field, rink, rock wall, etc.
The tank can provide options for mental training and toughness, but also healing and wellness. I was surprised and heartened when Bob Mangine’s conference talk focused in part on the general mental health of the collegiate athlete. I was similarly inspired by ex-marine Logan Skees’ integration of floating into his gym for veterans and former NFL linebacker David Vobora’s work with clients with multiple amputations. Even as the Air Force is generating much of this research to make their soldiers more effective on the battlefield, I hope that the float tank can serve to offer softness and compassion to the athletic community, a world where toughness and aggression can sometimes be heavily valued.
Here we are. We are here — at the end of the post.
If you play any part in this industry, all of this is worthy fodder for consideration from a general industry trend awareness perspective, and also from a marketing and client-focused perspective. If we continue to see research and high-level adoption of floating by the athletic community, this relevance will only continue to grow over time.
If current trends persist, Float Tank Solutions will probably be running Super Bowl ads in 30 years…
How does your center connect with your local athletes? Get in touch — firstname.lastname@example.org