There are lots of pool toys and gadgets designed to improve your swim technique – here are four of the best that every triathlete should own.
If you visit any pool during a lane swimming session, you’re bound to see a swimmer or two with a bag packed to bursting with pool toys. From simple floats to more out-there creations and expensive gadgets, it’s hard to know where to start if you’re just getting into swimming.
These are the four essential pool toys we’d recommend every triathlete should have in their kit bag to aid freestyle stroke progression.
What’s a pull buoy?
A pull buoy is a simple foam float that’s usually hourglass shaped to fit comfortably between your thighs without slipping out.
What does it do?
The pull buoy raises the position of your legs in the water, negating the need to kick and letting you concentrate on your arms. For most triathletes, whose heavy cycling legs sink at least a little, it reduces drag while swimming making you swim faster. The position in the water while using a pull buoy is also very similar to that created while wearing a wetsuit, making it a great tool for triathletes who want that open-water feel in the pool.
How to use it
A pull buoy is a great tool for working on your arm technique, core stability and rotation without the disruption of kicking or simply to rest the legs after some tough kicking sets.
Focus on good arm entry and keeping the body in alignment throughout the stroke. You’ll generally swim a little flatter while using a pull buoy, which means you can really feel your rotation as you push against the float. Conversely, if you rotate too much this tends to unbalance the stroke as you’ll have to fight harder to get back into position. This makes a pull buoy a great tool for working on your whole-body alignment, keeping chest, hips, knees and ankles in line.
You can also use a pull buoy for drills, whether between your legs while sculling or out front in your hands as a float while kicking.
Many triathletes swim faster with a pull buoy so there’s a natural affinity towards using one but beware over-reliance – kicking is still essential in racing whether in the pool or open water.
What’s a swimming snorkel?
A swimming snorkel is a simple plastic pipe, usually with an ovalized shape, that features a flexible mouthpiece at one end and a rubber strap like your goggles to hold it in place around your head. Unlike a traditional diving snorkel, it’s positioned centrally in front of your face, following the line of your nose.
What does it do?
A swimming snorkel allows you to breathe while keeping your head underwater. This allows you to work on your complete swimming technique without the interruption of having to turn your head to breathe.
How to use it
Breathing through a snorkel requires a bit more effort than breathing naturally, so if you find that you’re accidentally sucking water in through your nose, a nose clip will make all the difference. The extra effort required to breathe also provides a great opportunity for strong belly breathing – engaging your abdominal muscles, rather than your chest, to do most of the work.
Concentrating on breathing in this way also discourages holding your breath when the face is underwater – a common habit for newer swimmers – and promotes full exhalation, readying your lungs for a full breath of fresh air.
In normal freestyle swimming, turning to breathe affects your body position and stroke, so without this, you can focus on producing good technique stroke after stroke. This more exact repetition of your stroke fires the same muscles each time, helping to build muscle memory. You might be surprised how much of a workout your arms get when you do longer sets with the snorkel.
As well as working on arm technique, using a snorkel gives you the chance to practise your kicking without the intrusion of additional rotation that comes during breathing.
The snorkel’s out-front position can also help you feel when you deviate from a good head position as turning your head to the side will result in a very noticeable feeling of increased drag. So, the more you swim with your snorkel, the more natural it becomes to keep your head aligned – which positively affects your entire body alignment. By extension, when following up a snorkel set with normal swimming, you should find that your head naturally rests in that correct position.
What are swimming paddles?
Swimming paddles are moulded pieces of plastic, usually just a bit larger than your hand, which attach to your fingers with rubber cords.
What do they do?
By creating a greater surface area for your hands, paddles allow you to exert more pressure on the water during your stroke, helping to build muscular force in the shoulders and chest to make you a stronger swimmer.
How to use them
Even if your paddles are equipped with multiple rubber loops to secure your fingers and wrists, a great tip is to attach the paddle by only the middle finger. This reduces the paddle’s stability so that if your hand enters the water at an angle, the paddle will rotate, letting you know you need to work on your hand entry.
When it comes to using the paddle for strength work, your arm cadence will naturally drop as you create more propulsion with each stroke. This slow-motion swimming allows you to ensure your arm technique is as good as it can be. When swimming normally after a paddle set, the decrease in purchase on the water means your cadence will usually pick up again but try to maintain the same shape in your stroke as with the paddles.
Paddles are more likely to cause injury than any other pool toy, so concentrate on maintaining good technique, build up gradually and if you feel the slightest niggle in your shoulder, stop using them for the rest of the session.
What are swimming fins?
Swimming fins slip over the feet and resemble those used for scuba diving but are much shorter, stubbier and more flexible.
What do they do?
Fins increase the resistance of your feet against the water, creating greater propulsion while swimming. This added propulsion also raises the legs in the water, creating a flatter, more ideal body position for freestyle swimming.
How to use them
Fins can be used in two primary ways – increasing propulsion so you can work on your stroke technique and for strengthening your kick.
Swimming with fins increases your speed through the water and improves your body position. In this way, wearing them gives a similar effect to using a pull buoy. However, unlike with a pull buoy, fins allow you to work on your complete stroke mechanics, including arm and leg rhythm. The increased speed through the water also creates a larger bow wave around your head, allowing you to focus on breathing without lifting your head over the waterline.
Fins emphasise your kick so if you’ve got great technique, it’ll feel natural and powerful. If your kick’s not as good as it should be, you’ll probably feel like you’re really overworking your legs to get the propulsion you need. This increased sensitivity of your kick technique can help you work on it – concentrating on kicking from the hips without locking the knees out, rather than using a deep knee bend to kick with the lower legs. Some athletes find allowing the thighs or ends of the fins to brush lightly together increases feel to promote good technique.
You can maximise your kick progression by doing kicking drills on your front and rotated to each side in emulation of your body rotation while swimming. You can also kick on your back, which is great for athletes who find that kicking hard creates a need to breathe more regularly than normal.
Unless you’ve already got a strong kick, these drills are going to give your legs a serious workout so build-up gradually from session to session and don’t kick through any niggles, especially in your hips.
The Bottom Line
Once you’ve got the hang of using these essential pool toys, you can start combining them – kick drills on the front with a snorkel keep the air flowing in while using paddles with a pull buoy means total concentration on the arms.
All pool toys are designed to improve your technique, but they can all too easily become a crutch that’s relied on if overused, so follow up your toy drills with swim sets concentrating on the same technique improvements to ingrain them into your freestyle stroke.