Ask A Gear Guru: What’s A Swim Snorkel For?
We take a look at why you might want to use a swim snorkel, plus a few good options.
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The swim snorkel—loved by many, hated by some. It can help you breathe easier, or (more often) it can cause you to nearly barf after a flip turn. It can help your form, or it can look like incredibly poor form to non swimmers. The only thing more polarizing than if you should use a snorkel and when is what kind of swim snorkel you should get. Some of you reading this might even be thinking, “I came here for swimming tips, not gear recommendations for my next trip to Hawaii.” No, we won’t get into snorkel snorkels—the kind that lets you see beautiful undersea life—this is all about snorkels for swimming, the kind that make you a better, more efficient swimmer (and sometimes choke you out). So what’s a swim snorkel for, when do you use it, and what are some good options? Read on.
What’s a swim snorkel for?
Simply put, most people wear a swim snorkel when they want to eliminate one of the biggest “distractions” to perfect form: breathing. For 90% of triathletes, when they breathe, a chain reaction of form faux pas begins at their head, runs down their neck to their shoulders, and even down to some triathletes’ hips. Assuming this is an issue for you, the best case is your head position is out of whack with your body; worst case, it throws your whole stroke out of alignment, and you snake your way across the pool like a wet noodle. Even thinking about breathing is enough for many triathletes to keep their headline too high in the water, causing them to drop their torso and hips and slow down. Eliminate all of that, and in theory you should be able to not only swim better, but also remove a big dynamic variable that makes it tougher to improve your form. With your head stable and your breath theoretically staying consistent (we’ll get to that below), you can think more about your body position (staying level in the water), your stroke (staying long, working on your phases, pulling all the way through, etc.), and your kick (generating power from the hips, timing with your pull, etc.). Some people also use a snorkel with a small restrictor to train with reduced air, but this has questionable value, and it is not the same as training at altitude—no matter what anyone tells you. But we won’t get into that whole argument here.
When should I use a swim snorkel?
Let’s get this out of the way early: Definitely not during a race. Not only is it against the rules in many races, but if it’s a mass-start open-water race, it’s not a good idea at all. Not only is there a good chance that you’ll get water in the snorkel pretty much constantly, but there’s a good chance it could either be ripped out of your mouth by accident or even injure another racer. Also, as valuable of a tool as it is, don’t overuse a snorkel either, because of exactly what we just said a few sentences above—you can’t use it in a race. Use your snorkel while you’re doing drills at the beginning of your workout, use it a little more during the warmup to get “in tune” with your form, maybe use it during part of your main set if you really need to, maybe use it as you cool down, but don’t use it so much that you become reliant on it. Remember, breathing is still a part of your stroke, no matter what, and you need to learn to do it well. Be sure your time spent with the snorkel is not just a way to swim better/faster/easier, but it’s time spent focusing on really fixing stuff that’s hard to remedy without it. Also, a snorkel is a good choice for anyone rehabbing from any sort of neck or back injury.
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What’s it like swimming with a snorkel?
If you’ve never used one before, there’s definitely a learning curve, particularly if you use flip turns. While some snorkels are better than others, expect to have to clear it of water from time to time, and still get a little bit of water in your mouth anyway. If you flip turn at walls, you’ll need to give it a big burst of breath after you flip and streamline to get the water out—in addition to exhaling the normal amount as you spin. Some people never get the hang of doing a flip turn with a snorkel, and honestly, it’s not a big deal if you don’t. You’re a triathlete, not a high school/college/pro swimmer. Otherwise, swimming with a snorkel is a little bit difficult for new users until it isn’t. Once you get the hang of it, the clearing, the breathing with a little bit of water in the pipe, etc., becomes just another part of your swim. Keep plugging away at it until you find a way to make it work, an definitely don’t give up too soon if it’s tough.
What kind of snorkel should I get for triathlon training?
First off, definitely don’t buy a diving snorkel, this is what a swim snorkel is for. There are a few good reasons why a dive snorkel won’t work as well for swimming, but mostly it’s because they’re meant to go along with a mask—which you obviously shouldn’t be using anyway. Swim snorkels have little features like being mounted in the middle of your face (not great for underwater exploration, but good for swimming laps), different purge/catch valves, and often lack a splash guard that allows for more air to get to you. That’s not to say you can’t use a dive snorkel if you need to for some reason, but stick with a swimming one. The best swimming snorkels will have a comfortable strap for your head, padding of some type for your forehead, an angled opening to prevent water from entering when swimming fast, a big angle so you can swim with your face straight own (good form, and a good way to collect and keep away bits of water that enter the top). Without further ado, a few of our top picks based on features:
FINIS Stability Snorkel
Though it’s a little on the higher end of swim snorkel prices, this model features a unique forehead section with lots of padding and a notch you can move the mouthpiece to the side between sets. The tube itself is adjustable for different sizes, and it hugs the head much tighter than many snorkels for a more hydrodynamic profile in the water (if that matters to you). The only thing this is missing is a purge valve, but for some, the head strap makes up for it.
Ok, bear with us on this one. Yes, it’s a $150 snorkel, but it’s the Rolls Royce of snorkels. With two tubes and a system that prevents recycling/rebreathing of exhaled air, you’ll get more oxygen during your swims (assuming that’s your goal—it also comes with restrictors as well). The head fit system works like a helmet dial, so you’ll easily get a good fit—better than the standard pull strap system that can often come loose and require constant retightening. The only downside is that flip turns are notoriously difficult to master with this device, so much so that you may want to avoid them altogether.
TYR Ultralite Swim Snorkel 2.0
This is your basic snorkel that does what it’s supposed to. Featuring a purge valve at the bottom of a collection area and a removable, cleanable mouthpiece, there’s fewer bells and whistles here than some of the others on this list. That said, TYR does include “cardio caps” to vary the amount of air coming in and rests at a moderate angle above your head—not straight up, not curving along close to your skull.
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