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You’ve probably seen That Guy. The one with the fins, the paddles, the snorkel, a pull buoy, the headphones, the smartwatch, and a few other things that are unidentifiable but certainly would be considered illegal in any swim event. He has no fear of wearing them all at once. He’s the T-3000 of swimmers—a biomechanical monster who has been teleported from the future, sent to destroy your focus and calm and replace it with wonder and worry. While you certainly don’t want to become The Swiminator, there is a world of swim training tools that can help transform your landbody into something maybe even slightly more fishlike. The best swim training tools are the ones that help you actually race better when the gun goes off. The best swim training tools are not the ones that automagically elevate you into the next lane at your masters practice for no other reason that bragging rights, because let’s be honest, if you’re a triathlete at a masters swim, you’ll probably never be cool anyway.
Swim training tools come in all shapes and sizes, and they do all sorts of things. The best ones will help build strength, work your form, and increase your flexibility. There are a lot of swim gadgets that will help you with motivation or pacing or help let the yards tick by faster, but we’re going to stick to the stuff that will directly make you better. But before we get to the best swim training tools, let’s talk a little bit about why you might need them.
If you came from running or (God forbid) cycling, you’ve probably got little twiggy arms. Little toothpicks that slice through the water like cutting-side-down knife blades. Maybe climbing the rope in gym class was impossible. Maybe a chin up has been an unattainable life goal. Many triathletes struggle with the ability to not only apply swimming power (we’ll get to that later), but also to generate it. If you have fantastic form but can’t pull yourself through the water with that form, it doesn’t do you much good. Obviously the gym is a good place to start, but there are tons of tools that may make you faster during masters (but see above…) while actually developing the strength that triathletes so desperately need: Aside from land-originating triathletes’ innate lack of strength, power in the open water is absolutely crucial to having a faster swim split (along with everything that follows). Because we absolutely, 100 percent need to sight, and lift our heads out of the water to do so, we need more strength than even regular pool swimmers (tell that to your masters haters…). We also need to “power through” changing conditions in the water. We don’t have walls to push off of and restart our speed every half minute or so, so it’s important that we’re able to keep our own momentum. “Power tools” are crucial for this.
While better form could be the best reason to get some good swim training tools, they’re only as helpful as a swimmer lets them be. If you use these items wrong, they’ll not only slow any progress in the pool, but they could send you backwards. The idea is not to use them like a crutch (fins, we’re looking at you), but as something to develop a skill that will be absolutely translated into real-world results on race day. The best tools for swim training are the ones you use sparingly and with intention. Think about what specific skill you’re developing, then swim without them immediately after to work on that perception sans-tool. The idea is to bring your body closer to that ideal when the gear is sitting up on the deck—or better yet when you’re out there with 1,000 friends trying to get through the washing-machine swim.
While this effectively goes hand-in-hand with form, it’s worth mentioning on its own because flexibility is one of the biggest limiters in athletes who come to tri from another sport. Form and power are the big, sexy sides of of the “best swim training tools” coin, but any true swimmer can tell you that without flexibility, you’re basically just thrashing around in the water. Runners in particular are notorious for inflexible ankles, which can make all of the power training and body position stuff nearly unimportant with two flaps pointing downward like a bird with sideways wings (quite a visual, yes). Also, a nasty side effect of all of those bike miles is inflexibility in the neck, scapula, and upper back, which can cause huge problems while breathing and lead to a snaking body position. Which is to say, without proper flexibility (and the tools to create it), running and cycling can really hurt your swimming—good form and power or no.
So now that you know a little bit about what makes a good swim training tool the best swim training tool, let’s look at a few picks, based on features:
Best Dryland Swim Training Tool (on a budget)
SPRI Xertube with Foam Handles Resistance Bands
These fairly generic bands attach to any stationary object (doorknob, fence, etc) and give a great dryland workout. Available in three resistances, these are perfect for when you’re traveling and have no access to a pool; perfect for supplemental strength work after a swim. Just be sure you’re practicing good form when using these—keeping your elbows high and pulling all the way through the stroke to your hip.
Best Dryland Swim Training Tool
Halo Swim Training System
This setup combines stretch bands in varying resistances with a foldable bench to better simulate the swimming body position and a very novel cutout “guide” that helps put your hands and arms in the most optimal power position. Not only will this give you an excellent strength or aerobic workout, but it’ll actually help your stroke (as much as you can without being in the water).
Best Pull Buoy Swim Training Tool
Hands down this is the buoy you should have if you ever train with a pull buoy. The middle segment is super comfortable and both sides are hollow with a cap to fill with varying amounts of water. Fill it up for up to seven pounds of resistance, or keep it empty for some serious floatiness. Price aside, this is no-brainer for a do-it-all tool.
Best Kickboard Swim Training Tool
Finis Alignment Kickboard
This unique kickboard uses a special design and a handstrap to basically take the old foam kickboard to the next level. Ideally combined with a snorkel for the best body position, this is less fun than the standard kickboard for chatting during kick sets, but much better for actually improving your swim. Though it takes some getting used to, this is the next evolution of the kickboard.
Best Snorkel Swim Training Tool
Yes, $150 is A LOT for a snorkel, so just remember that you can find one (most are the same) from lots of brands for like $20-40. But if you want the best, Powerbreather is a crazy invention that stops a swimmer from rebreathing their exhaled air while preventing water from entering the tube. The most interesting feature is that you can adjust breathing “resistance levels” to simulate the craziness of a fast, panicky start. While it’s got a little bit of a learning curve, testers like the mouthpiece and a much-improved headband system over the old standard strap design.
Best Hand Paddle Swim Training Tool
Speedo Preflex Swim Paddles
While standard hand paddles are fine, some of the new advanced designs like the Preflexs do a better job of accentuating the catch phase near your fingertips. Using a curved design with channels shaped into the paddle, this smaller-than-usual paddle doesn’t cover your whole hand, but creates more resistance focused on finger-tip flexion—something triathletes generally need help with. Because of the half-paddle style design, you can also use the Preflex for other strokes.
Best Foam Roller for Swim Training
Rollga Standard Foam Roller
Hands-down the best-shaped foam roller, the ridges built into this firm roller are ideal for rolling out hard-to-get spots. Specifically for swimming, this will work your shoulder blades—a muscle group that’s super tough to get to otherwise (without massage). The included guide also serves as an excellent quick reference for how to get to which muscles. This is a must-have for triathletes who want to stay flexible and swim well.
Best Fins for Swim Training
Aqua Sphere Alpha Fins
Constructed out of EVA foam, these fins are by far the most comfortable setup available. While other fins are made of hard rubber that can cause blisters and rubbing, these foam fins do a great job of contouring to your foot. Better yet, these are specifically constructed with an offset profile to help point toes and increase ankle flexibility on the downkick (super super important for triathletes who often have terrible ankle flexibility) due to their super floaty nature.