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Brett Sutton Explains The Chopping Board Paddles

Triathlon coach Brett Sutton explains the use of the non-traditional "chopping board paddles."

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Triathlon coach Brett Sutton explains the use of the non-traditional “chopping board paddles.” This article originally appeared at

The humble chopping board has long taken pride of place in the swim toolkit of many successful swimmers. They are used specifically in improving our athletes who use a two-beat kick, bilateral breathing technique.

The absolute relevance of these paddles doesn’t come from my imagination, but from countless hours spent watching films of swimmers taken at the Valley Pool so many years ago. The pool had an underwater window where athletes were filmed using every type of swim equipment, noting every variant that came from a certain paddle or flipper (or fins for US readers).

The difference to stroke that a simple, small differential on a paddle would make was enormous. Just as different flipper brands would completely change a kick pattern without any noticeable difference when viewing from deck side. Hours and hours were spent in “the hole” as we called it, going over every aspect of swim equipment usage.

Now back in the day (late 70s, early 80s) the swimming distance technique of choice was the Forbes Carlile ‘crawl’ motion of Jenny Turrell and Sally Lockyer. Both world record breaking swimmers, who were followed by the great Shane Gould ‎ who at one stage held every world record from 100m to 1500m freestyle.

This stroke is now hardly seen as it has severe speed limitations for women sprinting. But back then it was all the rage and bilateral breathing was the norm, unlike today. Yet with its faster turnover of stroke and two-beat kick it is still highly relevant to triathlon and open water swimming.

During this era, arm paddles were also the rage for training this square, front-on stroke. These were a part of a style keeping the body flat with no rolling, and press.

The arm paddles had their last champion in 1980. They were part of the kit of the great Rowdy Gaines, the American sprinter, who coincidentally held every short course collegiate distance record. Something now unheard of for an Olympic 100m sprinter. But Rowdy loved the these paddles even when they were being abandoned across world swimming.

The arm paddles of that era, like the ones resurfacing again now, see many shapes and sizes all trying to lock in the wrist and prevent dropped elbows.

Not a bad idea for age group swimmers one may think? Sometimes, but not always.

It depends on your stroke. If you breathe on one side or you six or four beat kick or cross over while kicking, then the arm paddles will prove very counter productive. So one needs to match the paddles to the specific stroke. When you see a photo of our squad at the pool, there will always be a vast array of different paddles in all shapes, sizes and configurations. This is not because everyone has bought them from different websites, but because all are being used for a specific stroke and purpose.

Thus with our changing of both Nicola Spirig and Daniela Ryf’s style to the two-beat bilateral breathing ‘back to the future’ stroke I have been searching the swim shops and the web for the arm paddles of choice.

Alas, none address the original fault we found originally with the ‘shut fist’ or arm paddle as it enters the water:

The initial 2-4cm can produce slippage until the force of the press is applied, creating a little balance issue. Not a big issue I grant you, but it used to annoy me no end back then and continues to annoy me now.

The solution back in my swimming days was found in a most peculiar way. My mum was holding the chopping board in the sink, moving it backwards and forwards in the washing up water. I said ‘what are you doing?’ To which she explained ‘getting the garlic crush out of the dimples of the board.’

So simple, yet when I went and bought two of these light plastic chopping blocks with the hole cut out for gripping, much to my surprise it gripped the water as soon as the pressure of the press was applied.

As you can see from Nicola’s picture the board even has a small paddle groove around the fingers like a knuckle duster. This lip catches the water instantly and takes away the slippage because of the small surface area of the fist.

So whenever I have had a swimmer that uses the the two-beat bilateral breathing technique, then the chopping boards are brought straight out. The dropped wrist or elbow can’t function with the arm paddle on, so it makes the wrist and forearm act as an oar. Much more effective.

Please don’t write in to me about modern biomechanics that have made this stroke obsolete and why it doesn’t workunless you have trained four female athletes to swim 8:32 or better for long course 800m. They all used to carry arm paddles in their tool kit and used them at least 2,000m per day. Neither did any take less than 50 strokes for every 50m.

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