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Triathletes love their gear, and that doesn’t stop at bike and run accessories. Paddles, fins, snorkels and pull buoys are all swim aids (aka pool toys) often used in the water. But do triathletes rely on these tools a little too much? To decide, we put resident swim expert Sara McLarty up against coach Chris Huxley, the founder of San Diego’s North County Swim Masters program.
Sara: For late-blooming swimmers, pool toys can be a hindrance on their ability to develop a proper stroke. By relying on equipment to correct body position, provide speed and/or increase power, many athletes end up feeling slow and heavy in the water on race day.
Take the pull buoy. After logging hundreds of miles on the bike and run, it might not seem like a big deal to just drag your legs through the water and get a good upper body workout. Unfortunately, by overusing the buoy, many athletes never develop a naturally horizontal body position in the water. When they are forced to leave it at home, their back end drags very low through the water.
Chris: Tools help groom proper technique by exaggerating the effect of specific movements in the water. One key role of an effective swim coach, however, is defining the judicious use of pool toys, ensuring that the novice swimmer uses them as a tool rather than a crutch. Swimming with a pull buoy mimics the horizontal body position of swimming in a wetsuit, and since most triathletes will wear one on race day, a pull buoy simulates race conditions.
Additionally, part of the allure of triathlon is toys. Pool toys can add an element of fun to a swim workout, breaking up the monotony of black-line syndrome.
Sara: I agree that many drills can be improved with the use of equipment. However, in the grand scheme of swim training, I believe triathletes should train without aids. I have seen case after case of swimmers using and abusing “free speed” with fins or easy flotation with buoys during practice. On race day, none of these devices are allowed.
The exact opposite occurs in bike and run preparations. Training is done with items that are slower and heavier, such as road helmets and heavier running shoes. When we take these items off on race day, we are replacing them with lighter, faster, more aerodynamic things to increase our speed.
If you really want to use toys to improve your swimming, tie a band around your ankles and grasp a pair of tennis balls in your fists. I have no doubt that you’ll be swimming faster on race day!
Chris: While I see the utility of training for the bike and run with heavier, bulkier equipment, I don’t think this applies to pool toys. Pool toys should be used to promote efficiency. When athletes train with pool toys, they develop better body position and a more efficient stroke, and this muscle memory will persist even when the tools are abandoned.
Fins are my favorite tool. They can benefit swimmers of all ability levels. Some drills are challenging for novice swimmers as their forward momentum drops. Adding fins can improve body balance to allow them to devote meticulous attention to the drill. Fins train a swimmer to generate kicks from the hip and to keep the toes pointed. They are great for breaking up monotony and eliminating shoulder strain. Fins also increase velocity in the water, which can teach beginners the sensation of swimming faster than they normally would. Lastly, they can combat lethargy that might accompany hard training and thus be a motivational tool.
Triathlete final thoughts: Like reality TV and barefoot running, pool toys are best in small doses.