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Dear Coach: How Should I Use Swim Gear to Improve My Stroke?

Snorkels, fins, pull buoys—we love to use them, but it's important to make them really work for you.

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When it comes to triathletes and their swim gear, it’s often hard to get them to part ways with their pull buoy, paddles, snorkel, and fins. But, as a coach, it’s become clear to me that some triathletes have very different reasons for using the gear they do—and they’re not always the right reasons. From my perspective, the value of using training equipment depends on why you’re using it. If you’re using fins, paddles, or a buoy because it’s easier or because it helps you swim faster, that’s not a great reason. However, if you’re using training gear to thoughtfully and strategically improve your skills, then I’m all for it.

With a little creativity, training gear can be really effective at helping you learn and improve your swim skills and mechanics. There are plenty of different ways to use your swim training equipment to help you gain insight into how you’re moving through the water, and help point you towards better ways to swim. As with learning most skills, it’s critical to pay attention to what you’re feeling as you use these strategies.

RELATED: A Complete Guide to Triathlon Swimming


Many triathletes struggle with their breathing. Every time they breathe, it disrupts their rhythm and alignment. While instruction can work on occasion, it can be even more effective to learn to feel the error. By wearing a snorkel for a short period of time, you can feel what it’s like to swim without your breathing disrupting your stroke. When you go back to breathing, you’ll be able to feel the consequence of the head movement that comes with breathing. Alternate repetitions with a snorkel and repetitions without a snorkel, aiming to make all of the repetitions feel the same, regardless of whether you are turning your head to breathe. By doing so, you’ll greatly reduce the negative impact of the breathing movement/head-turning movement.

Sample set:

10 x 50 freestyle as: odds with snorkel, evens without snorkel


Many triathletes will use fins to increase their average pace, or to prevent their legs from sinking in the water. I prefer to use fins to swim really fast. The faster you swim, the more drag you create. When you’re creating more drag, it’s easier to feel the consequences of poor body position or poor breathing mechanics. Perform two or three fast sprints with fins, paying attention to where you feel your stroke is being challenged, then take the fins off and swim at a moderate speed, aiming to work out whatever kinks you noticed. Repeat. Over time, you’ll find that swimming really fast reveals a lot of technical opportunities that you’d otherwise never have noticed.

Sample set:

Do 3 rounds of:  

2 x 25 sprint effort with fins

200 steady effort without fins


Wearing paddles can make you feel like you have a terrific pull. However, that feeling tends to disappear once you take them off. Try this instead: wear just one paddle. Aim to make the non-paddle arm feel just as powerful and strong as the paddle arm. Since you’re getting feedback on both arms at the same time, you can compare the two. The paddle arm represents the standard that you’re trying to meet with the non-paddle arm. Rather than waiting for a coach or friend to provide you feedback, you’ll get instant feedback based upon what you’re feeling, which will serve to accelerate learning. Alternate which hand you put the paddle on.

Sample set:

10 x 100 freestyle with a single paddle, as: odds left hand paddle, evens right hand paddle


Many triathletes will hop on a kickboard to condition their legs in the hope of developing a devastating kick. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of learning going on. Rather than just conditioning the legs, add some skill development by kicking while floating on your board.

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Doing this forces you to learn how to lean into the water to support an effective body position. If you don’t, the board will pop out from under you, providing great feedback about your alignment skills. Feel free to add fins too as it will help you make forward progress without impairing the body position skills you’ll be learning.

Sample set:

Repeat 4-8 times

25 kick while floating on a board (use fins if desired)

50 freestyle (maintain same body position throughout; no fins)

Pull Buoy

The buoy is a good friend to many a triathlete. It helps to keep your hips and feet up at the surface, creating the illusion of balance in the water. While I don’t suggest you use a buoy for that purpose, it does have value when used to target the upper body. For improving your arm pull, I really like counting strokes. However, some triathletes will just pick up their kicking to improve their stroke count. Putting a buoy between your legs really puts a damper on kicking, allowing you to focus on just your arms. If you’re able to reduce your stroke count over the course of a session while wearing a buoy, you know that the improvement you’re seeing is a direct result of a better arm pull. When used strategically in combination with counting strokes or other upper body drills, the buoy can be a powerful tool.

Sample set:

Repeat 3-5 times

4 x 50 freestyle with a buoy, aiming to take fewer strokes per 50 (1-4)

RELATED: Ask A Gear Guru: What Are the Best Swim Training Tools?