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As a young swimmer, Kelly Williamson’s coach had one rule: No tools in the pool.
“I was small, and he feared shoulder issues,” says Williamson of her youth coach’s ban on paddles, buoys and other swim aids. As she developed into a successful collegiate swimmer, then an even more successful professional triathlete, Williamson continued to employ her first coach’s philosophy of “technique without tools.” To this day, Williamson has never had a shoulder injury, an accomplishment she credits to a purist’s approach to swim training. “I think triathletes need to be good swimmers sans toys,” says Williamson. “Banging out a workout like 40×100, without toys, on a solid pace, can do great things for one’s confidence.”
Yet, even Williamson grabs for her swim aids on occasion. Paddles, pull buoys and ankle bands can also be used to help improve technique, gain swim specific strength and mix up the training a bit. What makes them problematic is that swim aids can also mask your weakness, allowing you to swim well without actually correcting the issue.
The case for tools
The pro athletes under coach Brett Sutton’s tutelage train with nothing but toys: paddles, buoys, bands, fins, and Sutton’s trademark chopping board paddles, which are actual cutting boards from the kitchenware department with a hole cut in one edge for gripping.
“We use swim aids for every level of swimmer, and we use them for every session,” says Sutton. “We use aids to create a motion or certain movement in the water.”
For example, an athlete who struggles to keep form during a long swim would incorporate paddles to reinforce proper stroke mechanics. A more advanced swimmer would use larger paddles for a power sprint set. When preparing for open-water swims, the use of a pull buoy in the pool helps a swimmer isolate the upper body for good strokes over long distances. The use of tools, Sutton says, allow swimmers to have better stroke mechanics and more physical strength.
The case for technique
Could tools be doing more harm than good? Coach Frank Sole, a veteran swim coach focused on the needs of triathletes, says it’s possible – especially for the average age-group triathlete.
“Many age-group athletes come into the sport with minimal to no swimming experience,” says Sole. “So, in turn, they overemphasize the use of paddles and pull buoys not necessarily to correct or improve technique but to mask deficiencies. The tools create a false sense of improvement that is actually not happening.”
Sole uses the pool buoy as an example. It can work wonders for a triathlete with poor balance and buoyancy because the pull buoy elevates the hips, reducing drag and resistance and increasing speed. Remove the pull buoy, and the hips drop once more. The problem has not been fixed, only masked.
“The biggest mistake is that they are not addressing poor mechanics,” says Sole. “The triathlete gets really, really good at doing it really, really bad.”
Should the toys be tossed?
But don’t throw away your paddles and buoys just yet. Swim aids do have their place in training, just not for the reasons most age-group triathletes use them. Both Sutton and Sole agree toys need to be used as an tool, not as a crutch. As Sutton says, “swim aids are there to work for the athlete, not the other way around.”
Even Williamson, who eschews swim tools for the majority of her training, says they have a place in her routine from time to time. “Even through a career, things change,” she comments. “Paddles are good occasionally for breaking up boredom in the pool. At altitude [Williamson lives and trains in Colorado Springs], I struggle with tired legs more and I do need to use the pull buoy sometimes. But if you ‘need’ it too often for that reason, what you probably need is real, good, old-fashioned rest.”
Using tools and technique
Rather than deciding to pick one method over the other, both can be utilized to address a variety of issues. Here’s a list of common issues triathletes face in the pool and how they can be addressed using technique and tools.
1. Your hips keep dropping
Tool: A pull buoy will elevate your hips and help you feel “correct” position in the water.
Technique: Understand the body is like a seesaw in the water—when one end is up, the other will go down. Focus on lowering your head and pressing your chest into the water as you roll from side to side.
2. Your form falls apart when you get tired
Tool: Using modestly-sized paddles (no more than 10 percent bigger than your hand) for a small section of your set can reinforce proper hand positioning through the entire stroke sequence.
Technique: Employ Sole’s three-stroke rule: “A triathlete has to swim with cognitive awareness. Upon recognizing the issue, the triathlete has three strokes to make the necessary correction.” Paying attention to your stroke makes you better at adjusting on the fly.
3. You want to increase your stroke rate
Tools: Try an ankle band, which restricts your ability to kick and forces your body to utilize a higher turnover in order to stay afloat.
Technique: Sing a song in your head — try “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees — or use a waterproof metronome to keep your tempo (and your turnover) high.
4. You have a big ride or run workout after your swim
Tools: “We use a pull buoy if we are following the swim set with a long bike or run. That way, we save the legs for the second session,” says Sutton.
Technique: Utilize a passive kicking motion that requires minimal energy.
4. You want to become stronger in the off-season
Tools: Make friends with your kickboard. In addition to giving you a faster swim split, a kickboard-centric swim set can be an excellent workout for legs, hips, and core.
Technique: Try a vertical kicking drill: With a vertical orientation in the deep end of the pool, keep your head above water by freestyle kicking. Wrap your arms around your waist to keep the focus on your legs.
5. You want to loosen up after yesterday’s tough workout or race
Tools: The propulsion from a pair of fins can provide both a physical and mental boost to a set of sluggish legs.
Technique: The fingertip drag drill, done at a leisurely pace, is an excellent way to loosen up tight muscles. Extend the drag until the arm is fully extended in front of the head for a quick stretch before the catch.
The bottom line is that you need to decide which method is best for you at that particular time. Newer swimmers may want to focus more on getting their technique down while long time swimmers can use tools more effectively. You should also consider what your specific weaknesses are and what you have coming up in your training. No matter which you choose, the main point is to have a specific reason to grab for the paddles or leave them on deck.