Friday, January 09, 2009

Swim Coach Sez.... Drop the Poolside Toys

Oh I know, triathletes LOVE their gear. Can't get enough gear, triathlete who dies with the most wheels, helmets, wetsuits, and running shoes wins, right? But when you hit the pool deck, you're really better off leaving the toys at home. You know what I mean fellas (yeah, it's mostly fellas though a very few female triathletes run into this trap): you go to do 3,000 yards of swimming and you do 1,000 of them with a pool buoy, 750 with swim fins, and 500 with paddles. That leaves you with, what, 750 actual yards of swimming?

Not that there's not a time and a place for crutches, er, swim aids. Used judiciously, they can help build technique, stamina, and even strength. But for most triathletes, judicious use flies right out the window. And let's face it, if strength was all that important in swimming, the guy with the 42 inch chest and bulging biceps would be cruising smoothly down the lane instead of eating the wake of the 60 year old grandmother next to him.

So here's the guidelines I use with my swimmers for various poolside toys:

Pull Buoys:

Uses: Buoys can be used to free yourself from worrying about kicking so you can focus on various aspects of your arm stroke or breathing. They can also be used during the latter half of a distance workout to simulate the greater arm fatigue of a wetsuit swim. Use a pull buoy with the drills portion of your swim workout (you DO incorporate lots of drills into every workout, right???) Or for a killer Ironman training swim, do 2,000 swim, 2,000 pull continuous and aim for a negative split.

Drawbacks: All too many triathlets use a pull buoy to make up for poor body balance in the water. If you pull with a buoy faster than you swim, this is a sure sign of a poor kick (usually kicking with too much knee bend, which will slow you down) and/or poor body position (typically with feet and hips dragging in the water). Cure: Total Immersion balance drills and kicking from your hips and not your knees.


Uses: Paddles can be used sparingly to improve your feel for catching the water, for keeping your elbow high during the catch, and for increasing fatigue on the arm muscles. Use only with the band that goes around your middle finger (not the wrist band) for keeping a high-elbow catch. If you drop your elbow, you'll lose the paddle. They can also be used to work on the weak arm of your stroke, as in this drill.

Drawbacks: Danger Will Robinson! Paddles can have some really bad consequences when used poorly or excessively. The lightest of these consequences would be contribution to a poor stroke, especially hand entry. Paddles tend to exacerbate poor hand entry and can also lead to ineffective catch and pull as well. They can also exaggerate side-to-side movement or s-turning of the body in the stroke. Unless you know damn well that you have great stroke technique, make sure you get a coach to watch you with the paddles and make sure you're actually benefitting your technique instead of hindering it. The worst consequences of paddle use is actually injury. They can cause or contribute to rotator cuff injuries, shoulder injuries, and I've seen people literally been taken out of swimming for long-time recovery due to poor technique with paddles or excessive paddle use.


Uses:Fins can be useful for speed work (as in building up your turnover for sprinting speed, which most triathletes don't need) and for getting a feel for kicking with a flexible ankle. They are also almost invaluable for learning the butterfly stroke (again, not a staple in most triathlons). When I use them with my swimmers it's usually to help them get a feel for an easy kick in which the foot flexes and bends. Kick with the fins, then try to make your feet do what fins do - flex up and flex down.

Drawbacks: The main drawback I see with swimmers who use fins a lot is that fin use can facilitate a kick with a bigger knee bend. You really really don't want to bend your knees much at all while kicking. Kicking with too much knee bending is one of the single most common swimming flaws and one that is most likely to hold people back from achieving faster, smoother strokes. And in reality, you don't need to kick a whole lot during a triathlon swim anyways. You want to kick enough to keep your feet on the surface of the water, and stabilize your hips against the powerful twisting of the torso, and that's about it. So building up great kicking muscles probably won't do you much good anyways.

So remember, when you sit on the edge of the lap lane at the pool, the best swim aid is your own brain. Concentrating on the various parts of your stroke that you want to improve, focusing on what your arms, legs, feet, hands, and torso are doing during your stroke, and disciplining yourself to swim drills instead of just junk yardage are your best weapons in developing a fast, smooth triathlete's distance stroke. Use your pool toys to achieve those ends, but don't overuse them. And for heaven's sake, don't ever use them just so you can be as fast as the granny in lane two.


Big Daddy Diesel said...

Thanks, One of the best swim advice articles I have read. I was wondering if I should go out and buy some "toys", this helped me out.

Mama Simmons said...

YEA! So glad to read all this. I'm a triathlete (but a swimmer first) and see people all the time abusing those toys. I always just sort of laugh to myself and think, "When we race, you wont get to use all that stuff..."

Coachhrd said...

I think you are correct, there's a place for the "toys" and drills, but you do need to just "swim". Thanks for the information! I may do a link from my blog to this post.

Caratunk Girl said...

Thanks for this - I can totally see where paddles could cause some troubles... I used them today and think it helps some with strength or to tire out your arms earlier, but I can 100% see how it could cause problems, even shoulder injury. Thanks again for pointing me here!