Training > Swim

6 advanced swim tools

Swim tools are an easy way to improve technique and fitness in the pool. Dan Bullock introduces 6 familiar and 6 less familiar and explains their benefits and how to use them

If you’ve mastered the swim aids cited in the first page, it’s time to consider more specialised items that you may not be so familiar with or wouldn’t ordinarily think about using. 

These items can be brought along to a weekly or monthly session to work on a particular aspect of a stroke or to supplement dryland work. As an average age-group triathlete, these items are best incorporated into coached sessions when a trained professional can help you extract the most of each tool. 

Swim training in its simplest form can be fairly dull. But by incorporating swim aids, a single drill can feature eight to 10 variations. For instance, with the humble paddle and a set of fins, to spice up a set of 100s I’d arrange five blocks of four as follows…

1 Pull with small paddles and pull buoy, working the hand pathways smoothly under the body.

2 Swim slowly with large paddles, letting the paddle do the work. 

3 50m with only a left paddle on, 50m with a right paddle on. Ensure speed is the same through both hand pathways.

4 Overspeed work with paddles and fins. 

If in any doubt, consult a swim or tri coach for more information on the best way to get the most out of your swim tools. 


Exercises and strengthens muscles

POWERbreathe ( is an inspiratory muscle trainer that exercises and strengthens the muscles we use to breathe. Inspiratory Muscle Training (IMT), as its known, has been scientifically proven to benefit athletes at all levels of competition.
It’s certainly an improvement on hypoxic training, which swimmers historically employed to recreate altitude training.

Top tip

During a recent training camp, I stumbled upon the idea of using ‘quantity of breaths’ as a way to measure a rest period. Over the week, I felt my fitness improve dramatically using this ‘active recovery’ style of rest. Here are some examples of some main sets using the POWERbreathe tool…

10 x 200m front crawl (FC), rest and take 15 deep breaths between each 200.

10 x 100m FC, rest and take 10 deep breaths between each 100.

10 x 50m FC, rest and take five deep breaths between each 50.

Central snorkel

Allows you to focus on technique

The snorkel keeps the head still so there’s no need to turn to breathe, allowing you to relax more and watch the pathways of the hands as they pull under the body. Drills are also a lot easier to focus on if you don’t have to consider the timing of the breath. Of course, eventually you will need to do this without the aid of a snorkel, but it’s a useful aid to really focus on refining technique. 

Top tip

Unless you’ve snorkelled a lot, I’d suggest wearing a nose clip to accompany the use of the central snorkel. This will prevent water from rushing up your nose as you breathe in. If you can, get someone else to watch you swim from head on, and they’ll be able to spot any head movements if the snorkel is swaying from side to side.

Also, as you’ll notice from the photo above, I’ve employed a Finis Cardio Cap. It’s designed to restrict air inflow and make the lungs work harder. However, the jury’s out on this: a recent study by Brunel University’s Professor, Alison McConnell, revealed that it isn’t vital to “make the loading of the inspiratory muscles so specific that it’s undertaken during endurance exercise”.

How does swimming with a snorkel help your front crawl?

  Snorkels: four of the best reviewed


VASA trainer

An ideal tool to learn the ‘catch’  (Front crawl technique: the key compenents)

The brand VASA produces some of the most popular swim benches on the market. Pulley mechanisms have the swimmer pull themselves forward over their hands to closely recreate the FC hand pathways under the body.

Many strength and conditioning coaches note that a negative aspect of traditional weight training is how the lifting actions don’t lend themselves specifically to the movements of certain sports. Swimming is no exception, and while strong triceps, lats and shoulders should help your swimming, the VASA trainer strengthens them, while at the same time promoting correct limb movements and hand pathways of the FC stroke.

Top tip

The VASA is a great way to learn the ‘catch’, as a straight-arm pull is almost impossible to perform as you physically pull the body over the hand. Without the issues of breathing in the water to contend with, this piece of equipment really helps introduce many of the more complex swim movements. You’re unlikely to find one at your gym but specialised swim schools should have one.

Stretch cords

Great for technique work and warm-up

Many options are now available, including bands, tethered belts (to keep you static in a lane) and parachutes (extreme drag), to help get the most out of your training. 

Use of the traditional Cordz includes dryland technique work, race-day warm-ups ahead of getting in the water and recreating a decent FC session if you can’t get to the pool. I use the lighter versions, which allow you to accurately recreate the FC hand pathways under the body.

How to improve your swimming out of the water

Top tip

A race-day, open-water swim warm-up should definitely make use of the lighter versions, so that you mobilise and generate blood flow through the shoulders but don’t overload them. 

Practising the FC underwater movements will help you get up to race speed much more quickly, especially as you won’t get enough time to warm up in the water before your wave commences.


Warm-up and recovery aid

TheraBand is a simple rubbery piece of elastic that physios and swimmers swear by. More versatile, but not as strong (in terms of elasticity), than the stretch cords, they’re built for rehab purposes, rather than full-on exercise as with the cords.

This simple piece of elastic has many uses and benefits. I tend to carry them to swim sessions for a stronger dryland warm-up ahead of getting in the pool. Most physios will recommend them as part of rehab for shoulder issues, but as an internal and external rotation strengthener it’s a useful piece of kit. After a good poolside shoulder warm-up routine, there are many exercises that can be done to keep your rotator cuffs in good shape. Consult a physio or personal trainer for a complete run through.

Top tip

A 2m long piece of TheraBand will enable you to recreate the FC hand pathways if you stretch it around a railing, bench or car bumper.

Tempo trainer

The ideal pacing tool

A tempo trainer is a small unit that you can attach to your goggles, which then beeps a tempo out as you swim, taking a lot of the guesswork out of pacing judgement. The audible bleep can be set at varying paces and stroke cadences, demanding that you keep pace with it. Previously, the alternative was the rather clumsy stroke rate calculations, as I explain below.

Top tip

I used the following idea while getting ready to race Ironman South Africa last year. Two laps of the rectangular course needed to be swum. At the far end of the course (the top of the rectangle) the distance between the buoys was an accurate 150m. From my training I knew that I could swim 70 strokes for 100m in 76secs at a sustainable level. After the start, I was soon into the short leg that I’d marked out for counting strokes. I’d done 107 strokes between the buoys at a comfortable heart rate (HR), so I was confident I could hit my target of a sub-50min swim – I did it in 49mins.

Best swim training tools review


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