Training > Swim

12 swim tools to improve technique and fitness

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

Within this feature we’ll look at some of the ways in which we can use swim tools, and, with a little more understanding of what the various items do and how they can help you, how to get the most out of them. 

Many of the items here have both a technique and resistance application. As with any resistance training, be careful of the overload on various body parts and ensure you’re fully warmed up before adding any tools. You would never lift heavy weights at the start of a gym session or start sprinting a run session without a warm-up; the same principle applies here. 

Another note is to never use paddles or fins in a warm-up. Many senior coaches suggest no more than 25% of a session should be done with any one item of equipment. For the average triathlete, without a strong swim background, even more care should be taken with regard to the amount of resistance training taken on. As with swim drills, swim aids can be used to either enhance an ideal technique aspect or restrict undesired bad habits. If you use such aids incorrectly, though, the risk of injury escalates.

First we’ll look at the more traditional items, how they work and how you might extract an additional benefit from them. On the second page we’ll look at some of the more specialised items that you may not be so familiar with


Increase propulsion and ankle mobility

Fins remove the sense of urgency to keep moving and the struggle to keep afloat. They also help develop better flexibility in your ankles and help you move through the water if you’re a poor kicker. Be careful, though: you’ll move forwards if you’re kicking correctly or incorrectly, so remember it’s important to kick from the hips at all times. Avoid friction and blisters by putting Vaseline on the feet and around the toes.

Top tip

Technique work Fins are essential for making that initial breakthrough while practising body-position drills. Without them, an unnecessarily strong leg kick will detract from the focus of the drill as you simply struggle to stay afloat.

Fitness work Swim with fins and paddles for strong ‘easy’ speed sets, where ‘overspeed’ work helps you to ingrain correct stroke pathways that hold together at regular swim speeds.

Swimming with fins: how to use fins in training


Increase upper-body workload

Making the hand seem bigger means you hold more water, allowing the arms and shoulders to work a little harder. Be careful not to overload the shoulders. Go with a size of paddle not much bigger than your own hand. For technique work I like the shape of the Speedo Tech Paddle. It has a nice shape and feels comfortable in the hand. Larger paddles can be used but swim slowly with them. Use them to anchor the hand and really feel the body travel over the hand. Don’t pull these swims (so swim without a pull buoy): you still want to gain some feel for the water.

Top tip

Technique work Practise your sculling in the shallow end without any straps holding the paddle on. If you’re sculling effectively, water pressure will keep the paddle fixed to your hand.

Fitness work Use only the middle finger strap 

(if your paddle has this option) to ensure you push through to the back of the stroke. If you exit the water too early, you’ll feel the paddle pull away from the hand.

How to use swimming paddles


Pull buoy

Increases the amount of work to the arms by reducing the leg involvement 

A pull buoy shouldn’t be used as a substitute for a wetsuit or to hide a poor kick; it should be used to boost the workload on the arms for a greater training effect. The arms should move as normal, with the pull buoy held between the thighs. Pulling can be made harder by using a small, flat float between the knees.

Top tip

Technique work Perform full catch-up with a pull buoy between your legs, pull wide on a few strokes and feel how unbalanced it leaves you. Keep legs straight and toes pointed, so that discrepancies in the pull are highlighted. Once you start to pull yourself forward and keep the body streamlined, you’ll feel less off-balance.

Fitness work Pulling can be done with paddles to add extra emphasis to the arms. Adding a pull buoy between your ankles is a really tough core workout as you work harder to keep the stroke balanced and the float in place.

Drag shorts

Increase workload to make your time in the water more productive 

Swimskins and full-body suits are for racing in and as such they should not be seen in general pool-based training sessions. After all, there are no medals to be gained for winning a main set! 

A pair of large baggy shorts will create plenty of drag, and the specialised versions (made of a teabag-style mesh) can add up to 5secs per 100m, which is a huge additional effort to add to any session. If you’ve ever run with ankle weights or biked with a heavy frame for the winter, then you’ll understand the feeling we’re trying to recreate here.

 Top tip

Fitness work Your drag shorts don’t need to stay on for the whole session. Add a pair over your regular suit for your main set, or at least for part of a main set to add resistance to certain aspects of your session. 

Pull kick

Performs dual role as a replacement for both the pull buoy and the kick board

This is an interesting device that combines elements of both a kick board and a pull buoy. There’s enough buoyancy for the float to lift the legs if used as a pull buoy, and also enough to support the arms when it’s used as a kick board.

 Top tip

Technique work Swim the extension drill with the lead arm being supported by the small float outstretched in front to provide some stability. The upper body should remain motionless if performed correctly. 

Kick board/float

Focus your attention on your lower body and kick technique

A poor leg kick will either leave you stationary or, worse, going backwards. If the legs are kicking vigorously from the knee, with the ankles flexed at 90°, then you’re using a lot of energy to push water in a direction that’s not going to help you go forwards. Keep the head down when performing legs-only kicking. This position leads to better streamlining and an easier, more comfortable position for the neck. Lift the head up for a breath when needed.

Top tip

Technique work If you’re aware that you cross the centre line of the central axis as your hands enter and glide forwards, then practising catch-up to a large float is a great way of encouraging a wider entry. Reach for the edges of the float.

Swim-down work Kick gently with a large float balanced under the body (the stomach area) while sculling with the hands for a nice, relaxed swim-down drill.

If the float is not used, you’ll often see the upper-body wobble as a reaction to the leg
kick materialising in the upper body. Over time, as core strength increases and your body alignment in the water improves, aim to kick with the upper body motionless without the float.

Continue reading our guide to swim tools  (2/2)


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