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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

Best swim tools

Join us as we look at some of the ways in which swim tools are used, including what various items do and how exactly they can help your swim. We’ve also round up some kit suggestions to grab yourself some of your own.

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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.

Firstly let’s look at the more traditional items, how they work and how you might extract an additional benefit from them:

1. What are swim fins?

Function: 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.

2. What are swim paddles?

Function: 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.

Check out our top three reviewed swim paddles for a full breakdown 

3. What is a pull buoy?

Function: 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.

4. What are drag shorts?

Function: Increase workload to make your time in the water more productive 

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. This extra drag is used to create an extra load, which you will shed on race day to feel (and hopefully swim) extra fast and strong. 

 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. 

Buy some Zone3 drag shorts from SwimInn

5. What is a 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. 

6. What is a kick board?

Function: Focus your attention on your lower body and kick technique

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. 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.

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 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:

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.

7. What is a Powerbreathe?

Function: 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.

8. What is a central snorkel?

Focus: 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.

9. What is a VASA trainer?

Function: An ideal tool to learn the ‘catch’  

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.

10. What are stretch cords?

Function: 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.

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.

Buy your own stretch cords from SwimInn

11. What is a TheraBand?

Function: 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 physiotherapist 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.

12. What is a tempo trainer?

Function: 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.

Buy a Finis tempo trainer from SwimInn 

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Want to know more? Here is a round up of our Best swim training tools reviewed