Swimming with paddles: a training session to develop power

Performance coach Richard Smith explains how to use hand paddles correctly in order to give your stroke an early-season power boost

Credit: Rem Whiting

Triathletes love gear! And when it comes to swim paddles many think bigger is better and more powerful. But, if you don’t have sound technique, is just the quickest route to shoulder injuries, and not faster swimming.

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While developing your stroke and specific shoulder strength, invest in technique paddles that will enhance biofeedback (feel of the water) when performing technique drills. Attach paddles to your hands loosely and don’t grip them. If they move rather than catch water in certain phases of your stroke, you’ll feel this and can then focus your attention on fixing this part of your stroke to generate more powerful propulsion.

Once you’ve honed your technique you can then start to introduce paddles in conditioning sets in order to develop strength and more power through your stroke. You can also use power sets such as this session that contrast paddle swims with non-paddle swims, which again focus on improving power through key phases of your stroke.

The session

Warm-up

Rest for +15secs after each set. Do poolside dynamic shoulder mobility & band work pre-session.

  • 4 x 100m easy build swim, 1-4 progressive
  • 4 x 25m front sculling*
  • 4 x 25m transition sculling front to back*

*Option to wear finger paddles

Main set

All with +15secs rest, wearing freestyle paddles.

In both these drills, focus on clean smooth entry and a high elbow catch.

  • 4 x 50m as: 25m single-arm drill, focus on catch; 25m swim
  • 4 x 50m as: 25m ‘broken arrow’ drill; 25m swim

Contrast conditioning set

All with +20secs rest.

  • 3 x 100m swim with paddles
  • 100m swim as: 8 strokes fists only; 8 strokes open hand
  • 100m swim with paddles building effort up to threshold
  • 100m swim at threshold
  • 100m easy recovery

Cool-down

  • 4 x 50m as: 25m front crawl into tumble turn; 25m backstroke from turn

Adapt for beginners

Use smaller paddles for the main set until you have sound stroke technique. Reduce the reps in the main conditioning set.

Adapt for Ironman

Progress to bigger paddles when your stroke technique and shoulder strength have developed to encourage greater contrast and develop more power.

3 hand paddle tips

Pick the right paddles 

Take qualified advice before buying paddles. Specific technique paddles are more useful and have a lower risk of injury for age-groupers.

Try power paddles 

Once you’ve mastered good front crawl technique, you may consider using larger hand paddles in power/speed sets. Expect greater fatigue and stop if you feel shoulder pain.

Add resistance

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For progressive power/strength sets, use hand paddles with a resistance parachute, drag shorts or a bungy. But only progress to these once you’ve mastered sound stroke technique.