As a swimmer and coach, I spend countless hours standing around on a pool deck watching swimmers of all ages, types, shapes and sizes. The more I watch, the more I see athletes in the water with a pile of junk—a.k.a. swim equipment or stuff—at the end of their lane.
Typically, I see these same people swimming poorly and using their equipment improperly. Often this "junk" is used as a crutch for poor technique. The purpose of this article is to explain why swim equipment is used, how it is over-used and how to use your "swim junk" properly.
The vast majority of swimming equipment available on the market has some type of practical application. With proper swim technique, these items will provide a benefit of efficiency, strength and, ultimately, economy in the water. However, the overuse of equipment can contribute to what I call ugly swimming.
Ugly swimming is a "condition" best described as flailing arms, sinking legs and a backside that wiggles in the air. Typically, a swimmer is working vary hard and grasping for breath but makes little or no progress. For people still struggling with ugly swimming, little or no equipment should be used. Instead, swim lessons with a certified instructor or coach will be more beneficial.
However, if you've progressed past the flailing arms and sinking legs, here is a list of a few items that can be easily added to your workout:
Pull Buoy — A pull buoy is the little, white, floating thing that you put between your legs. The idea is that the buoy provides floatation for your legs while your arms do all the work. The key is to not kick but to squeeze your legs together so that the buoy stays securely between your thighs.
Bicycle Tube — An old bicycle tube or Velcro strap can be used to tie your ankles together, forcing you not to kick. This can be used with or without a pull buoy. The purpose of the tube is to force you to press your chest down and use your core to generate enough momentum to prevent your legs from sinking.
Paddles — Swimming paddles now come in all shapes and sizes. If you are a new swimmer, I would recommend using paddles that are only slightly larger than the size of your hands. The larger the size of the paddle, the more water you can push. However, this also increases the torque you will put on your shoulders and thus means a greater propensity for injury.
Snorkel — Finis makes a great snorkel that can be used to focus on your head position by eliminating breathing. Using a snorkel all the time, however, takes away the benefit of learning to control your breath when your face is underwater.
Kickboard — A kickboard is a flat, floating board you can hold with your arms to isolate the legs. It can be used with or without fins. Hold the kickboard flat with straight arms in front of you. Make sure to point your toes and try not to bend your knees.
Fins — Fins of all shapes and sizes can be used to strengthen the legs or to provide some recovery for the arms. Longer fins will make kicking easier by increasing the propulsion generated from each leg strike, while shorter fins will make you work harder by decreasing the amount of propulsion per kick. Fin size is a personal preference, but I would recommend purchasing a pair of shorter fins for days when you really want to focus on your kick. Zoomer fins made by finis or DaFins made by DaFin work great.
The best way to use your swim junk is to focus on no more than one to two pieces per workout. Too much equipment can create confusion and will prevent swimmers from incorporating changes into their regular stroke. A great way to begin is to choose one thing to work on at a time. When using new equipment, try doing 4 x 50 or 8 x 25 easy on an interval that gives you 10 to 15 seconds rest. Mix in different equipment each time for greater variety.
If you are a newer swimmer, feel free to ask a lifeguard, certified instructor or coach at your pool for additional assistance. Remember to be creative and above all, have fun!