By 5x XTERRA World Champ, Mimi Stockton
As a triathlete, you are probably no stranger to collecting gear. From mountain bikes to GPS watches to tri suits, the list can be long and expensive. Fortunately, when it comes to swim gear, there are only a few items that are truly necessary. There are a few more that are nice to have, and some can even take your training to the next level. But which ones do you absolutely need, and which ones are just for show? As a newish triathlete, its normal to be daunted by snorkels, pull buoys, paddles, fins, and kickboards.
The truth is that swimming is all about technique. That means that whatever tools you add to your training must solidify good technical habits. So, let’s break it down into what is necessary, what is nice to have, and a few luxury tools you can add to your wish list. In Part 1 of this series, we will discuss my favorite swim toys. In Part 2, we will talk about how to use them.
There are really only three things you need for a swim session, and one is a good swim suit.
Swim Suit – Guys, leave the board shorts at home. You want a suit to keep you streamlined and not drag you down. This is your chance to show off that Speedo that you’ve been saving for your trip to Europe. Gals, any one-piece or two-piece will do, although the bikini you wear to the beach may not stay on for swimming laps, so it’s best to opt for a true workout two-piece.
Goggles – It’s important to get this right. A pair that fits your face comfortably and doesn’t leak should be most important. Once you find the pair that naturally fits the shape of your face, stock up and buy two or three, preferably with different lens tints. You always need a backup pair in case one breaks, and you want different options on race day. There’s nothing worse than having the sun shining directly in your eyes and the only lenses you have are clear.
Swim Cap – If you train in a pool or salt water, you know that it can be rough on your hair. A swim cap is an easy way to keep the frizz at bay, while also preventing your locks from turning green. If you are follicularly challenged, you probably don’t need this in the pool, but it’s important to wear one in open water so you are visible. Because all XTERRA races require a swim cap to identify you by your age group, it’s smart to get used to swimming with a cap.
Nice to Have Gear
In addition to the basics, there are several tools that can improve your technique. The following tools are relatively inexpensive and can help you focus on areas of your stroke you would like to improve.
Hand Paddles – Hand paddles are a great tool for gaining swim strength and improving the “catch phase” of your stroke. They can really help give you a feel for the water and how to effectively propel yourself forward. If used correctly and over the proper distance, hand paddles can create substantial improvement in power and feel.
However, if they are used incorrectly, or for too many yards, you may be headed for shoulder soreness or a potential shoulder injury. A good rule to follow is that any type of swim tool should only be used for about 30 percent of your total workout. Additionally, if you have any kind of technical issue such as dropped elbows, bi-lateral imbalance in hand entry, crossing the center line in your stroke, or a lack of feel for catch, it may not be in your best interest to use paddles until you can fix your stroke with a coach.
Pull Buoy – This nifty toy is used to increase pulling resistance on your arms while keeping your body in a streamlined position in the water. Swimming with one of these also mimics a wetsuit, where your legs are buoyant and there is greater reliance on your arms. When used properly and with intent, the pull buoy can be a powerful tool for better swimming. A pull buoy can teach you proper body position by keeping your hips nice and high, targeting upper body exclusively (great for when your legs are gassed), and help you focus on proper technique and improving your feel of the water because you are working exclusively on your arm stroke.
Fins - Fins can help strengthen your legs and improve your ankle flexibility while lifting you high in the water. Ankle flexibility is a key element in being able to generate propulsion from your kick and is usually a very important area to work on for new swimmers, especially those who prefer to run and bike. Fins can also improve your kick by exaggerating your kicking technique, helping to stretch your ankles and build new muscles in your legs. Swimming with fins makes your body more horizontal in the water, allowing you to make refinements to your stroke without fear of sinking as well. For this reason, fins are excellent to use while doing technique drills. You can concentrate on the drill, rather than worrying about staying afloat.
Extra … REALLY Nice to Have Gear
Depending on where you are with your training and your finances, there are a few items that can make your training a lot of fun and bump up your stroke efficiency and confidence.
Tempo Trainers – The tempo trainer is one of my favorite toys. It’s a round, clocklike device that’s small enough to fit underneath your swim cap or on your goggle strap. It’s basically a metronome that helps to improve your stroke rate, which can make you swim more efficiently which can make you faster. It works by beeping to a frequency which you determine. Your job is to make sure your hand enters the water in time with the beep.
Neoprene Shorts – Fast swimmers ride on the surface of the water. They glide across the pool, their hips high, giving them a slim profile in the water. This does not happen if you are dragging your legs like an anchor behind you. When a swimmer’s legs drop, drag shoots through the roof and slows you down. Sagging hips are the most common reason triathletes find swimming so difficult. You can mimic proper hip position with a pull buoy, but in my opinion, neoprene shorts are better. I put these babies on when I’m not quite feeling like a boss. Yes, they make you faster, but the real reason to wear them during training sessions is because the buoyancy of the shorts lifts your hips, putting your body in the proper position which frees you to focus on your stroke.
Kick Boards? - I know some of you are probably thinking, “Mimi forgot about the kick board!” I did not forget it. In my (humble) opinion, I don’t think kick boards are necessary and I discourage my students from using it, in most cases. Kickboards put you in an unnatural, heads-up, un-streamlined position and emphasize the least effective part of the stroke – the kick – and keep you from rotating. They also cause the hips to sink and acclimate your body to kicking uphill. And who wants to kick uphill?
There are other swim tools out there and variations of the ones I’ve mentioned, and they have their time and place. Before heading out and splurging for these gadgets, consider springing for a swim lesson and have your stroke analyzed above and below the water first. Then you can better determine which tools are most important for you and what you want to improve.
The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by Sheri Anne Little and five-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance. Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA.