XTERRA Couch to Trail – Tools of Swim Training

Whatever tools you add to your training must result in better technique. While these swim tools can improve your performance, they only work if you use them correctly. 

Feb. 25, 2019

By 5x XTERRA World Champ, Mimi Stockton

In our last column we talked about what swim gear and toys to pack in your swim bag. This week, we are going to discuss how to use the tools and gadgets that can make you stronger and your stroke more efficient and provide some drills that you can try out for yourself.

As we have said before, whatever tools you add to your training must result in better technique. While these swim tools can improve your performance, they only work if you use them correctly. 

A good rule to follow is that any type of swim tool should only be used for 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 swim tools until you can fix your stroke with a coach.  

Hand Paddles - Before incorporating any type of hand paddles into your workout, ask yourself the following questions:

1.    What am I going to get out of this workout? 
2.    What is the purpose of doing a set with paddles? Am I working on technique, power, strength, or speed?

Personally, I prefer the smaller Finis Agility paddles because they offer immediate feedback on technique without excess resistance, so they are gentler on your shoulder. Because the paddles have no straps, you need to maintain constant, even pressure on the paddles and focus on keeping your hands, wrists, forearms in sync. If your technique is good, the paddles will stay on your hands as you swim. If not, it’s time to work on technique. As always, the best way to focus on technique is to work with a coach who can videotape your stroke and offer feedback on how to become more efficient and prevent injury. 

With Finis paddles, the thumb goes through the only hole on the paddle. Having only a small place to connect means you are going to have contact with the paddle at all points of the pull. During the recovery, you need just a light press with the thumb. You may feel that you are losing the paddle slightly as your hands go soft through recovery and the catch. 

Pull Buoy - A pull buoy can teach you proper body position by keeping your hips nice and high, so you can target upper body exclusively (great for when your legs are gassed). This can help you focus on proper technique and improve your feel of the water because you are working exclusively on your arm stroke.  

The pull buoy can help you focus on proper technique by allowing you to focus on early vertical forearm entry.  Combined with paddles and/or an ankle band, pull buoys can be a heckuva upper body workout. Additionally, they are good for improving the “feel” of the water (because you can generally do pull sets longer than regular swimming because there is more time spent working on the arm stroke, and more time improving your hand’s relationship with the water).  

Now, with any piece of swimming gear there is the temptation to crossover from tool to crutch. If you are constantly reaching for the pull buoy to avoid having to work on proper swim technique that incorporates the kick, then it’s almost certainly a case of the latter.  When we lean on the pull buoy we start avoiding some of the critical aspects of our swimming, from using the full kinetic chain to having incorrect stroke technique.  

Using the pull buoy can also produce other downsides. One big downside is limited hip rotation (power in the stroke should not come only from the arms and shoulders - a lot of it is derived from the hips). Throwing a pull buoy between your legs tends to make your hips flatter, which will slightly reduce your stroke length. Frequent use of the buoy can also make you reliant on it for proper hip position.  A pull buoy gives the hips an artificial lift–but if the moment you take it off, your hips plunge to the bottom of the pool, it’s time to stop using it and figure out why your hips are sinking. 

Furthermore, the buoy breaks the kinetic chain.  Efficient swimmers are able to fly through the water because their whole body works together to make this happen. Everything from their fingertips, head position, hip rotation, to the whipping motion of their toes works together as one large system to create propulsion.

When we isolate parts of this system—in this case with a pull buoy – in the name of “strengthening,” it’s less time we are spending becoming more efficient at the whole system.

If you use the pull buoy as an instructional tool for better technique, alternate its use with regular swimming.  For instance, you could perform a set of short-course 50s alternating pull/swim, where you do pull with a killer early vertical forearm catch and high hips—and then perform the swim rep as if it is still there.

Fins - When I put on my fins, I like to warm-up doing two primary kicks: back flutter kick and back dolphin. These kicks keep your hips in a neutral or extended position, which activates the glutes, stretches the hip joints and fires the quads and hamstrings. Additionally, these back kicks apply a dynamic stretch to the foot flexors, which – over time – will improve plantar flexion. 

When doing these exercises think about pointing your toes, gently tightening your core and squeezing your glutes!  You can start off with brief kicking sets, such as 4-12 x 25.  Once the back kicks have been mastered, turn over and add freestyle with both paddles and fins. This will allow a longer front end to your stroke and you’ll feel the upbeats and downbeats of the kick. Kick from the hips and not from your knees!  Kick hard when wearing fins to learn the mechanics and when you remove your fins, hold your core firm, and minimize the leg wiggle and hip swing.  

When you kick with a straighter leg with less depth, you’ll discover that your kick stabilizes the front end of your stroke. But, there are other more important benefits of using fins than working your legs. Many triathletes, or those trying to improve their technique, will use fins to increase their speed through the water, helping to improve their posture and keeping their hips high in the water. Using fins in this way helps you to focus on a particular aspect of your stroke such as hand entry position or proper rotation. This is because your stroke rate is lowered, giving you more time to concentrate on developing correct mechanics, timing and rhythm.  

I also like to wear fins to work on rotation and smoothing out my stroke.  A few drills I do are:

  • 6/1/6:  6 kicks on the side, stroke and rotate, breathe and 6 kicks on the other side 
  • 6/3/6: 6 kicks on the side, take three strokes and breathe, 6 kicks on the other side

One Arm Drill: (with non-pulling arm out in front): Possibly the most valuable drill in any swimmer’s regular practice is the freestyle one-arm drill.  No other drill reveals weaknesses in your stroke like the One-Arm Drill. Spend a few laps of every workout alternating arms and you will quickly smooth out your stroke and even out the power from each arm.

I typically use fins 2 to 3 times per week. I'll do both kicking sets and swim sets wearing fins.  These sets can be integrated into the warm-up and cool-down of the workout or be combined with skill sets.

Tempo Trainer - The tempo trainer is one of my favorite toys.  It’s a round clock-like device that’s small enough to fit underneath your swim cap or can clip on to your goggle strap.  It’s nothing more than a metronome that helps to improve your stroke rate, which can make you swim more efficiently and thus faster.

Here’s an example of how to get started with your Tempo Trainer using Setting 1: 

I recommend starting at 1.10 and then going up and down from there.  For some, 1.10 may seem painfully slow, while for others, this tempo might seem just right.  For reference, I feel comfortable swimming at 95 tempo with an average 18 strokes per length (SPL) for a 25-yard pool.   This is an effort I can sustain for a 500-yard swim.  

Swim 4 x (2 x 25) timing the beep to different points in the stroke cycle. 
•    2 x 25 matching beep to hand entry
•    2 x 25 matching beep to hip drive
•    2 x 25 matching beep to kick
•    2 x 25 matching to self-selected point

Change the tempo trainer by 5 beeps in either direction, depending on how you felt swimming the first round of 25’s.  If you felt like it was too slow, try 1.00.  If you felt like the tempo was too fast, go up to 1.15.  Also, take note of what happens to your Strokes Per Length (SPL) as you go up and down with the tempo trainer.  The goal is to find the right tempo for you that allows you to find the optimal number of SPL with the longest Distance Per Stroke (DPS) (What is optimal is going to be different for everyone and the discussion of how to get faster by decreasing SPL and increasing DPS is another topic unto itself). 

Ask yourself:
•    What tempos feel best to you?
•    Can you identify what is happening in your stroke at those comfortable tempos?
•    In what ways can you use the Tempo Trainer in your swimming? Do you want to focus on speed or technique? 

If you keep swim tools to 30 percent of your workout or less, you will get the benefit of improved technique while also working on keeping the kinetic chain intact, which is what is most important in a race. Tools such as paddles, pull buoys, fins, and tempo trainers can help you build proper stroke, hip position, and efficiency in the water, which can only benefit your open water swims. 

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. You can find them at www.nextlevelendurance.net

Couch to Trail