Thoughts on Swim Paddles

by Rich Strauss

I’m not big on triathletes and learned-to-swim-as-adult swimmers using paddles. I think it’s another symptom of the gear-geek mentality of triathletes: buying any tools you think you need vs learning the basics first and asking advice from smart people .

Paddles are made for guys like (the old, young, competitive swimmer) me: back in the day, the ability to put power to the water (vs technique, which was good) was an actual limiter. So paddles were invented as a form of very sport-specific resistance training. Paddles came in bigger and bigger sizes (more resistance). Then we’d add a wheelbarrow wheel innertube twisted around our ankles (more drag), then a drag suit (even more drag).

However, we had the technique first and, more importantly, years and years of swimming mileage in our shoulders, so more able to handle the strain that paddles put on our shoulders and therefore much lower risk of becoming injured.

Triathletes:

  • Don’t have that shoulder durability yet. Using paddles is a good way to injure yourself before you get that durability.
  • The ability to apply power to the water is not yet a limiter. That is, body position, rotation and balance are the first things you need to address. Next comes putting power to the water through proper technique, ie, an effective catch and pull. Very last on the list is applying power to the water by being able to generate more power. I feel that by the time you’re at this place where the technique fundamentals of body position, rotation, balance and effective pull are dialed in, and the ability to generate more power is the last remaining limiter…you’re more than fast enough for a triathlete.

However, for triathletes, paddles can be a good tool to help you learn proper catch and pulling technique. The much greater surface area provides a LOT of feedback on the (in)effectiveness of your pull.

  • Green Belt: pull with paddles, with the strap on your wrist, loop around your middle finger. Focus on a fast catch and facing the paddle straight back to the rear as quickly as possible, and maintain that rearward orientation throughout the pull.
  • Brown Belt: only use the finger loop, no wrist strap. If your catch isn’t good, the paddle will slide around on your hand. Try to not have to grab it with thumb and pinky to keep it steady.
  • Black Belt: no loop or strap, just hold the paddle. Grab it as your hand exits the water, release it after you initiate the catch, keep it pressed to your hand only with the force of your pull and the water.

Sets using brown and black technique should be performed like drill sets: 50-200yds at a time with lots of rest so you can focus on technique and process the feedback the paddle is giving you.

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18 comments
  • CoachJerry
    REPLY

    Great advice! Glad to see you added that “However” and the second half of the post. As triathletes, sometimes we look at the swim as something to 'just survive'. If that's your goal…that's all you'll do. While I understand the EN position on swimming, I will say that the swim's effect on performance is about much more than just time. Yes…saving a minute or ten on the swim isn't going to make or break the race for most age-groupers. HOWEVER, the condition in which we come out of the swim makes a HUGE difference in our race. The fatigue, O2 debt, hypoxia, leg wear, etc that we come out of the swim with becomes exponential in the bike and run. So, yes, the swim is not that big a deal time-wise, but it dramatically affects the race. Proper swim training, particularly strength and technique efforts, are important. Training with paddles improves both…and is very similar to training with power on the bike or doing strength-based intervals. Better yet, training with paddles and a pull buoy simultaneously provides the best results.

  • CoachJerry
    REPLY

    Great advice! Glad to see you added that “However” and the second half of the post. As triathletes, sometimes we look at the swim as something to 'just survive'. If that's your goal…that's all you'll do. While I understand the EN position on swimming, I will say that the swim's effect on performance is about much more than just time. Yes…saving a minute or ten on the swim isn't going to make or break the race for most age-groupers. HOWEVER, the condition in which we come out of the swim makes a HUGE difference in our race. The fatigue, O2 debt, hypoxia, leg wear, etc that we come out of the swim with becomes exponential in the bike and run. So, yes, the swim is not that big a deal time-wise, but it dramatically affects the race. Proper swim training, particularly strength and technique efforts, are important. Training with paddles improves both…and is very similar to training with power on the bike or doing strength-based intervals. Better yet, training with paddles and a pull buoy simultaneously provides the best results.

  • Rich Strauss
    REPLY

    Jerry, thanks for the discussion. Agree with your first point, sorta disagree with your second re the value of paddles. In my opinion, 80% of the “problems” with AG swimming are associated with technique. AG triathletes should therefore focus on technique and the fitness required to hold that technique under race specific conditions (ie, not with paddles) for the duration of their swim leg. This fitness/strength component is that remaining 20% (total SWAG here, obviously 🙂 Once a swimmer tosses on paddles they are in “swimming is about strength and fitness” mode and they likely cease their focus on improving form. Our method, by contrast, is to have them do many, many very fast 50's and 100's: swim as fast as they can with the best form they can, ideally reaching muscle failure when they hit the wall and before their stroke degrades, as it would if they were doing longer repeats. This is a much more effective stroke-specific way to improve strength and fitness. I myself have been doing this: did a 1km TT in early April, first swim in about 3yrs, went 16:05. 6 swims later, all “strong” 50's and 100's, retested and went 15:15. Our team is seeing similar results as they come off of months of no swimming and we are tracking this via an internal spreadsheet. — Rich

  • Rich Strauss
    REPLY

    Jerry, thanks for the discussion. Agree with your first point, sorta disagree with your second re the value of paddles. In my opinion, 80% of the “problems” with AG swimming are associated with technique. AG triathletes should therefore focus on technique and the fitness required to hold that technique under race specific conditions (ie, not with paddles) for the duration of their swim leg. This fitness/strength component is that remaining 20% (total SWAG here, obviously 🙂 Once a swimmer tosses on paddles they are in “swimming is about strength and fitness” mode and they likely cease their focus on improving form. Our method, by contrast, is to have them do many, many very fast 50's and 100's: swim as fast as they can with the best form they can, ideally reaching muscle failure when they hit the wall and before their stroke degrades, as it would if they were doing longer repeats. This is a much more effective stroke-specific way to improve strength and fitness. I myself have been doing this: did a 1km TT in early April, first swim in about 3yrs, went 16:05. 6 swims later, all “strong” 50's and 100's, retested and went 15:15. Our team is seeing similar results as they come off of months of no swimming and we are tracking this via an internal spreadsheet. — Rich

  • Rich Strauss
    REPLY

    Jerry, thanks for the discussion. Agree with your first point, sorta disagree with your second re the value of paddles. In my opinion, 80% of the “problems” with AG swimming are associated with technique. AG triathletes should therefore focus on technique and the fitness required to hold that technique under race specific conditions (ie, not with paddles) for the duration of their swim leg. This fitness/strength component is that remaining 20% (total SWAG here, obviously 🙂 Once a swimmer tosses on paddles they are in “swimming is about strength and fitness” mode and they likely cease their focus on improving form. Our method, by contrast, is to have them do many, many very fast 50's and 100's: swim as fast as they can with the best form they can, ideally reaching muscle failure when they hit the wall and before their stroke degrades, as it would if they were doing longer repeats. This is a much more effective stroke-specific way to improve strength and fitness. I myself have been doing this: did a 1km TT in early April, first swim in about 3yrs, went 16:05. 6 swims later, all “strong” 50's and 100's, retested and went 15:15. Our team is seeing similar results as they come off of months of no swimming and we are tracking this via an internal spreadsheet. — Rich

  • Rich Strauss
    REPLY

    Jerry, thanks for the discussion. Agree with your first point, sorta disagree with your second re the value of paddles. In my opinion, 80% of the “problems” with AG swimming are associated with technique. AG triathletes should therefore focus on technique and the fitness required to hold that technique under race specific conditions (ie, not with paddles) for the duration of their swim leg. This fitness/strength component is that remaining 20% (total SWAG here, obviously 🙂 Once a swimmer tosses on paddles they are in “swimming is about strength and fitness” mode and they likely cease their focus on improving form. Our method, by contrast, is to have them do many, many very fast 50's and 100's: swim as fast as they can with the best form they can, ideally reaching muscle failure when they hit the wall and before their stroke degrades, as it would if they were doing longer repeats. This is a much more effective stroke-specific way to improve strength and fitness. I myself have been doing this: did a 1km TT in early April, first swim in about 3yrs, went 16:05. 6 swims later, all “strong” 50's and 100's, retested and went 15:15. Our team is seeing similar results as they come off of months of no swimming and we are tracking this via an internal spreadsheet. — Rich

  • teamen
    REPLY

    And all discussions of swim time and effort aside, our swim guidance for race day is to swim only as fast as you can maintain your form…in other words you are never swimming hard enough to be hypoxic or to have undue fatigue. Sure, swimming for 1.2 or 2.4 miles isn't a walk in the park for anyone, but relative to your training efforts it's one of the easiest swims you'll do all year (inside Endurance Nation).

  • teamen
    REPLY

    And all discussions of swim time and effort aside, our swim guidance for race day is to swim only as fast as you can maintain your form…in other words you are never swimming hard enough to be hypoxic or to have undue fatigue. Sure, swimming for 1.2 or 2.4 miles isn't a walk in the park for anyone, but relative to your training efforts it's one of the easiest swims you'll do all year (inside Endurance Nation).

  • CoachJerry
    REPLY

    That's good…it makes sense. Different strokes for different folks, no pun intended! Just a couple of points though. Your rapid improvement after not swimming for 3 years could pretty much be expected to occur just by hitting the pool for a bit. I don't think I'd base a training regimine on it. But, what you propose absoultely has merit. In my opinion, it has even more merit if paddles are added to the mix. Why not swim those “strong” 50s and 100s with the paddles. Go hard in these intervals…with the paddles. As you noted in your original post, the paddles can and do help with technique. And they make you stronger.

    Here's a good analogy. We both advocate hard, intense efforts on the bike. You prefer power meters. In accordance with your training philosophy, you wouldn't normally suggest that someone do a set of intervals on the bike as fast as they can without regard to the power meter. You use the power meter to hit those power targets. You want that power applied. Why should it be any different in the swim? With the paddles, power is being demanded far more so than going bare. You get technique development and power/strength development by doing intervals with paddles. The race pace effects of swimming without the paddles is similar to the effect of backing the power output off of ftp on the bike. Eventually, swimming 1:45 is easier due to pushing power and strength, just like peddling 200W becomes easier due to pushing the power up in training.

    Swimming is indeed very much dependent on technique. That's for sure. I don't think there is one “right way” here. Just two sides of a coin.

  • CoachJerry
    REPLY

    That's good…it makes sense. Different strokes for different folks, no pun intended! Just a couple of points though. Your rapid improvement after not swimming for 3 years could pretty much be expected to occur just by hitting the pool for a bit. I don't think I'd base a training regimine on it. But, what you propose absoultely has merit. In my opinion, it has even more merit if paddles are added to the mix. Why not swim those “strong” 50s and 100s with the paddles. Go hard in these intervals…with the paddles. As you noted in your original post, the paddles can and do help with technique. And they make you stronger.

    Here's a good analogy. We both advocate hard, intense efforts on the bike. You prefer power meters. In accordance with your training philosophy, you wouldn't normally suggest that someone do a set of intervals on the bike as fast as they can without regard to the power meter. You use the power meter to hit those power targets. You want that power applied. Why should it be any different in the swim? With the paddles, power is being demanded far more so than going bare. You get technique development and power/strength development by doing intervals with paddles. The race pace effects of swimming without the paddles is similar to the effect of backing the power output off of ftp on the bike. Eventually, swimming 1:45 is easier due to pushing power and strength, just like peddling 200W becomes easier due to pushing the power up in training.

    Swimming is indeed very much dependent on technique. That's for sure. I don't think there is one “right way” here. Just two sides of a coin.

  • Rich Strauss
    REPLY

    @Jerry I'm probably not the best example to use for improvement, as a former college distance swimmer. I've got the technique and muscle-develop memory (?) of a former swimmer. I'm “strong” in the water, relative to triathlete swimmers, while certainly very weak compared to my back in the day self. That said, our athletes have started back to swimming after months and months out of the pool, and are seeing similar gains by…just swimming and swimming hard. We want to document how little they've lost in the outseason, how quickly they get it back, and how they progress through a combination of technique work and challenging swimming

    However:

    1. Cycling with power and swimming with paddles are completely different. There's almost no technique involved in pedaling a bike, certainly none compared to the massive technique required to swim effectively. I believe it's much think it's much more important for the athlete to learn good technique and then practice swimming as fast as they can, with that technique and in a sport/race specific fashion = no paddles.

    2. Sorry, I'm just not gonna toss paddles on an adult swimmer, just like I'm not going to have them do plyometrics in the middle of IM training, run as fast as they can down a hill, or do other high risk (in my opinion) activities. Sorry, 15yrs+ of competitive swimming experience, blown shoulders, friends with the same, etc. I say, want to work hard? Just take more rest and swim faster.

  • Rich Strauss
    REPLY

    @Jerry I'm probably not the best example to use for improvement, as a former college distance swimmer. I've got the technique and muscle-develop memory (?) of a former swimmer. I'm “strong” in the water, relative to triathlete swimmers, while certainly very weak compared to my back in the day self. That said, our athletes have started back to swimming after months and months out of the pool, and are seeing similar gains by…just swimming and swimming hard. We want to document how little they've lost in the outseason, how quickly they get it back, and how they progress through a combination of technique work and challenging swimming

    However:

    1. Cycling with power and swimming with paddles are completely different. There's almost no technique involved in pedaling a bike, certainly none compared to the massive technique required to swim effectively. I believe it's much think it's much more important for the athlete to learn good technique and then practice swimming as fast as they can, with that technique and in a sport/race specific fashion = no paddles.

    2. Sorry, I'm just not gonna toss paddles on an adult swimmer, just like I'm not going to have them do plyometrics in the middle of IM training, run as fast as they can down a hill, or do other high risk (in my opinion) activities. Sorry, 15yrs+ of competitive swimming experience, blown shoulders, friends with the same, etc. I say, want to work hard? Just take more rest and swim faster.

  • Joericci8
    REPLY

    I recently completed Ironman Lake Placid. I used the Endurance Nation
    Training Plan and participated in the Endurance Nation Training Weekend
    at Lake Placid. It was the greatest experience and I can not wait to do it again. Everything that I learned from Endurance Nation worked and helped me complete my dream of becoming an Ironman. Thank you for the advice and knowledge. In addition, this is great advice for beginner triathletes. Triathletes fall subject to the “gear-geek” or “cool stuff” is going to make me faster syndrome. Being a competitive swimmer my whole life, I have used all of the equipment known to man, including paddles. Paddles are my favorite to use. I would rather pull for 5 miles than swim regularly. Using paddles was a great reinforcement for me to keep my stroke long, balanced, and strong. However, I recently read an article in Triathlon Life or Lava that debated swim strokes and which ones were more effective in races. All my life, even in open water, I strive to keep my stroke long and strong, unless the water was choppy, then you have to adjust. The article was saying that shorter strokes were more effective than longer strokes. It even stated that competitive pool swimmers were at a disadvantage because they have been programed to have longer strokes. Over the course of the race, the shorter strokes saved more energy and also made the swimmer faster. Is there any truth to this? The article did not say where the swimmers were in regards to the position at which they were swimming. I would imagine that if they were a middle of the pack swimmers, this technique may be more beneficial, but maybe not as effective in the front, where you would probably find most competitive swimmers. I would like to know your thoughts on this. I would imagine though, do what works best for you.

  • Joericci8
    REPLY

    I recently completed Ironman Lake Placid. I used the Endurance Nation
    Training Plan and participated in the Endurance Nation Training Weekend
    at Lake Placid. It was the greatest experience and I can not wait to do it again. Everything that I learned from Endurance Nation worked and helped me complete my dream of becoming an Ironman. Thank you for the advice and knowledge. In addition, this is great advice for beginner triathletes. Triathletes fall subject to the “gear-geek” or “cool stuff” is going to make me faster syndrome. Being a competitive swimmer my whole life, I have used all of the equipment known to man, including paddles. Paddles are my favorite to use. I would rather pull for 5 miles than swim regularly. Using paddles was a great reinforcement for me to keep my stroke long, balanced, and strong. However, I recently read an article in Triathlon Life or Lava that debated swim strokes and which ones were more effective in races. All my life, even in open water, I strive to keep my stroke long and strong, unless the water was choppy, then you have to adjust. The article was saying that shorter strokes were more effective than longer strokes. It even stated that competitive pool swimmers were at a disadvantage because they have been programed to have longer strokes. Over the course of the race, the shorter strokes saved more energy and also made the swimmer faster. Is there any truth to this? The article did not say where the swimmers were in regards to the position at which they were swimming. I would imagine that if they were a middle of the pack swimmers, this technique may be more beneficial, but maybe not as effective in the front, where you would probably find most competitive swimmers. I would like to know your thoughts on this. I would imagine though, do what works best for you.

  • teamen
    REPLY

    Joe, thanks. I think that you are right to view this with a discerning eye. As a competitive swimmer, you bring a lot more to the table than the average bear. I used a slightly higher turnover to swim better in Kona this year, but that's a non-wetsuit swim…if you have a wetsuit on you get to really do what you want re: your stroke as long as it's comfortable / sustainable for you!

  • teamen
    REPLY

    Joe, thanks. I think that you are right to view this with a discerning eye. As a competitive swimmer, you bring a lot more to the table than the average bear. I used a slightly higher turnover to swim better in Kona this year, but that's a non-wetsuit swim…if you have a wetsuit on you get to really do what you want re: your stroke as long as it's comfortable / sustainable for you!

  • Mark Livesey
    REPLY

    Rich,

    Really interested in that article about paddles and I’d like to discuss this and a few other questions with you if I may? I’d be keen to interview you on my podcast “thebricksession” where I like to get rid of this myth of short cuts to sucsess. Something I am seeing more and more in triathlon.

    It would be great to hear from you to discus further if possible.

    Mark Livesey

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