XTERRA Couch to Trail – Swim Toys! What Should I Put In My Swim Bag?


By 5x XTERRA World Champ, Mimi Stockton

As a triathlete you are likely no stranger to acquiring and collecting gear.  We engage in three sports, which means we need stuff for all three sports.  From mountain bikes to GPS watches to tri suits, the list can be long and sometimes problematically expensive.  Fortunately, when it comes to swim gear there are only a few items that are truly necessary and a few more that are nice to have and can and will help take your training to the next level.  You will see swimmers use all kinds of tools for their pool and open water training sessions including snorkels, pull buoys, hand paddles, fins, and kickboards.  If you’re a new or newish triathlete you might wonder how all this equipment gets incorporated into workouts and if you really need it all.  It is really important that you know why you are using a specific tool, and using it in the parts of your training session where you will get the most benefit.  Swimming is all about technique, and if you are going to introduce tools and equipment to poolside or lakeside or oceanside, they should solidify good technical habits.  If you can’t perform the swimming motion with proper technique, all you are doing is creating and/or reinforcing bad technique.

Let’s get started…

Necessary Gear

There are really only three things you need for a swim session: A swim suit, a good pair of goggles and a bathing cap (if you are follicularly challenged, you don’t have to wear one in the pool but you should always wear one while swimming in open water so you are visible).

Swim suit.  Guys, leave the board shorts at home.  You want something that is going to help you become more streamlined, not create drag.  This is your chance to show off that Speedo that’s been hiding in your drawer all these years.  Gals, any kind of one-piece or two-piece will work, although the bikini you might wear to frolic at the beach will probably not stay on while swimming laps.  Best to opt for an actual 2-piece workout bikini.

Goggles.  It’s important to get these right. A pair that fits your face comfortably and doesn’t leak should take precedence over any aesthetic factor.  In this case, form follows function.  Once you’ve found the pair that naturally fits the shape of your face, buy two or three pair, preferably with different lens tints.  You always need a back up 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.

Nice to Have Gear

Hand paddles.  Hand paddles are very popular and 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.  When you get it right, you can distinctly feel yourself getting hold fo the water and propelling yourself forward. One of the most popular toys, however, is also one of the most misunderstood.  If used correctly, and over the right distance, hand paddles can create substantial improvement in power and feel. But (and there is always a but!) if used incorrectly, or for pounding out too many yards, you may be headed for shoulder soreness or potential shoulder injuries.  Also,

putting paddles on a swimmer who has technical issues (i.e. dropped elbows, bi-lateral imbalance in their hand entry, crossing the center line, a lack of feel for the catch and inability to anchor that catch) may not be in their best interest until some of the technical deficiencies are corrected.

Paddles or any swim toy should not be used for more than 30 percent of your total workout. I will always be the first to recommend anything that can help me or my students become more proficient, but never at the expense of becoming dependent on swim toys.

Before incorporating any type of hand paddles into your workouts, ask yourself the following questions: What am I going to get out of this workout? What is the purpose of doing a set with paddles? Am I working technique, power, strength or speed?

There are many types of paddles out there, but I prefer the smaller Finis Agility paddles because they offer immediate feedback on poor technique.  Because the paddles have no straps— just a plastic divider between your thumb and fingers—you need to maintain constant, even pressure on the paddles and focus on keeping your hands, wrists, and forearms in synch. If your early vertical forearm isn’t working, the paddles won’t either, and that’s good feedback.  If your technique is good, the paddles will stay on your hands as you swim.  The strapless design teaches you to apply positive pressure throughout your stroke and if you do not, the paddle will let you know by shifting or falling off.  Pretty slick!  Also, I like these paddles because they don’t give too much resistance.   I can wear them during hard sets and not experience a lot of shoulder fatigue.

Pull buoy.  This nifty toy is used to increase the 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 a greater reliance on your arms. When used properly and with intent, grabbing and using your pull buoy can be a very powerful tool for better swimming.  It can be easy to make the case for its use based on the following arguments: It teaches you proper body position (keeping those hips nice and high, teaching us what efficient swimming should feel like), it targets your upper body exclusively (great for when your legs are gassed), it can help you focus on proper technique (allowing you to focus, for example, on early vertical forearm), combined with paddles and/or an ankle band, can be a heckuva upper body workout, and finally, it’s good for improving “feel” of the water (because you can *generally* do pull sets longer than regular swimming 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 cross-over 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.

Personally, I think neoprene swim shorts are a better option than the pull buoy.  See below.

Swimmer’s snorkel.  The center-mount snorkel is a relatively new tool in the competitive swimmer’s arsenal.  It straps to the front of your head, allowing you to breathe through a mouthpiece while keeping your face below the surface.  It takes a bit of getting used to and sometimes a nose-plug comes in handy to prevent water getting up your nose.  It is really worth the effort to learn how to use it though.  The snorkel can help both the beginner and experienced swimmer focus on stroke improvement while effectively eliminating the interruption of turning the head to breathe.  It allows you to relax, breathe easily and maintain proper body alignment as well as focus on the proper hand pathway under the water.  It can also balance out the workload across both sides of your body allowing you to avoid overloading one of your shoulders.  It encourages you to keep your head down during freestyle as well.  While using a snorkel won’t completely remove your need to pick up your head and eyes to find the wall, it does encourage you to look down.  Proper head alignment is key to swimming balanced and streamlined!  The snorkel can also help you swim straighter—something we can all improve upon in open water swimming!  I use the snorkel during my warm-up and during drill sets.

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.  They 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.  And unless you want to look like a total newbie, bring your swim fins to the pool, not your snorkeling fins.  Longer, stiffer fins are good for beginners, while shorter, softer fins are generally better for the more experienced crowd.

Extra…Really Nice to Have Gear

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 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.  It works by beeping to the frequency at which you set it.  Your job is to make sure each hand enters the water in time with the beep.  You can speed it up or slow it down so that you can closely gauge your intensity during each swim session.  There are two objectives to using a tempo trainer: 1. To become familiar with timing the stroke to the beep at various points in the cycle. 2. To experience the effects of tempo changes on SPL (Stroke per Length), and begin to understand the relationship between SPL and Tempo.

As with stroke counting, tempo training is accessible and specific.  When using the Tempo Trainer, you have full-time, real-time awareness of your tempo, reflected in a digital readout on the Trainer.  And it can be cross-referenced with three other measures —SPL (stroke per length), time and perceived effort—to give you perfect understanding of how effectively you have swum any distance, effort or speed.  Because this tool is so adjustable, you will instantly know —via the feel of your stroke—how you are adapting.  And you will receive empirical confirmation by the end of the next length, via your SPL.

For me it’s indispensable.  It focuses me, it improves my rhythm, it teaches me pace and cracks the code on speed.  I don’t leave home without it.  In fact, I should probably move this into the “Necessary Gear” category!

Here’s an example of how to get started with your Tempo Trainer…

Use Setting 1 on your Tempo Trainer

  • 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 pretty comfortable swimming at 95 tempo with an average 18 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 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 Strokes per Length with the longest Distance per Stroke (What is optimal is going to be different for everyone and the discussion of how to get faster by Decreasing SPL and Increasing Distance per Stroke 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 to: Work on Speed?  Improve your Technique

Neoprene Shorts.

Fast swimmers ride the surface of the water. They glide across the pool, their hips high, giving them a slim profile in the water. When a swimmer’s legs drop, drag shoots through the roof.  Sagging hips are pretty often the reason that most triathletes find swimming so hard.  It makes swimming exhausting.  They key for triathletes is to make swimming as streamlined and efficient as possible to cover the distance with least possible expenditure of energy. This does NOT happen if you are dragging your legs like an anchor behind you.  You can help mimic proper hip position with the pull buoy (see above) or, in my opinion, with a better option which are neoprene shorts.  I put these babies on when I’m not quite feeling like a boss before my swim session.  These have become quite the hot training tool amongst triathletes.   Yes, these will make you faster, but that’s not a reason to wear them (during training sessions that is).  Like a pull buoy, the buoyancy of the shorts lifts up your hips, putting your body in the proper balanced position, which frees you to focus on your stroke.  The primary reason I find these superior to a pull buoy is that I can swim with my whole body, which includes proper hip rotation and kicking.  These shorts permit a more natural roll in the water aligned to my natural stroke—something a pull buoy does not allow.  If I’m looking for more of an upper body strength workout, then I slip on my hand paddles.  These shorts are also super helpful for those swimmers that have an over-aggressive kick (usually employed in an effort to keep their bodies afloat).  As is the case with all these swimming toys, these shorts are beneficial when used in moderation.  I wouldn’t recommend wearing them for more than 30-40% of your workout.  Make sure when you put them on you are consciously reinforcing good habits.  Use your sessions in neoprene shorts to consciously think about those things that are difficult to work on when you’re just fighting to maintain good body position. Pick one thing at a time to focus on: hip rotation, head in the proper position, or the timing of your kick, pull and breathing.

I know some of you are thinking “Mimi forgot about the kick board!”  Actually, I did not forget it.  In my (humble) opinion, I don’t find a need for a kick board and I discourage my students from using it (except for one or two specific drills that are not about kicking).  Kick boards put you in an unnatural heads-up, unstreamlined position, emphasize the least effective part of the stroke (the kick), and keep you from rotating.  They can also cause the hips to sink and acclimate your body to kicking uphill.  Who wants to kick uphill when you don’t have to?  I’m all for challenges, but that’s not one of them!

It is very important to kick without a kick board, and to learn to kick while the head and body are streamlined, and slightly underwater.  If you’re balanced in the water, you don’t need a kick board to do kicking sets.  And if you’re not balanced, you need to forget about kicking sets and learn balance!!

There you have it—the things that are found in my swim bag.  There are other toys out there and variations on the toys I have mentioned, and they may have their time and place.  But before heading out and springing for all these toys, perhaps you should spring for a swim lesson and have your stroke analyzed both above and below water.  Then you will know what toys are most important for YOU and how to use them.  First and foremost, focus on being balanced and streamlined.  Once you’ve got that down, then you can start incorporating some of these toys into your sets.

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.