Swimming Gear Myths...
Busted!

Are you the kind of person who lugs a bulky bag of odd-looking swimming gear to the pool because someone told you they would help your technique?

If you are, that’s okay, but have you ever wondered if all of those “extras” are really necessary?

Can you improve your technique without all the additions that leave you looking like the Creature from the Black Lagoon?

In this article, I attempt to reveal the truth behind some of the most common swimming gear myths and misconceptions and clear up some downright damaging advice.

Read on to see my version of the "truth" behind these swimming gear myths and then...

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Swimming Gear Myths Busted!

Myth #1: You need a lot of expensive swimming gear to get a good swimming workout.

  • Truth: All that swimming gear may make you feel like a "pro," especially if you come from a competitive swimming environment, but the bottom line is this: you simply don’t need more than a few basic items to get in a great (not just okay, but a great) quality swimming workout.
  • For some people, the list is as short as: a body of water. The next step up is just: a body of water plus a swimsuit (those who just need the water are hopefully swimming in a private pool☺). Add goggles if the water bothers your eyes and add a swim cap if you have hair that falls onto your face.
  • These 4 elements are all that you need to get in a top notch swimming workout anytime. While a select few other accessories have a place in training during very special situations, others are being frequently misused, to the detriment of your swimming technique and more importantly, your health.

Myth #2: Pull buoys are good for immobilizing your lower body so you can work on your upper body technique.

  • Truth: You might have heard this line of advice from a swim coach or maybe a fellow swimmer who was trying to be helpful, but ultimately, a pull buoy (a foam floatie that you place between your thighs as you swim) will actually be prohibiting you from executing the proper body rotation and side balance (at least in the freestyle), thus making any technique work you do with your upper body completely pointless.
  • This goes back to the idea that you swim freestyle on your belly, but since we busted that myth, you now know that most of the time you will be gliding on your side. It’s nearly impossible to balance in the glide position while you have an unnaturally buoyant float between your legs, which means the buoy will force your body into an incorrect swimming positiond. You will be forced to stay mostly on your belly and any “technique” you work on for the upper body will be practiced incorrectly. My advice: Forget the pull buoys and work on controlling YOUR OWN buoy instead. (What does that mean?)

Myth #3: Using a kickboard will help you strengthen your kick.

  • Truth: First of all, I have to address the issue of needing a strong kick in the first place. Very briefly, if someone told you you have a weak kick, that’s probably the wrong advice in the first place. The freestyle can be broken down into three elements and three percentages of power. The core is 60%, the pull is 20% and the kick is 20%. For most people who have a “weak” kick, inflexible ankles, or whose feet sink, the real solution can probably be solved by focusing on the core 60% of their technique. Few kick problems are ever directly tied to the strength of a person’s leg muscles, so more kicking will never solve the problem.
  • Now that busts part of this myth because it means that any kind of isolated kicking exercise will not fix “kicking” issues. And specifically using a kickboard is the worst kind of kicking practice you can do, unless of course, you are a competitive kickboarder. ☺
  • What am I saying? Basically, using a kickboard will help strengthen your kick, that is, it will help strengthen your kick while using a kickboard. If you race with kickboards, that is just the thing you should practice with, but if you race or swim using the whole stroke, then kickboards, which isolate your legs and put your body in an unnatural position (ie. head up, back bent backwards) are not the best way to strengthen a kick that will translate into a faster swim. Even worse, heavy reliance on kickboards may never uncover the real issues behind your “kicking” problems.
  • So what should you do? Well, the best way to work on your kick is to practice drills that integrate the whole body as it will work in the stroke. By doing so, you engage not just the leg muscles, but the abdominals and upper body as well. Practice doesn’t make perfect, Practice makes Permanent, so by kicking in the true stroke form, you’re building muscle memory that will actually translate into greater kicking power and endurance when you put it all together.
  • For examples of some of these drills, click here. They are not as fun as using kickboards, because you can’t chit chat with the swimmer in the other lane, but they are effective.

Myth #4: Swim paddles are necessary to build upper body strength, and every serious swimmer should use them.

  • Truth: Swim paddles are one of those swimming gear accessories that might be doing you more harm than good if you are not careful, either by using them incorrectly or too much. Competitive swimming is a virtually injury-free sport. But the one injury you might experience could be a shoulder injury, often aggravated by the use of swim paddles.
  • You see, swim paddles put additional (and I would argue, unnecessary) strain on your very fragile shoulder muscles, tendons and ligaments, which can lead to shoulder strain and injury, especially in younger swimmers, swimmers who are using paddles that are too large, or swimmers who are using the paddles incorrectly or who have bad technique.
  • The idea behind the use of swimming paddles, often used in conjunction with pull buoys (which I busted earlier), is that they build up your upper body by adding resistance to your pull, while immobilizing your kick. At least that’s the idea. But does this swimming gear really make you swim faster? The jury is out on that one. Even if they do make you swim faster, the real question is, are there other ways to improve speed and technique without risking a shoulder injury? And the answer to that is a loud YES!
  • An Injury Free Alternative: I agree with Terry Laughlin, of Total Immersion Swimming fame, that the real goal in the freestyle stroke is to improve the efficiency of the whole body in the stroke. And according to Terry, the best way to improve pulling efficiency is not to make it “easier” to catch water (by making your hand bigger with the paddle), but to make it more difficult to catch water by swimming with your hands in a fist. In other words, by making your “paddles” smaller, rather than larger, you force your body to learn how to extract every ounce of power not just from your pull, but from the efficiency of your whole stroke, in the body rotation, reach, catch, kick, streamline, breath, recovery, re-entry, everything! Together!
  • Well, you say, what about the fitness aspect of the swim paddles? They make me work harder and add resistance, so I get a better workout. Okay, let me ask you this. Would you go to the gym, jump on a shoulder press machine and pump out 160 reps at a 1 second pace, with a few seconds rest every 40 or 80 reps? That’s about how many stroke cycles you can take in a short pull set of about 800 yards, with an average of 5 stroke cycles (right and left arm) per lap. You wouldn’t put that kind of strain on your shoulders out of the water, even at extremely light weight, so don’t think it is less harmful in the water.
  • Bottom line: Because the use of these swim paddles can lead to unnecessary shoulder injury, in novice and expert swimmers alike, I personally believe that you shouldn’t use this kind of swimming gear until you have given the alternative method a try. If you can’t improve your stroke by using Terry’s technique of “swimming with fists” as well as the entire collection of drills that he details in his books and DVDs, then you can try swim paddles. But paddle at your own risk…


What's Your Take on These Swimming Controversies?

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Penny - Lifeguard, Swim Instructor, and Pool Operator Not rated yet
Whoa! Where to begin. The glory of swimming is that anyone, of any age, any ability, with no extra equipment can benefit from engaging in the sport. I …

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