From the very beginning, equipment has been used in swimming training. While the quality and variety of training equipment has certainly broaden over time, coaches’ attitudes towards training equipment certainly hasn’t.
Some coaches love it. Some coaches hate it.
This article will explore some of the reasons training equipment can be useful, as well as the potential drawbacks to using training equipment that should be appreciated. As with all training, any interventions should be carefully considered to ensure that the intention is being realized while minimizing the unintended consequences of any intervention.
Before diving into the benefits of training equipment, I’d like to be clear about one thing.
You have to swim!
There is a rhythm, timing, and ‘touch’ to swimming well. This timing and rhythm is different when you are using training equipment. While I don’t believe that using training equipment will negatively affect these qualities when used with reasonable volumes, the overreliance on training gear can impair rhythm. This is due to both the presence of negative effects from equipped swimming and the absence of the positive effects of regular swimming.
If swimmers consistently reach for training aids (snorkel, fins, buoy, paddles) when they begin to struggle, they will likely be missing out on an opportunity to find their skills in times of duress. While it can be tempting for swimmers and coaches to give in to the urge to ‘save’ a set, this can impair long-term technical development as fatigue can be a valuable context to learn skills
Training gear is useful as a supplement to full stroke swimming. You have to swim and normal swimming needs to be the primary driver of training volume.
Training equipment can be useful for the obvious reason that it can allow swimmers to move through the water in ways they would otherwise be unable to do. Coaches can strategically use training equipment to exploit these novel aspects so that both learning and physiological development are enhanced.
If you want to overload the muscular system and the ability to create force, some sort of resistance training is going to be required in the water. Fortunately, the type of resistance training is not that important. Coaches have found some inexpensive, creative, and effective ways to implement resistance training. For long-term development of speed and power, resisted training is a terrific asset.
Beyond the enhancement of force production, resisted swimming is also useful in enhancing force application. Because of the enhanced pressure on the limbs when creating propulsion, swimmers are better able to feel when there is a gap or loss of force application. With this enhanced feedback, swimmers can learn to remove these inefficiencies and losses of propulsion.
At the other end of the spectrum, training equipment can also allow swimmers to move through the water faster than they would otherwise be able to do. The use of towing, fins, and paddles can help swimmers consistently achieve velocities that are faster than normal. Swimmers can use equipment to swim at supramaximal speeds, or to swim at greater volumes of submaximal speed with less effort. At higher velocities, the impact of body position and the nature of force application are different. By spending more time at higher velocities, swimmers can learn to manage the nuances of body position and force application at speed.
Learning skill is driven by kinesthetic information. To learn new skills, swimmers have to feel new movements and the physical sensations associated with these new movements. While new sensations can be created through verbal instruction and the use of drills, the use of training equipment greatly magnifies the spectrum of possible kinesthetic information that can be created. Variation is critical for long-term skill development and training equipment can be a valuable source of variation. This is particularly true when coaches are able to use equipment to specifically create sensations that specifically move swimmers toward better movement solution.
While increases in variety of kinesthetic movements can enhance skill acquisition, creating contrast between these sensations can be even more valuable. When swimmers perform repetitions in slightly different conditions, they must find the commonalities between different contexts. This process is made simpler through the use of training equipment which can be quickly altered during recovery periods.
As an example, constantly manipulating hand size through the use of different sized paddles and closed fists exposes swimmers to the sensation of force application with different surface areas. This can allow swimmers to lock in on effective strategies for creating propulsion that work for them. Across the different conditions, swimmers can learn both the similarities and the differences between the different conditions. They learn what matters.
While training equipment can be useful, how it’s used determines how useful it will be. While there are no hard and fast rules, there are some considerations that should be kept in mind. As with all coaching, any intervention will have the greatest positive impact if the intent is clear and the effects are carefully observed and managed.
Physiology is Physiology, but Skill is Skill
While the muscular recruitment patterns do differ slightly, this probably doesn’t affect the physiological conditioning to any great extent. In this respect, physiological development will probably proceed in a similar manner whether using training equipment or not. However, the subtleties of force application, body position, and rhythm WILL be different when using training equipment. The more equipment that is used, the more significant these differences will be. While this isn’t necessarily bad, it must be managed.
One way to manage these effects is to thoroughly consider how gear affects the various elements of skill and technique. Fins change the size of the feet, paddles change the size of the hands, a buoy changes the position of the body, a snorkel changes the impact of the breath on rhythm, etc…
Training equipment absolutely places constraints on how swimmers can move. Training equipment forces swimmers to move in certain ways, for better or worse. By understanding how these various constraints work, coaches can use training equipment to move swimmers towards specific skill sets. Holding a tennis ball in the hands will automatically require swimmers to adjust the position of their forearm if they wish to hold water.
Even if coaches don’t wish to use equipment as a positive constraint, at a minimum, one must understand the potential training baggage that comes with equipment. The use of any training equipment will have effects, positive, neutral, and negative. By understanding the negative aspects, coaches can ensure that the influence of these negative aspects is minimized.
Using training equipment provides the opportunity for coaches to introduce constraints that help to shape technical skills.
Swimmers must control the training equipment; training equipment shouldn’t control swimmers. This is particularly true when using resisted training loads. Swimmers must always strive to swim with great skills regardless of the impact training equipment may be having on rhythm, body position, or limb action. By maintaining this intent, swimmers will learn how to better control the training equipment, and in turn their skills over time.
Coaches can consider training equipment as the presentation of a technical challenge. In spite of the training equipment, swimmers must attempt to achieve their technical goals regardless of the challenge presented by the training equipment. As an example, when swimming with paddles, swimmers must strive to maintain the same hand path as opposed to abbreviating the hand path.
One at A Time
The more equipment that is used at any one time, the greater the deviation from full stroke swimming. The greater the deviation, the more the rhythm and timing differs from full stroke swimming. If coaches are going to spend a significant amount of time using training equipment, they must account for the impact of these different rhythms.
One way to manage this change is to only use of piece of training equipment at a time. As described above, the use of training gear impacts the utility of a specific body region. By only using one type of training equipment, only one aspect of the body is influenced (i.e. bigger feet with fins) as opposed to multiple aspects of the body.
In this way, the stroke is different enough for learning to take place, yet similar enough to be relevant. By using one type of equipment, swimmers can learn how to manage and control that one type of equipment. However, when multiple pieces of training equipment are used, the rhythm and the timing begin to move farther and farther away from what is relevant, reducing the impact on learning.
Of course, there are no rules here. If you have a strong reason to combine multiple training tools, do so. Understand what you are trying to accomplish and pay attention as to whether that goal is realized.
As described above, variation in the kinesthetic input is a valuable part of the learning process. When performing speed and power training, there is a very limited duration over which this type of work can be performed. There is also pretty much only one speed that is effective for training, as fast as possible.
Because of these restrictions, there are only so many options available to the coach, and variation is relatively limited. Further, this type of training responds particularly well to resistance loading. Beyond resistance loading, the use of various paddles and fins tend to enhance magnitude of force application as they present a greater surface area with which to create force.
Swimmers must learn to efficiently apply maximal force, as well as create high forces in the first place. By using many different combinations of training equipment, swimmers can learn how to apply force across multiple contexts, helping them find the common solutions that are most productive.
For any training element, there needs to be a certain degree of variation present in the training stimulus to prevent physiological, technical, and mental monotony. Because of the limited training options available during maximal effort sprinting (i.e. short distances, high speed), there must be another source of variation. The use of training equipment can provide that variation. As speed work should be conducted year-round, coaches can and should all of the training equipment available to provide the necessary variation, with certain types of training gear being more appropriate at certain times of the year.
Even within a sprint training program, the use of equipment must still be balanced with full stroke swimming. However, with this requirement will likely be covered during any aerobic and specific endurance training that will be performed.
The use of training equipment can enhance the efficacy of any training program. Training equipment can be used to increased resistance in the water to enhance for production and application, allow for the achievement of higher velocities, and to add variation and contrast to the kinesthetic sensation swimmers feel as they move through the water.
For training equipment to be used most effectively, coaches must remember to protect the rhythm of free swimming by balancing the use of full stroke swimming, ensuring the appropriate technical intent is retained throughout every stroke, and different types of training gear is combined tactically.
As with any training strategy, training equipment is only as useful as it’s implemented successfully. There are no magic training tools. It’s all in how they’re used. If you have a specific reason for using particular training tools, and you’re observing whether that tool is realizing the appropriate effect, you’ll be on track to using training gear well.