Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Advice on paddling

A buddy asked my advice on paddling. Once a week ok? With her kids I suggested daily, with applications of duct tape in between. Turns out I had the wrong idea. I still think it's good advice, in some circumstances.

She meant using the hand paddles in the swimming pool. Now that we're all on the same page I can get started.

Sometimes you see people with big flat paddles on their hands. Often they've got a blue and white floatie thing tucked between their thighs. Back and forth they go. What's the point?

First of all, swimming well is an enormously technical skill. There are a zillion subtle things your body has to do in a very specific sequence in a very short period of time, over and over. This is why the swim kids are in the pool swimming endless K after endless K practicing their stroke. It's how they can swim so quickly.

Second is drag. Water is ruthless about slowing you down. Every little thing you do wrong is punished by the water. Bubbles trailing off your hand? A waste of energy and an increase in drag. Hips low and legs trailing? HUGE drag! If I had a choice about having my drag in the water reduced 10% or getting 10% more strength in my swimming muscles, I'd take the drag reduction in a heart beat, any time.

Learning to swim faster is practically the definition of endless cycles of  continuous improvement. When you first swim your body is in there thrashing away, burning energy by the bucket load, and going nowhere. Gradually you figure out the stroke and you start to move down the pool. You work on body position, and kick, and you move faster, but then your stroke needs to change, which leads to kick changes, and so on.

You have to have the courage and discipline to let some things go temporarily while you focus on other things. At first it's trying to move your arms and breathe while the kick could be anything. Then you'll think about your kick, and your stroke will fall apart. Gradually it all starts working together, even if you aren't thinking about it particularly. Then you start watching the clock, trying different things with the stroke, tweaking this, adjusting that, seeing what works, as defined by the clock. Faster is always better unless you got there with a shitty brute force ugly stroke.

There are two points to using the paddles. One is technique, one is strength.

Paddles can help you tune your technique, or they can ruin it. They magnify what your hand should be feeling in the water. They can help you learn a clean hand entry and to feel the catch. You need to pay attention to what your hands are doing from the fraction of a second before they hit the water, right through to when they leave the water. If you can't feel it with your hands, the paddles might teach you the wrong things.

They can help you build your strength by letting you push against more water. Or you'll injure yourself just as surely as trying to pick up too heavy a weight in the gym. The stroke should be slower and mindful of the forces you are exerting. If you have a shitty windmill stroke, using paddles is just about guaranteed to injure your shoulder. If you can't do the stroke right, you shouldn't use paddles.

Once your stroke is pretty good (clean entry, good catch, early vertical forearm, strong pull, relaxed recovery) then you can start thinking about paddles. Then think about them a little longer. What more can you do with your stroke? Have you tried faster turnover? There's a little clicker thingie you can tuck into your swim cap to help you make your stroke more regular. If you normally swim at say, 50 strokes a minute, try turning it faster, and swim at 55. Then 60. Then faster. Learn to turn your arms over faster and still get a good stroke. Find the stroke rate that suits your bodily build and cardio engine. It's different for everyone, and it might change for you over time as you get better. (I goofed on the stroke rates in the first edition. Oops!)

The other end is a slower stroke where you count strokes per length. Today I was swimming 19 or 20, sometimes 21 per 25 m at the very end of a 2 K swim. That's kind of typical for a good recreational swimmer, but it's not a magic number, it just happens to be my number. Whatever you swim at now, (What do you mean you don't know how many strokes it takes to get down the pool? Count next time. It's an important number.) try swimming 25 m with fewer strokes. Lots fewer, and not just by doing only kick. I can fairly reliably do it in 13 long slow strokes.

Then you work on both at once with your golf score. Swim 50 m and keep track of time to the second. Count every stroke, each arm. Add them together. Lower is better. If you aren't at least thinking about puking at the end, swim faster. This is at almost all out, as fast as you can swim clean. Once you've made some improvements here, you'll know your swim is improving. I haven't done it for a while but was usually around 80 when my swim mojo was happening. Maybe I'll do it next swim.

Now lets talk about the pull buoy, that hourglass shaped thingie I was talking about. What it does is add some flotation to your lower body. Ideally your body should be moving through the water like you were swimming down a narrow (just wider than your elbows), shallow (water as deep as from your elbow bone to your fingertips) trench, moving through the water like a spear. Your head should be low, your spine straight, butt right at the surface, and your heels and toes just splashing the surface. The buoy helps you get there so you know what it feels like. Then you build the core muscles and learn the body mechanics to get that position without the buoy. Don't tell me you can't float. If my tall skinny female buddy can swim flat in the water like a torpedo, you can too, at least the flat part.

I'd suggest the buoy first. That will help body position so you swim a bit faster with the same stroke. Pretend your big toes are tied together with thread. Some people put a band around their ankles to keep from kicking. Once you are swimming faster you can tweak your stroke, then try to do that without the buoy. You can't injure yourself swimming with the buoy. Hint, once that is going well, tie a towel to the band while using the buoy, then try band without the buoy, then try band and towel without the buoy.

And this is without even talking about drills to improve stroke (fist, and many others), breathing (3, 5, 7, 9), core (dolphin), or the biggie, getting someone to video your stroke. There is no better way to improve your stroke.

Get the idea there are lots of ways to improve without risking injury from using hand paddles?

In other news my swim this morning was excellent!
500 m warmup, 8:55
5x100 in 1:38 on 2
1000 m 18:15 nice and relaxed.
(No hand paddles or buoy.)

This photo is similar to one the other day, but is a panorama of 4 shots stitched together. I hadn't noticed the dog walker when I took the shots.


  1. You keep moving further and further down my babysitter list, Pennywise. Thanks for the information-I'll bookmark this and keep working on my coordination and routine for now. I am feeling more comfortable in the water only after a few weeks.

  2. I'm just starting to relearn how to swim. Or learning to swim correctly for the first time. I want to do a sprint triathlon in June, but I've always front crawled with my head ABOVE the water, looking forward. I'm terrified, but I learned to do a 3 stroke to breathe, but I forget to kick. I can learn a lot from your posts, Keith!


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