Winter triathlon training, part 1: swimming

Aquasphere Alphafins totally rock

Alright, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, or who are not doing much racing until May/June/July, etc., this is probably what you would call our Base period of training. Now is the time to focus on technique, endurance and conditioning work.  In other words, going back to basics, polishing things up, learning from last year’s mistakes and vowing to get it right this year. So, start off slow and easy, get some expert advice, maybe some coaching or tuition and build your fitness on a solid foundation that will be broader, stronger and allow later fitness gains to go higher than before. [That’s why it’s good to think of it as Base period, by the way.  Get it? A base to build on… a foundation…good.]

In the world of swimming, that means swimming drills, and swimming drills mean swimming toys.  Here is a list of things I already have in my swim bag, and how they help my training. Swimming can be technical and complicated, many splendored thing. It’s more than just flailing up and down the lanes at the local pool – drop me a line at for advice.

Aquasphere Kayenne goggles

Okay, duh!  You already knew you needed goggles to go swimming in the pool, but how many different makes and models have you tried?  Do you go for the cheapest ones they sell at the pool? Do you go for the most expensive ones?  Always try on different makes and models to see which ones suit your face and eye-sockets best. A swimming coach friend told me that a good way to gauge goggle fit is to press them into position over your eyes without the straps to see if they stay on your face.

I have tried dozens and dozens of pairs of goggles (and, yes, I have some that were the cheapest ones sold at the swimming pool!) and my favorites are the ones shown above, Aquasphere Kayenne with blue tinted lenses (because, quite frankly, the whole world just looks so much cooler when it’s all blue-tinted). I like a wider frame, but not too wide or mask-like and these offer a 180-degree view (considering that most of my swimming in Spring and Summer will be open water swimming), and I like the overall feel of the material (hypoallergenic Softeril®, so they tell me). I have also tried others that I like, such as the Aquasphere Seal XP (however it’s mask-like profile makes it better for open water than for swimming pools) and the Speedo Pacific Storm (one of my favorites at the less expensive end of the market for day-to-day swimming pool practice. Don’t discount the notion that putting something called Pacific Storm on your face might just make you the coolest kid in the pool) and remember, always carry an extra pair of goggles with you whenever you go swimming.

Water bottle
Yes, a water bottle. If you are going to be swimming for more than 20 minutes, you will probably get thirsty and should take little sips frequently during rest periods in between drills or intervals at the end of the lane. Even better than drinking water is a sports drink with some sugar and electrolytes to replace minerals and salts lost when you sweat. Yes, you sweat when you swim, you just don’t notice it as much.  Any water bottle will do, as long as it is plastic and water-tight.

Swim cap
Wait a minute! I thought that this was supposed to be a cutting-edge, state-of-the-art web site about all the coolest sports gadgets and stuff! What’s all this about goggles, water bottles, swim caps, and low-tech, obvious nonsense? When do we get to the cool shit?  Swim caps are just for girls, anyway, aren’t they?

Okay, why wear a swim cap when you’re swimming in the swimming pool? Hygiene? Sure, keep those loose hairs from clogging up the filters. Speed/hydrodynamics? Sure, shave 0.5 seconds off your next 50m sprint with a swim cap.  How about the old adage that you should train as you mean to race?

Consider this scenario: It’s race day and you’re given a bright colored swim cap so the organizers can tell what wave you’re in and so the kayakers can see you from a distance (and fish your drowning ass out of the water if they need to, because you didn’t train well, positioned yourself too close to the front like a total macho idiot, went off too fast like a total newbie, and cramped up). You’re hot, sweaty and nervous in the transition area, just squeezed into your wetsuit on and have Body Glide or Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Body Oil (sooo much better than Body Glide in my opinion, as it’s affordable, smells nice and is made from vegetable oil and therefor totally wetsuit-friendly) all over your hands. You struggle to put on your swim cap which keeps slipping off, it feels uncomfortable and your head is hot. Because your not used to it! Had you spent the past several months swimming with a swim cap on every single time, then fitting the cap on your head would be second nature. You would get it positioned just right, be used to the feel and not think twice about it. Eliminate distractions, so when you look at the cold, dark water your prepared to deal with all those horror stories you’ve heard about open water mass swim starts.

Swim caps come in latex (the basic, normal ones), polyester (god-awful, ugly ones that are, apparently, easier to put on and take off and make you look like you are an Australian lifeguard who never finished high school), silicone (easier to get on and off, thicker and warmer than latex), and neoprene (even thicker, warmer and often have a chin strap to keep them firmly in place). I can’t possibly recommend any one manufacturer or model in any of those styles, but remember to always carry a spare whenever you go swimming.

Aquasphere Alphafins totally rock

Why use fins for swim training?  Increased speed? Yes, but why is that important (other than being really cool when you motor up and down the lane, like, twice as fast as people swimming without fins on)?  Three reasons:

  • fins increase pressure on your lower legs and so help develop and strengthen those muscles more effectively than swimming without fins (which is also why you need to be careful about cramps and aches in your legs and feet if you are new to using fins)
  • fins are more likely to force your feet into a streamlined and hydrodynamic position when you are kicking, which is especially useful for triathletes (whose feet don’t often get very extended when cycling and running, and are often likely to be inflexible down there)
  • fins give you the extra speed and forward thrust you need to do slower technical drills, so that you are concentrating on the drill and not on the fact that you are sinking to the bottom of the pool.

Personally, I always swim drills with and without fins on, because I don’t want to get too reliant on the fins for extra propulsion, or the giddy feeling of speed you get when swimming with fins.

Sadly, I have no excuse to go out and buy a new pair of Aquasphere Alphafins, since I already have a perfectly serviceable pair and they will probably last me for years and years (honestly, what is going to wear out or break down on a pair of fins?). However, should my current fins get lost, stolen, or by some chance left behind in a foreign country, then I would go right out and get me another pair of Alphafins.  They are made of foam so they float in the water (which is handy when putting them on in the pool) and they are much lighter than other types of fins (which is great for guys like me who sometimes end up carrying fins around in my back-pack all day long).

Kick board
Kick boards primarily help with kicking, especially for front crawl (although it has its uses with back stroke, as well). Take your arms out of the equation and kick from the hips and not from your knees (kicking from the knees just increases drag and resistance, slows you down and just tires you out faster). Use a shallow kick that is in line with the profile of your body in the water. Keep your body aligned, as if you were swimming through a tube in the water and you don’t want to kick outside that tube.

Using a kick board in front crawl training also helps ensure that one hand always stays at the front of the stroke, like when doing “catch-up” drills. Some people recommend using kick boards for any of the single-arm drills. I do all of the kick board-based drills with and without a kick board, because (like when swimming with fins) it can become a bit of a crutch and I always like to see what it feels like to swim drills with no toys whatsoever.

Sometimes you’ll find a kick board sitting around the side of the pool and sometimes you need to bring one of your own if you want to be sure you have one for your drills. They are all similar, but the best one I’ve tried is the Speedo Pullkick, which doubles up as a pull buoy and a kick board.

Speedo Pullkick doubles up as a kick board and pull buoy

Pull buoy
Pull buoys help take your legs out of the equation, typically when swimming front crawl or back stroke.  You should do this for a few different reasons:

  • to put more emphasis on the arms, back and upper body movement in your stroke
  • to see how your kick impacts the rest of your stroke (believe it or not, some triathletes I coach swim a little bit faster when they use a pull buoy and stop kicking, so that tells us right away what they need to work on) and especially in your upper body rotation
  • to see how effectively you are using your core muscles in your swimming (one tell-tale sign of poor core engagement is when someone starts to “fish-tail” – legs swinging from side-to-side when using a pull buoy).

Another really useful drill to do with a larger pull buoy, a kick board, or something like the Pullkick mentioned above, is to tap the pull buoy with every stroke when swimming front crawl. This helps ensure that you have a good follow-through on each stroke and your hand finishes past your hips, rather than coming out of the water early. When you do this, though, make sure you rotate your shoulders and upper body to effect the extra reach you need to tap the pull buoy, rather than collapse in your mid-section or arch your back to reach down to touch the pull buoy.

Speedo Tech paddle, comes in small, medium and large

Paddles are typically used for increasing power and upper body strength when swimming, sort of like fins do for the lower body. People new to paddles should start with the smallest size and work their way up to larger sizes. Be careful to avoid strains or shoulder injuries, stop if you feel any acute pain and take the paddles off.

Paddles are very useful for improving technique in a few different ways:

  • Strap just your middle finger into the paddle and not your wrist or other fingers (depending on which paddle you use, they have different strap configurations on them) when doing front crawl. This encourages you to keep your hand straight as it comes out of the water at the end of the stroke, as well as finish the stroke all the way through past your hips instead of coming out of the water too early (similar to the touch-the-pull-buoy drill mentioned above), otherwise you’ll feel the paddle pull away from your hand and might even lose it in the water if it is not straight.
  • Do some sculling and catch drills with paddles on to increase the resistance to the water. Then take the paddles off and see how much more sensitive your hands are in feeling the water at the front of the stroke!
  • Do some sculling drills with paddles on, but not strapped to your hands. See if you can keep the paddles on your hands using the pressure of the water and a smooth, continuous hand movement.
  • Do single-arm drills with paddles on to heighten your awareness of how each individual hand moves through the water, and how that effects your catch, pull and upper body rotation.

Some pools may not allow you to use paddles, because it’s supposedly too dangerous when swimming close to other people (apparently it’s not too dangerous when a drowning-coughing-spluttering man does his impossibly slow breast stroke then slaps and kicks you whenever swimming past). So alternatively, consider swimming gloves, which are made of soft neoprene and provide similar resistance to paddles (but not the fun versatility to do some of the drills recommended above).

So, these are the basic toys that a swimmer will need to do a good range of swimming drills and build a solid foundation. You don’t need to use all the toys every time you go swimming or do drills, but they will all come in handy at some point.

A few other toys that I don’t have in my bag, but have been recommended to me as being useful and/or fun:

Snorkel: A center-line snorkel, rather than one that goes to either side, which allows you to keep your head in the water the whole time and focus on things like arm movement, upper body rotation, hip movement, leg movement, or pretty much anything other than turning your head to breathe.

Hip rotation devices: There are a few different toys out there that will put more emphasis on getting good hip rotation, which is an extension of good upper body rotation, good core strength and engagement, and good overall streamlining in the water. Finis’ Tech Toc sounds like the coolest of the bunch with these devices.

PowerBreathers: There are other brands out there, other than PowerBreathe, but these guys pretty much dominate the swimming scene. They make a bunch of different types of products, but the idea is that they help you expand and strengthen the capacity of your diaphragm (not, as many believe, strengthen your lungs, which you do through aerobic exercise, not through breathing into one of these things). Developing your diaphragm improves your ability to inhale and exhale with greater power and efficiency.  Some of my friends swear by them and have seen dramatic results with regular practice in a matter of weeks.

Swim-specific Heart Rate Monitor: Most heart rate monitors will not give accurate readings under water, since the contact with the chest strap or the wrist pulse can be unreliable (some say that they work pretty well under wetsuits in open water, but personally I have never had reliable readings). Finis is one of the first companies I know of that offer a swim-specific HRM.

Posted by: Robert


  1. Good stuff – very thorough! I’ll be trying a few of these toys this winter – especially the paddle drills…

  2. Here is a link to a great demo video on YouTube, done by my friend Dan Bullock at Swim for Tri, showing a few different sculling drills:

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