Triathlon is a sport with plenty of gear for training. For the swim discipline alone, there are loads of toys to choose from, including suits, wetsuits, goggles, caps, paddles, fins, kickboards, and snorkels, just to name a few. There are various purposes and benefits for using these items in training sessions in the water. The one piece of equipment that is most frequently used and abused in swim training by triathletes is the pull buoy.Most triathletes who come into the sport from a discipline outside of swimming have the tendency to overkick in the water. Overkicking is symptomatic of the athlete’s inefficient body position, often called “balance” in the water. The overkicking athlete’s natural body position is uphill: their head position is high, indicated by a positive chin where the athlete is naturally looking forward as opposed to straight down with a neutral chin position. The high head forces a natural distribution of the weight down the trunk through the legs. In watching the uphill freestyle from a side view, one would see a downward sloping line from the center of the head, passing down the shoulders through the athlete’s thighs. The downward sloping line creates a tremendous amount of frontal resistance and drag through the water.To compensate for the uphill body position, athletes often try to kick their bottom half up into balance. Because the muscle groups in the legs require the most amount of oxygen during the swim, kicking taxes our aerobic systems heavily. Additionally, while the body position from overkicking is incrementally better, the downward slope still exists. This added resistance in combination with the excess kick requires more output by the athlete to maintain a set speed, leading to inefficient use of the oxygen supply as expressed by excess heart beats. Translating this down the road to a race situation, we want to bank as many of those heart beats as possible for the bike and the run.In training the swim, athletes who have poor body position often end up using the buoy as a crutch to allow them to log more volume. The buoy acts exactly as the name implies, artificially buoying your legs to allow you to focus on the pulling portion of the stroke. As a result, weaker swimmers or swimmers with poor body position do not waste energy overkicking and can swim longer distances. For these athletes, the buoy is a temporary remedy to the root cause of poor body position.Have you ever noticed how much faster you or a lane-mate swims with a buoy and paddles? Similarly, have you noticed how much lower your heart rate is for a given distance and speed during pull sets? Quite often I will see athletes in the middle of a long endurance set grab a buoy as a source of active recovery, or even survival, during training. In creating a dependency on a buoy, the athlete never learns how to correctly create a more efficient freestyle stroke through better body position. They may log more volume with the help of a buoy, but those yards/meters should be viewed in the proper context. In a race situation when that same athlete gets into a non-wetsuit legal swim, they are often unprepared for the energy demands they will experience because they have relied on the buoy to get through significant portions of their training. The end result of the inefficient swim usually takes place downstream in the bike and run.Having a strong command of body position is probably the single most important skill to have at your disposal as a swimmer. Of course wetsuit-legal swims and new speed suits mitigate a lot of the need for efficient body position, placing more emphasis on other swim skills. However, that is a topic for another day.
Next time you are at the pool, think twice about grabbing that pull buoy. It may be a better use of your time to work on balance drills instead. For stronger swimmers, consider completing pull sets with only paddles, working on balance, a light two-beat kick and maintaining a decent tempo to your stroke rate. In following either of these options, you may not get in the volume you wanted or completed the pull set at the speed of your lane-mates, but you will have spent your precious training time much more specifically, and as a result, much more effectively.
Matthew has coached American & World Record holders as a swimming coach at Stanford and Arizona State. He operates EnduRight, an online coaching company. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through www.enduright.com.