The surprising impact of trying a snorkel and fins in training

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Improving Your Swim

Operation M/S/F (Mask/Snorkel/Fins)

Improving Your Swim


By Jeff Hardisty
Improving Your Swim

If you’re like me, God help you. Aside from that I want to share with you how I improved my swimming. I just completed Ironman Lake Stevens 70.3, and this time the swim was my best event. I actually caught up to and passed people in earlier waves on my way to my best swim time ever. Normally I’m the one who gets swam over the top of or steers clear of traffic if I can. In the 70.3 I had more kick power to scoot around or stay ahead of the trouble spots. It was fantastic! I feel that using a mask, snorkel, and flippers played a great part in my improvement and I want to share my success with you. If you’ve come to triathlon training and racing from swimming this article probably won’t do a thing for you, but if you’ve tried various methods to improve your swim to no avail perhaps I can help.

To give you a little background I came into triathlon training from the world of running. I took up tri training in early 2006 and joined BT soon thereafter taking advantage of all this site had to offer. I could swim and ride a bike too, but never looked at specific training to improve either one. The training plans available here are great and I saw improvement in all areas of training because of them, and then I sort of hit a plateau in the swim. One problem I had, aside from not being built like a swimmer, was I couldn’t get into a kicking rhythm; and then I met Roy.

Along Came Roy

 I normally swim laps in the mornings before work, but when I signed up for IMCDA in 2007 I swam in the afternoons when my training distance increased because I need more time to swim. There was an elderly gentleman who also swam in the afternoon that impressed me with his level of fitness. Roy looked quite fit for his age--he’s seventy-five now—and walked without the familiar stoop and shuffle you sometimes see in the elderly. He always swam with a mask, snorkel, and flippers and would sometimes dive down to the bottom of the deep end and swim underneath people crossways. That always freaked me out visually and made me think of a shark swimming underneath his victim. I must admit that when we swam together I tried unsuccessfully to swim faster then he did but to no avail. My focus was on swimming and drilling with goggles and thought the mask and snorkel thing was cheating. But I finally introduced myself to Roy when we were swimming in adjoining lanes and questioned him about swimming. I found out he’s been scuba diving for most of his life and has travelled to some of the best dive spots in the world. If you’ve ever thought, “I hope I can do that when I’m their age,” then you understand my desire to acquire knowledge from him.

Roy’s Philosophy

One thing I appreciate about Roy is his willingness to take the more difficult path if it improves his fitness. For example, he rides an old bike to the fitness center because it weighs more and therefore causes him to work harder to bring it up to speed; that kind of thinking suits me just fine. I survived the IMCDA swim of ’07 and afterward went back to my morning training schedule. In 2008 I again signed up for IMCDA and again ran into Roy in the afternoons. He still bested me in the pool but I was determined to swim with goggles only because that’s what a triathlete does. I also noticed that my swim times remained the same no matter how many drills or techniques I incorporated to improve my times.

When my wife and I decided to go to Hawaii this November for our anniversary and my birthday I knew I would be snorkeling daily and wanted to get a head start in doing it properly. I thought who better to talk to then Roy. I found what he said to be very thought provoking and couldn’t wait to try his ideas out in the pool. I went to my local dive shop and bought a quality mask and snorkel and headed for the pool. Keep in mind the only people I saw using a mask, snorkel, and flippers, other then Roy and his wife, were seemingly not competitive and obviously not divers. I wasn’t sure what my training buddies would say about my new equipment either, but frankly it was me going into the ocean in a few months and I wanted to be prepared.

Swimming like Roy

Roy’s train of thought is that if you’re running, biking, or lifting weights you naturally increase your breathing to match your workload and swimming should be no exception. Let’s face it, if your riding or running uphill your lungs can be puffing like a bellows as you push yourself to the top. You don’t have the mental distraction of having to turn your head to breathe which limits your output, you just breathe as you need to. Using a mask and snorkel allows you to breathe as you need to and allows you to focus entirely on the drill you’re doing without breathing interruption. Roy also said the best snorkel was the simplest one. A standard J-bend unit is what you’re after and one without a valve at the top or some kind of fancy bend in it. The j-bend style has a little bit smaller bore which allows you to clear it out with one puff of air. If you dive down water fills the snorkel and you want to be able to clear it out quickly when you surface, plus it’s less expensive.

I normally do one-armed laps, catch-up drills, closed-fist strokes, and high arm swings meant to get more torso rotation and lat involvement. Kick drills are also something I do using a short board. I found that when I used a mask and snorkel I could do each drill properly and actually put more force and power into each stroke because I could breathe as I needed to when I grew fatigued; I could really push myself farther because rapid heavy-breathing was no longer an issue. This meant more or longer distance sprint laps and that’s a good thing. Secondly, incorporating flippers gave my legs an added workload, but more than that I found I was kicking rhythmically and naturally even without them. I also swam farther in my workouts in the same amount of time and felt that even though my speed was somewhat artificial the extra distances improved my fitness, and really, that’s what it’s all about. I didn’t look at it any different then I did biking downhill, meaning I counted those miles too even though I might be coasting for a while and not always pedaling. Do you use a pull buoy? Imagine doing pull drills and stroking with everything you’ve got, feeling your lats really dig into each stroke, getting more torso rotation, and pulling with more power and strength without the head-turning breathing interruptions.

My Conclusion

The faster your heart beats and the more your breathing increases during exercise the more your body needs oxygen, period. Using a mask and snorkel adds that dimension to your swim training. Keep in mind you still need to train with goggles only, lest you lose your ability to bilaterally breathe properly, but now look at swimming with the training options the other two events have. Bike and run training have distance, interval, and power/strength workouts and I bet you’re more focused on your cadence or stride, etc. then you are on breaths per stride or pedal stroke, and in my opinion swimming should be and can the same. During your next swim workout pick a few drills and experiment with M/S/F and see if you notice improvement like I did. Or, after your normal workout, use the M/S/F to add extra distance you might feel too tired to do otherwise. Really, you’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain.


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date: February 28, 2022


I love my family, football, tri training and racing, seeing heart patients smile when I share my story with them . . .


I love my family, football, tri training and racing, seeing heart patients smile when I share my story with them . . .

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