Top 7 Swimming Aids to Improve Freestyle Performance

By John Hansen | Dec. 04, 2019, 2:24 p.m. (ET)

fins beside swimming pool

Good stroke technique and productive kicking are the keys to being a successful triathlete at any level, and swim performance and drills are the primary way to make those improvements. However, improving your form through drills can be complimented by the use of swim aids such as fins, snorkels and paddles to accelerate the benefits of specific technique work. In this guide, I will review 7 of the most beneficial freestyle swim aids and how they can improve your swim form.

Swim Fins

Although it is recommended to minimize kicking during triathlons, a productive kick is still necessary to support the hips when sighting and to prevent snaking and maintain proper stroke rhythm/timing. In addition, more than 90 percent of swimming is done in the pool, where an effective kick is very necessary in order for you to develop proper swimming technique.  You cannot develop proper stroke mechanics without having a functional kick.  Consequently, fins are a good swim aid for triathletes because they can improve your ankle flexibility, kick mechanics and leg strength while helping you swim in a proper horizontal position.

Pull Buoy

The pull buoy, when used effectively, can be a very powerful swim aid for triathletes.  However, it also has its pitfalls, so overusing it can have unanticipated consequences.  To begin, it allows triathletes with a poor kick and body position to focus solely on their upper body. Thus, they can devote time to improving their recovery, catch, and pulling technique (hand position and “feel for the water”) while being in a more efficient body position with hips in line with shoulders.

However, if you overuse the buoy, you will begin to compromise the kinetic chain of events that create an efficient stroke. For instance, it can reduce your core strength and ability to create good hip rotation, which will in turn reduce your stroke length and slightly increase your stroke count. These changes can reduce your overall power as a swimmer. Training Tip: Keep legs straight and toes pointed so that discrepancies in the pull are highlighted, and use a buoy less than 25% of total workout volume and only during 1-2 workouts per week.

Snorkel

Swim snorkels are great for improving swim elements like stroke balance, kicking and head position. The biggest benefit to using a swim snorkel is balancing your form because you are not breathing to your dominant side. In addition, since the snorkel eliminates turning the head to breathe, you can perform productive kick drills, especially when using fins, to keep your kick more engaged more often, eliminating common kick issues.  Training tip: to address a wide scissor kick when you breathe, a common issue among triathletes, use both a snorkel and fins, place your arms by your side and simulate the rolling motion of your shoulders and hips to mirror an effective body position while swimming.

Using a snorkel also allows you to focus on where the line of water should hit the head during a freestyle stroke, which is mid forehead (no wrinkles in the neck).  Snorkels reinforce proper head position to maintain a horizontal position, thus reducing drag in the water.

Paddles

Hand-paddles are a great tool to help improve phases of your stroke like the reach, catch pull, and neuromuscular strength. Using paddles forces the arm to extend further from the shoulder, and can help manipulate the elbow into a high elbow position, generating more leverage in the catch and pull. Paddles can also ensure that you push past your hip on the back of the stroke. Training Tip: if you place the middle finger in the forward strap, when you exit the water too early at the end of your stroke, you’ll feel the paddle pull away from the hand. In conjunction with non-paddle swim sets, paddles also create added resistance to develop neuromuscular strength while enhancing your feel for the water.

Tech Toc

The Finis Tech Toc is a clever training tool that gives feedback on hip rotation as you swim. Good hip rotation is one of the essentials of great freestyle technique. While using the Tech Toc, the focus is to enter the water with your hand, or exit the water with the pulling hand, just as you hear the click of the ball bearing on the Tech Toc. Besides hip roll, the device directly improves your reach, dead spots, arm extension as the hand exits the water and a slow stroke rate since the timing of your stroke, directly tied to your hip rotation, will generate optimal power.

Parachute

With a parachute, you can swim with resistance behind you, increasing the efficiency of your arm stroke, stroke rhythm and stroke rate without changing your technique. The benefits are considerable because the added drag slows your velocity significantly, and without enhanced stroke rhythm/rate your momentum through the water would not be smooth and continuous but instead jerky and disjointed. In addition, using a parachute has the enhances your neuromuscular strength. Training Tip: complete parachute sets in short intervals (<150 yards/meters) with low volume to protect again shoulder injuries, and use it in conjunction with non-parachute swim sets to provide immediate kinesthetic feedback.

Tempo Trainer

The tempo trainer is one of my favorite aids. It’s a round timer and metronome device sold by FINIS that is small enough to fit underneath your swim cap or can clip on to your goggle strap. It helps improve stroke rate, which can make you swim faster and more efficiently. The tempo trainer works by beeping to the set frequency. The tempo trainer’s cadence mode is most effective for triathletes who have a slow stroke rate (under 60 per minute), and who have dead spots in their stroke (times when their stroke is not generating enough propulsion).

Training Tip: Unlike other swimming aids, you can use the tempo trainer for nearly all of a main set, frequently and for a variety of swim distances.  Once you have established sweet spot stroke rates for various distances, you can use the tempo trainer to reinforce those established stroke rates.

Moreover, swim aids do not need to be used in isolation but can be coupled with other swim aids to have an even greater effect on technique.  For example:

  • Pull with small paddles and pull buoy, focusing on your reach and catch.
  • Use parachute with a buoy to focus on a high elbow catch and pull while developing strength.
  • Use a snorkel with a pull buoy to eliminate crossing over your midline, during the reach and catch.

The following table provides you a summary of the 7 different swim aids and the swim deficiency each can address.  

Swim Aid

*Fins - Kick

*Pull Buoy

*Snorkel – Hold Breath

*Paddles- Sculling

Tech-Toc

*Parachute – Baggy swim trunks

Tempo Trainer

Key Form Deficiencies

Stroke (Reach, Catch and/or Pull) Deficiencies

Midline Crossover

x

x

x

x

 

 

 

Short Reach

x

x

x

X

X

 

 

Elbow Drop

x

x

x

X

 

x

 

Straight Arm

x

x

x

x

 

x

 

Wide Arm

x

x

x

x

 

 

 

Hand Path and Pitch

x

x

x

x

 

 

 

Dead Spot

x

x

x

 

X

x

X

Elbow Leading

x

x

x

 

 

x

 

Short Exit

x

x

x

x

X

 

X

Non Stroke Deficiencies

High head position

x

x

X

 

 

 

 

Low Elbow/Wide Arm Recovery

 

 

x

 

 

 

 

Low Hip Rotation

 

 

x

 

X

 

 

Kick –Slow, Stiff Ankles, Poor Up and Down beat

X

 

x

 

 

 

 

Scissor kick when breathing

X

 

x

 

 

 

 

Slow Turnover

 

x

x

 

X

x

X

*Swim aids that assist the mental focus you use to improve the key deficiencies of your form.
“X” highlights the swim aid that will have a significant and direct effect on the associated deficiency.
“x” highlights the swim aid that will have a modest and indirect effect on the associated deficiency.

To conclude, using freestyle swim aids can greatly improve your swim efficiency. Most swim aids are best used during short sets with modest volume in conjunction with your own focus on improving your deficiencies, and with other swim aids.