When should we be using a pull buoy?

Seeing underwater video of swimmers, comparing the use of wetsuits, pull buys and regular swim suits makes for interesting viewing of what they do to our body position and stroke rate. Here’s a great example of just this from Swim Smooth:


Obviously, we know that a wetsuit gives much more buoyancy in the water, as well as some hydrodynamic properties form the smooth rubber, and it’s a similar case with swim skins. But I see many people using pull buoys for training to get their body position higher in the water too.
Here’s the ranty bit…

I have mixed feelings about pull buoys. On one hand they do raise the body in the water and help those with a weaker kick work with less effort to swim and focus on the front end of their stroke. They’re also great for isolating core for rotation while doing some paddle work for strengthening the arms. And if you’re in a heavy training block and your legs are taking a beating from run and bike volume, it can give you a little break in your swim sessions.

But as you can see from this video, a good swimmer is slower with a pull buoy, because not using your legs when swimming is like pinning your arms by your side while running… you’ll be slower because our limbs work together to create optimal counter-rotation. If you do swim quicker with a pull buoy then it means that your legs are creating a lot of drag in the water during your normal stroke. But we’ll come to that later.

Rotation is important for all sports, it’s literally the movement that separates us from more primitive animals. It allows us to walk, run, leap, throw, climb, important movements that we require to participate in sport. Rotation through our core, linking our limbs diagonally across our bodies allows us to generate much higher forces that those using a limb on its own.

Think of it this way, imagine the following comparisons with and without rotation or using upper and lower body movements together:

  • Throwing seated vs. Standing
  • Throwing with both hands standing vs. 1 arm standing with the opposite leg forward.
  • Jumping vs. leaping
  • Running with your arms pinned by your side vs. normal running.
  • Swimming with a band around your ankles vs. with a kick.

When it comes to swimming I often explain the role of the legs in our stroke as; “doing for the arms in swimming, what the arms do for the legs in running.” That is; counter rotating to make the movement more efficient and powerful.

We only get around 10-15 % of our propulsion from our legs in the water (at best) which isn’t a lot of return for such large muscles. And the worse our kick technique, the more oxygen we’re probably drawing into our legs and away from our upper body. Think of the role of your legs in the water to kick for the following reasons…

  • Provide upwards lift to keep them high in the water and therefore your body position flatter. Add counter rotation to the arms to improve hip rotation to increase stroke length and efficiency as well as improve the power of the stroke. Think of this as your mantra for your kick: “Position, not propulsion.”

If we go back to the pull buoy and what to do if you are someone that’s quicker with one. While the pull buoy, like a wetsuit is masking some of the poor leg kick by allowing you to sit higher in the water, continuing not to kick is making your arms work harder and limiting your potential performance. Also, when people don’t kick we often see them swim flatter in the water with less rotation through their hips and shoulders. This is often accompanied by ‘fish tailing’ where the body bends from side to side as they stroke. This is because, even a poor kicker will still need their core to stabilise their stroke.

So, when and how should you be using your pull buoy?

While they are a very useful tool for swimming, ultimately a good swimmer needs every aspect of their stroke to be on-point to be able to swim well. So over using any training aid will lead to a dependence on it.

Beginners may find using a pull buoy beneficial for experiencing better body alignment in the water allowing them to focus on other aspects of their stroke, such as hip rotation and arm position. Another big benefit is that if someone’s swim fitness isn’t great, it requires less energy to swim with a pull buoy, so it can allow longer swim sessions while giving the legs a little rest.

In more competent swimmers, the use of any training aids; floats, boards, fins, paddles etc. is about isolating a particular element of the stroke to allow the athlete to temporarily focus on one or two things before reintroducing them back into full freestyle. It’s the same as when doing any drill; perform the drill then follow up with your normal stroke to allow you to focus on what that drill was doing.

When it comes to using pull buoys, or any training aid into your stroke, build your set to allow short bouts of swimming with your pull buoy/paddles etc, followed by freestyle and repeat that as desired, back to back.

Finally, as a useful compromise a fairly recent development in triathlon training is the use of flotation shorts like the BlueSeventy core shorts. These are like a pair of swim jammers made from wetsuit material. The main benefit here is that you get the buoyancy of a pull buoy without your legs being forced to remain still, meaning that while experiencing a better body position, which can help develop other areas of your stroke, you can still kick normally. This is a much better approach in some ways since it allows a more natural swim stroke. However, taking them off and putting them on again isn’t practical within a session, so you’d probably be better off using these for a whole session for 2-3 swims per fortnight, so you still get plenty of time to swim without them.

Coach Phil

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