It's no use just ploughing up and down the pool in a bid to become a more efficient swimmer. And you're probably going to need more than just a swimsuit, hat and goggles, too.
Smart swimming certainly involves the element of raw determination, but a select set of training aids, along with interval training and drills, will help to fine-tune your technique. Whether you're a beginner or an elite swimmer, there are certain items you should have in your swim bag. Training aids improve technique, develop a better stroke, build strength and add variety so that your pool sessions stay fresh. You'll feel more confident and your times will come down.
Pull buoys are hourglass-shaped foam devices that you hold lightly between your thighs. By keeping your lower body lifted they allow you to concentrate on developing your arm work. They'll help you perfect your arm stroke and build strength at the same time. Triathletes find pull buoys particularly useful, as they mimic the buoyancy offered by a wetsuit in open water. It's important not to get too attached to your pull buoy, though: it will make swimming feel a lot easier, but don't let it become a security blanket.
Zoggs' pull buoy (£5.99, www.zoggs.com) is layered for maximum buoyancy, small enough to keep in your kit bag and so light you won't know it's there. Also worth a mention is Zoggs' versatile and easy-to-use kick buoy (£11.99, www.zoggs.com). The kick buoy is small, light and doubles up as a pull buoy and kickboard.
How to use a pull buoy:
Include a few lengths of 'pull' in your warm-up. Relax your legs and let them trail behind you. Keep your body streamlined and concentrate on reaching forward and pulling through with your arms. You could also include some more pull in your main session. Just make sure to put the pull buoy aside after a while and experience how it feels to swim without it. If you experience leg cramp using a pull buoy, you're probably gripping too firmly with your thighs. Relax: the pull buoy is designed to sit naturally somewhere between your knees and groin. You don't need to actively hold it there.
Kickboards are used to build leg strength and improve your kick. Triathletes are notoriously poor at kicking when they're swimming, partly because they want to save their leg strength for the hard work on the bike and run. Fair enough, but a slow, rhythmic two- or four-beat kick acts as a metronome, keeping the body level and helping to maintain a streamlined position. Zoggs' streamline kickboard (£12.71, www.zoggs.com) is a light, durable kickboard with options for various hand positions, making it easy and comfortable to use for a few lengths of kick drills.
How to use a kickboard:
Simply hold the board, stretch your arms in front of you and push off from the wall before kicking to the end of the lane. Kick slowly, concentrating on rhythm rather than splash. Think about pushing down on the water with the top of the foot and the rest of the kick will look after itself. Kicking with a kickboard can be tough on the neck, as you are forced to hold it up in an unnatural position, so limit kickboard work to four lengths at first. You could also consider kicking - without the kickboard - on your back, with your arms stretched out ahead of you.
Goggles are an essential bit of kit for any swimmer. There is a vast range out there, from tiny 'socket rockets' for pool racing, to larger masks suitable for open-water swimming. Goggle preference is a matter of personal taste and fit. You'll probably need to try a few until you find a pair that fit your face and your budget. When you do, look after them: nothing will speed the demise of your favourite goggles more than leaving them at the bottom of your bag with a set of keys and various other debris. You could even buy a goggle pouch to keep them scratch-free.
Aqua Sphere has a great range of goggles, and have recently adapted its bestsellers to better suit the
female face. The Kaiman Lady (£12.71, www.aquasphereuk.co.uk) is a comfortable option, featuring Aqua Sphere's trademark 180-degree range of vision as well as 100 per cent UVA/UVB protection. The one-touch buckle system makes the strap a cinch to adjust. These goggles - the male and the female version - are a great choice for the pool and your forays into open water.
How to use goggles:
Find goggles that suit you, buy a bag or pouch to protect them, then keep them in your kit bag so you never leave them at home when you head to the pool. Clean them with anti-fog spray or a tiny touch of washing-up liquid, rinse and leave to dry. Don't spit in them or wipe the lenses with your fingers. That will only lead to a buildup of tiny scratches on the lenses.
Paddles add resistance to your arm stroke, helping you to identify mistakes in your catch (when your arm enters the water) and pull, thereby building strength and good technique. The one problem with traditional paddles is that staff at many pools will object if you wear them during public sessions, fearing that you'll hit someone in the adjacent lane with the solid plastic edge. The solution is to find a smaller or softer pair of paddles and to check with pool attendants before you use them.
Several manufacturers offer soft mitt-type paddles, which are a great way of getting a resistance workout without giving the lifeguards cause to fret. Speedo's soft Aquatic Mitts (£13.00, www.speedo.com) are one example. Made of neoprene, they are durable, hold their shape and dry quickly (although you shouldn't leave them languishing in the bottom of your bag). Choose the correct size and slip them on like a glove. They add resistance to your stroke but still allow you to flex your hands and fingers (and grab the wall at the end of each length). PT (Perfect Technique) paddles (£19.99, www.ptpaddles.com) are a new take on paddles: their design limits the influence of the hand while you're swimming so you have to use your forearm to assist your catch.
If you've ever done a fist drill (where you swim front crawl with your hands held in a fist under the water), you'll discover that PT paddles give the same sensation but keep the hands in a nice open position and prevent you from tensing them up.
How to use paddles:
Regardless of which type you choose, hand paddles create extra resistance as you swim, which means your arms, shoulders and back have to work harder. This will build strength and encourage you to focus on proper technique, preventing you from relying on just your hands to pull you through the water.
The effects of using paddles can be powerful, so don't do too much too soon. Consider a maximum of eight lengths with paddles during the drills section of your swim session. Concentrate on a long reach as your hand enters the water, and a strong pull, keeping the hand close to the body. You should alternate swimming with paddles with normal swimming, so you can feel the difference and have a chance to put what your body has learnt into practice. Once you become used to them, you can combine paddles with a pull buoy for a really strong workout.
Lap counters and watches are invaluable if you find it hard to keep track of how many lengths you've swum. You can use any sports watch (if it's water-resistant), but swimming-specific devices are easier to use. The SportCount Chrono 100-lap counter and timer (£24.99, www.activeplanet.co.uk) is useful for swimmers of any ability. This tiny watch fastens around your index finger so you can press its single button with your thumb as you swim. The one-button device counts your laps and records both lap times and overall session time. After your swim, you can find out your average lap time, as well as the fastest and slowest.
How to use lap timers:
Keep an eye on your progress by regularly timing how long it takes » you to swim a certain distance. Swim a timed 250m, 500m or 1000m and note in your training diary how long it took. Revisit the distance every fortnight or so (as suits your training plans) to chart your progress. You could also try timing every length for a longer distance, to see how you pace yourself. Ideally, you should hold a steady pace but also have the ability to post a negative split (when the second half of the distance is quicker than the first half). A watch with a lap-timing function will allow you to keep track.
If you find pool swimming boring and the joys of the open-water season are still too far off, you could consider using a waterproof MP3 player to make your pool time a little more interesting. A good range of waterproof music devices has appeared in recent years, which will be music to your ears if you struggle with the solitude and repetitive nature of swimming. Speedo's Aquabeat (£75.00, www.speedoaquabeat.com) is a waterproof MP3 player that both Mac and PC fans can use. It's extremely unlikely that you'll need its 500 tracks and nine hours of play time if you use it only for pool swimming, but you could always use it as a regular MP3 player. Like most waterproof MP3 players, it clips to your goggle strap or swimsuit shoulder straps and the earphones secure themselves with an earplug-like design. The sound quality is good, although you may find the water delivers some distortion if it dislodges the earplugs a little. The design is simple and cleverly engineered, so you'll find the buttons simple to operate when you're in the pool.
How to use a waterproof MP3 player:
The jury is still out on listening to music while you swim. You certainly won't be allowed to use an MP3 player during races, so some people, not unreasonably, question the choice of using one during training. Far better, they say, to get used to the perceived boredom and focus on your swimming rather than distractions. However, if your attitude toward pool swimming is keeping you out of the water, and an MP3 player would get you back in, it'll obviously be a helpful device. When you're compiling a playlist, it's a good idea to choose uplifting songs with a good tempo. Consider some slower tracks for your warm-up, drills and swim-down (the last part of your session, when you allow your body to relax by slowing down). One thing's for sure: never use an MP3 player in open water. Safety first.
one more thing...
Along with kickboards, pull buoys, paddles and other bits of kit that every serious swimmer should consider, there are other, more unusual gadgets on the market that could also help you improve in the
water. One is the Wetronome (£40.00, www.swimsmooth.com), a metronome that has been developed specifically for swimming. At first glance, you might wonder why you'd need a metronome for the pool. But when you consider that a steady rhythm is one of the key factors in developing an efficient swim stroke, you'll start to see how helpful the device can be.
Designed to help you train to a specific stroke rate, the Wetronome bleeps to a pre-set rate, helping you get into a rhythm and gain control over your strokes per minute (SPM). This, in turn, will allow you to pace yourself, maintain a regular rhythm and increase or decrease your stroke rate as necessary. You could even use it in open-water races to give you a timing reference in an environment in which you will probably have few other bearings.
How to use a Wetronome:
The key to working to a stroke rate is understanding how your SPM relates to your speed. If you have too low or too high a stroke rate you could make improvements to your technique by working on stroke length, rhythm and speed. There are resources online from the distributors of the Wetronome that will help you calculate your stroke rate.
Pre-set the Wetronome with your desired stroke rate, pop it under your hat or goggle strap and start swimming to the bleep. If your stroke rate is already where it should be, it will be a case of getting used to swimming rhythmically over a set distance, and seeing the improvements you make as you become used to a steadier rhythm. If you need to speed up or slow down, you may find it more challenging to stick to a set stroke rate at first. But you'll reap the benefits in the long term. With the Wetronome, you can play around with increasing or decreasing your stroke rate to find out whether or not it makes you any faster over certain race distances.