Should you use swim paddles? A rule of thumb

Swim paddles (in my opinion) are useful for developing swim-specific strength, especially in the shoulders and lats. I prefer Strokemakers:

strokemaker paddles
Strokemaker paddle (size red #3). NOTE: The paddles come with a longer strap meant for the wrist, but don’t use it. That’s goofy. If you need the wrist strap to keep the paddle stable, you’re doing it wrong.

Strokemakers are the classic paddle for competitive swimmers. At various points in my swimming career I’ve used Green #1sYellow #2sRed #3s, and Blue #4s. As a Masters swimmer, I use Reds. As an open-water and marathon swimmer, I feel that the strength I develop with these paddles (which some have derogatorily described as “dinner plates”) helps me power through waves and chop in rough-water conditions.

(Note: I have no financial relationship with the company that makes Strokemakers. Every one of their products I own, I’ve paid for. I just like their paddles.)

There’s a catch, though: It’s probably a bad idea to use these paddles as a beginning (or even intermediate-level) swimmer. You can hurt yourself! Certain stroke flaws (thumb-first entry, crossing over the mid-line, dropping your elbows on the catch), combined with paddles, can lead to rotator cuff injuries.

How do you know if your technique is good enough to start using “power paddles” such as Strokemakers?

I’d like to suggest a simple rule of thumb: If you can swim with the FINIS Agility paddles without struggling to keep them on your hands, your technique is probably good enough for power paddles.

Karen has a nice description of how the Agility paddles “test” your technique.

Important caveat: If at any point you develop shoulder pain while using paddles, stop using them immediately!

finis agility paddles
FINIS Agility paddle. Hand not included.

I received a complimentary pair of Agility paddles from FINIS at Jamie’s swim camp a few months ago. I have no trouble keeping them on, but I still use them occasionally because of how well I can feel the initial “catch” of my stroke. I think of the Agility paddles as feel for the water paddles, in contrast to the Strokemaker power paddles.

I was happy to hear recently that FINIS is now selling three sizes of Agility paddles – small and large, in addition to the original size (now called “medium”). I always felt the original Agility paddles were a bit too small for my hands, so if I were in the market for new ones, I’d get the Large.

One final note: as usual, I find Terry Laughlin’s perspective on this to be overly simplistic and dogmatic.

Advanced Pool Etiquette for Masters Swimmers, Lesson 2: Personal Space

The second in a series of posts on etiquette for organized pool swimming. These lessons are considered “advanced” because they focus on nuances of etiquette specific to organized or coached swim workouts, such as Masters. You should already be familiar with basic pool etiquette for lap swimming, which has been well covered by LoneSwimmerRob Aquatics, and Art Hutchinson.

Courtesy of Swimming Memes

Do you walk right behind people on an otherwise empty street? No? Then don’t do it in the pool, either.

In a short-course pool there are 50 yards (or meters) of physical space to swim in. In a long-course pool there are 100 meters of space. Use it.

In an organized workout, each swimmer is entitled to a certain amount of personal space behind their feet. During an interval training set, the relevant dimension of personal space is actually time – specifically, 10 seconds. By default, leave 10 seconds apart.

An exception to the 10-apart rule is if your lane is so crowded that the lane-leader is nearly finished with the inbound length before the last person has begun the outbound length. In this case (and ONLY in this case), it’s OK to leave 5 seconds apart.

For a short-course lane swimming at a pace of 1:30 per 100 yards, there’s enough room for FOUR swimmers leaving 10 seconds apart. The last swimmer will leave 30 seconds after the lane leader, leaving 15 seconds of space before the leader completes the 50-yard round-trip.

For a long-course lane swimming at a pace of 1:40 per 100 meters, there’s enough room for TEN swimmers leaving 10 seconds apart. The last swimmer will leave 90 seconds after the lane leader, leaving 10 seconds of space before the leader completes the 100-meter round-trip.

What if there are five swimmers in a short-course lane? Does that mean everyone now leaves 5 seconds apart? No. As many swimmers as possible should still leave 10-apart. In this case, three swimmers leaving 10-apart and two swimmers leaving 5-apart is equivalent to four swimmers leaving 10-apart.

The progression of “5-aparts” always begins from the back. In a short-course lane with six swimmers, the #2 swimmer still leaves 10-apart, and #’s 3, 4, 5, and 6 leave 5-apart. Why is that? Because the lane leader is doing everyone a favor by leading the lane, keeping track of the intervals, and dragging everyone along in his draft. The lane leader’s personal space always has priority.

Only in the case of seven, eight, or nine swimmers in a short-course lane (assuming a pace of 1:30 per 100 yards) should everyone leave 5 seconds apart.

Courtesy of Swimming Memes

Another exception to these rules is if a set includes particularly long repetitions – e.g., a set of 500’s in a short-course pool – and the lane leader is substantially faster than the swimmers at the back. In this case, it makes sense to create a little more “cushion” behind the last swimmer, to avoid the lane leader lapping the last swimmer.

In a long-course pool, you should almost always be leaving 10-apart, unless your lane is extremely crowded. Occasionally I’ve seen even very experienced swimmers come to a long-course pool and leave 5-apart even when there’s plenty of room. Usually it’s a function of their background – perhaps they always swam in crowded short-course pools, and never learned that 10-apart is the true default.

Why is 10-apart the default? Because this is swim practice, not drafting practice. Leaving 5-apart in a lane with plenty of room is disrespectful of the leading swimmer’s personal space, and is a breach of pool etiquette.

But most infuriating of all are the people who leave on an odd number – e.g., 7 or 8 seconds apart instead of 10, or 3 seconds apart instead of 5.

When a swimmer leaves 7-apart instead of 10-apart, he’s transmitting misleading information to everyone around him. If the swimmer behind me leaves 7-apart instead of 10, when I turn at the opposite wall I’m going to see him closer than I expected, and assume he’s swimming faster than me. I may even consider stopping at the next wall to let him pass. But really, he isn’t swimming faster than me – he just left early. And that interferes with my workout.

The 7-apart-leaver is also frustrating to swimmers behind her. If you’re not leading the lane, oftentimes you’re not keeping rigorous track of the intervals; you just leave 10 seconds after the person in front of you. But if the person in front of you leaves on a “7,” it’s unclear whether she was supposed to leave on the “5” or the “0.” This interferes with other people’s workouts. (That being said, you should keep track of the intervals even if you’re not leading the lane.)

In general, the unwritten “personal space” rules in the pool are sort of like drafting rules in cycling races. In no-drafting cycling races, there’s a “drafting zone” behind each cyclist. If you enter this zone, you must pass within 15 seconds or drop back.

In the pool, you’re not entitled to draft off the swimmer in front of you for as long as you like. If you do, they’re allowed to punch you. (Not really.)

Advanced Pool Etiquette for Masters Swimmers, Lesson 1: Awareness

The first in a series of posts on etiquette for organized pool swimming. These lessons are considered “advanced” because they focus on nuances of etiquette specific to organized or coached swim workouts, such as Masters. You should already be familiar with basic pool etiquette for lap swimming, which has been well covered by LoneSwimmer, Rob Aquatics, and Art Hutchinson.

As Donal has written, if there’s a “golden rule” of pool etiquette, it’s probably awareness. Be aware of what is going on around you. Who are you sharing a lane with? What are their relative swim speeds? Where are they? Are they swimming back and forth continuously, or are they doing intervals? What strokes are they doing? Is a faster swimmer approaching from behind? Get out of their way. Is someone standing above your lane, preparing to join you? Make room for them. Are you splitting a lane with someone, and a third person is about to join? Get ready to circle-swim.

Awareness is also vitally important in an organized workout. It’s actually easier to be aware in an organized setting, because everyone is (or should be) doing the same thing. By the same token, swimmers in an organized workout are held to a higher standard of awareness, precisely because it’s easier. An etiquette faux pas – cutting someone off, or colliding with them – is less forgivable in an organized workout than in a lap-swim lane.

What does it mean to be aware in an organized swim workout? Sort of like lap swimming, but moreso.

I know exactly how many people I’m sharing a lane with, and where they are in the physical space of the 25-yard or 50-meter lane. I know what my lanemates’ average swim speed is, relative to me. I can tell whether they’re swimming faster or slower than they usually do, within just a few laps. I also know how I’m swimming – am I having a fast day, and off day, or an average day? I’m always watching the pace clock.

Combining all this information, I’m constantly calculating whether any adjustments in the lane order need to be made. Why? Because if I have to pass someone in the middle of a set, or if someone has to pass me, that interferes with our workout and increases the chance of collision. If the lane order is correct, no one should ever have to pass (or be passed) in the middle of a swim. If someone is consistently creeping up on me, at the next rest I’ll offer to let them go ahead. If I’m consistently creeping up on someone, they’ll usually offer to let me go ahead. If they don’t, they’re not being “aware.”

How do I know if someone is creeping up on me? After a turn, I know exactly where I should pass the swimmer behind me (going in the other direction), assuming that person went 10-seconds apart (or 5 seconds in a crowded situation). Familiarize yourself with markings on the bottom of the pool. If I suspect someone is creeping up on me, I can confirm by watching the pace clock at the end of the swim. If they left 10 apart and finished 7 seconds after me, that means they’re creeping.

A common “error of awareness” in a Masters workout: A swimmer doesn’t see another swimmer approaching from behind and intending to pass. Again – this shouldn’t happen if the lane order is correct, but another situation is when leading swimmers “lap” trailing swimmers.

The wall is the best place to let another swimmer pass. If a swimmer is forced to pass in the middle of a lap, someone screwed up, and it’s not the faster swimmer. The best way to “get passed”? Stay on the same side of the lane as you approach the wall; let the passing swimmer move to the other side and execute their turn; switch sides and push off behind them. If instead, you move to other side of the lane before you approach the wall, you will cut off the passing swimmer and create a potential collision.

How do you know when to pause and let another swimmer pass? Be aware of the other swimmer’s speed – or more precisely, the rate at which they’re gaining on you. If they will pass you within the next length, you should pause at the wall and let them pass.

The goal of all this is to avoid collisions or interfering with other people’s workouts. A lane of “aware” swimmers – even a crowded lane – is like a well-oiled machine. You get all the benefits of training with other people (motivation, camaraderie) and none of the downsides.

If you’re new to organized workouts, “awareness” may take some time to develop. But just keep swimming (preferably not in the “fast lane”) and soon enough, you’ll do all this stuff without even thinking about it.

On pool etiquette and experience

In a comment on my recent post on violations of pool etiquette (“Menaces to Swim Society“), reader Luke took issue with my tone and choice of words, saying they’re likely to turn people off from organized swimming. Nobody wants to be a “pool asshole” – or worry that others might think them one without realizing it.

It’s a fair criticism. I was aiming for humor with a tinge of snark; I may have over-done the latter. Reader Bob Needham correctly identified it as “unresolved rage” from recent, real-life experiences.

So allow me to offer some clarification: If you are a beginning swimmer, please don’t feel intimidated from taking the plunge and joining a Masters squad. My List was not aimed at you. It was aimed at those who should know better.

Which raises another question: Who should know better, and who is cut some slack? There’s a very simple test: Are you swimming in the “fast lane,” or close to it? If so, you’re expected to behave accordingly. If you’re a newbie, you’re probably not in this lane. Most likely, you’re sharing a lane with other newbies, or people who are accustomed to swimming with newbies. Relax – it’s all good!

At my pool, the “fast lane” has a base interval of 1:25 per 100 LCM. Almost everyone in this lane swam competitively at the collegiate level. When I swam with Stanford Masters, the “fast lane” was 1:20/100 LCM. In this lane we had the occasional 1984 Olympian.

In collegiate and high-level club swimming, you’re swimming with other people – sharing lane-space with them – for, in many cases, more than 20 hours per week. At this level, you don’t get away with violating pool etiquette. You’re going to get yelled at – by your teammates, and by your coach. So generally, etiquette faux pas just don’t happen in these environments. By the time you’ve made it this far, you’ve pretty well learned your pool etiquette.

These are the people who “know better.”

And really, is it any different in other sports? Especially sports in which you’re sharing limited resources with other participants.

Take surfing etiquette, for instance. At a beginner break (in my area, Campus Point in the summer), you can mess up and generally people will cut you slack. Snake or drop in on someone at the Ranch, and you can expect to get yelled at (or worse). If you want to play with the big boys & girls, then act like one.

Next: Demystifying pool etiquette: A handbook of fundamentals

Menaces to (swim) society: How to be a pool asshole

Do you enjoy enraging your fellow swimmers? Do you want your lanemates to secretly hate you – or possibly even overtly hate you?

If so, I made a list just for you. The Top 10 Petty Annoyances of Organized Pool Swimming. A handy guide to sowing chaos in an organized swim workout. Think of them as descending circles of Hell.

Courtesy of Swimming Memes

If you want to be a pool asshole, here are a few suggestions:

10. Swim right on someone’s feet during warm-up.

9. Cheat during the non-swimming portions of the workout — pulling when you’re supposed to be kicking; full stroke when you’re supposed to be drilling.

8. Pull on the laneline in backstroke.

7. During a distance set, when a faster swimmer in the adjacent lane approaches, suddenly speed up and “race” the faster swimmer, perhaps only for a lap or two.

6. Join a lane with slower swimmers, lead the lane, and then unilaterally change the interval so nobody else gets any rest.

5. Join a lane with faster swimmers and fail to make the interval except by using fins or paddles, or by stopping every few laps.

4. Be unaware of a faster swimmer approaching from behind and, when approaching the wall, swim across the lane and cut off the passing swimmer.

3. Leave 5 seconds apart in a long-course pool, even when there are only 2-3 others sharing the lane.

2. Leave 2-3 seconds early (Grrreeeeegggggg!).

And now, the #1 way to be a pool asshole:

1. Sprint to catch up to the swimmer in front of you. Pass him or her. Then, once you are in front, suddenly slow down.

Whirlpool Drill

Whirlpool Drill is one of my very favorite swimming drills – yet when I’ve shown or told people about it, I’ve been surprised how few have heard of it. It’s so much fun it almost seems like it shouldn’t be a drill. So here I am, sharing the wealth.

The other day I was doing a filming session off Santa Cruz Island (more on that later), and Whirlpool Drill was accidentally caught on tape! I was treading water, talking to one of the filmmakers, and a little whirlpool started to form near one of my hands. I got my interlocutor’s attention and made the whirlpool bigger for a few seconds while he kept the GoPro running. At one point, a stray piece of kelp was drawn into the vortex. Here’s the clip:

Basically, you scull your hand back and forth a few inches under water – rapidly, trying to maintain constant pressure against the water. If you’re doing it right, you’ll make a whirlpool! Bonus points for big and/or long-lasting whirlpools. Extra bonus points for keeping two of them going – both hands, at the same time!

Whirlpool Drill is basically a more focused, intense form of the various sculling drills, which are intended to reinforce a solid catch and “feel for the water.”

How big is your whirlpool?

Good Workouts and Bad Workouts

100×100 may be “the most famous of all distance swimming sessions” – but I’d never actually done it… until last Friday. Mark invited me to his USA-S squad’s morning practice, for reasons unspecified, and had this “special surprise” waiting for us: 100×100 (SCY), as:

  • 10 @ 1:30, warm-up
  • 10 @ 1:20
  • 10 @ { 2 @ 1:15, 3 @ 1:10, 3 @ 1:20, 2 @ 1:30 }
  • 6x: 10 @ { 4 @ 1:10, 3 @ 1:30, 2 @ 1:05, 1 @ 2:10 }
  • 10 @ 1:30, cool-down

Normally this would be a make-able (if challenging) set for me. Unfortunately, Friday was not a normal day. For whatever reason, my body was just not cooperating. I lifted weights on Thursday, but I don’t think that entirely accounts for it. It was just one of those days.

I have a “lead balloon” day once a month or so. I recognize it within minutes of getting in the water. Wow… I’ve got *nothing* today. On such days, I usually adjust my plans. Slow drilling, sculling, kicking… anything but a distance-overload set on tight intervals.

By the second round of 10×100 (1:20 interval), it was clear I was having “one of those days.” My body position felt off. I was having trouble hitting my stroke count (14), which on a normal day I can do with my eyes closed (literally). I was approaching the wall in-between strokes (e.g., 14 & and a half), and thus either jamming or floating my turns. It didn’t help that I was swimming in an end-lane without visual targets on the walls. One time I actually “whiffed” on a flip-turn – like, I totally missed the wall – which I can’t remember ever doing, even when I was 7 years old.

I was a mess.

And yet – at the end of that second round, I still had 80x100s to go! 240 flip turns. Ugh. If this were a solo workout, I’d probably try to get through an hour and call it a day. If this were Masters – probably the same. But this was different. When you swim with kids half your age, your pride is at stake. You can’t just bail a third of the way through the workout.

So, I kept swimming. I didn’t make every send-off, but I completed every lap. If you look at the “main set” of 60×100, you’ll notice every 10th repeat is on 2:10 – providing a buffer for those who missed one (or both) of the 1:05 send-offs to catch up. This buffer was my saving grace.

As much as possible, I tried not to struggle. I focused on good technique – on trying to feel smooth, even if I felt like a lead balloon. My goal was to finish 10,000 yards without hurting myself. As much as possible, I ignored the clock. Speed was a secondary consideration.

Much like a channel swim, actually. In my younger, pool-swimming focused days, I might have considered this a “bad workout.” In pool swimming, “good” and bad” is defined by speed. In a channel swim, though, the primary consideration is: Did you make it across? Did you keep swimming for as long as it took?

And in that sense, this was a useful workout. Not a “good” workout, exactly… but a useful one.