Training - Got Paddles?
Paddles. Swimmers and coaches either love 'em or hate 'em, but you can't avoid 'em. Paddles have been a part of swimming for a LONG time, and will continue to be. Nearly every Olympic swimmer for the past 30 years has used some sort of paddle on a regular basis. They use them for building strength while training, and for working on stroke technique. Elite swimmers also know HOW to use paddles, which is VERY important.
First, WHO can benefit from paddles? My answer is one of those sentences that can get copied out and pasted to other websites with the words... DID YOU SEE WHAT THAT GUY WROTE?!?!?!. So please read the ENTIRE sentence first. It's this: Just about every swimmer of almost every age could potentially benefit from some sort of paddle. I've hedged on every level, but that fits with my philosophy that swimming is a very individual experience.
If you have fragile shoulders and joints, paddles may not be right for you (but the smaller finger paddles MIGHT be right). If you are 6 years old and still figuring out how to swim, paddles may not be right for you (but sculling with small, strapless paddles might be just what you need to get a "feel" for the water). If you've never used paddles but want to try, the GIANT-size paddles may not be right for you (but smaller paddles might be just what you need).
When most people think of swimming with paddles, they imagine cranking out lap after lap with huge pieces of plastic, swimming the way they normally do and just putting more stress on their shoulder joints. This is not the way to use paddles! No piece of swimming equipment should cause acute pain. With paddles, as with any other piece of swim equipment, you need to listen to your body. If you feel a something that hurts in a way that's not normal, you need to either adjust how you're doing that move, or take off the paddles, or stop using your arms completely until you get it checked. That doesn't mean you don't have to push the limits in heavy training. Training is SUPPOSED to hurt, it just means to PAY ATTENTION to the pain you're feeling, and make sure it's GOOD pain.
Why Use Paddles:
Paddles are great for increasing the resistance during your pull. By making your hand larger, it's tougher to pull it effectively through the water. This makes you work a bit harder, or use muscles you don't normally use. You may learn how to engage your biceps, lats, or back muscles more effectively when using paddles, because you NEED to use those muscles in order to finish a swim. Paddles can help you understand what the hand is SUPPOSED to do at the front of the stroke. Do your hands connect, or do you have to fight to get a pull started? In heavy training, paddles can slow down your tempo, making it harder to sprint. Training can help you overcome that and, in essence, help you build the strength you need to create a FASTER turnover, for more speed at the end of the season.
When to Use Paddles:
To be safe, think of paddles as lifting weights in the water. Most of us don't lift every day; we lift on alternate days. If you DO lift every day, you probably alternate a leg day with an arm day. Think of paddles in the same way. Alternate, don't over use. If you're like most of us, you'll LOVE using paddles, and taking them off is going to make you feel sad (as if you've got a stick for an arm). Think of the work the paddle is doing, and try to recreate that same feeling when you take them off. It won't be easy, but you won't be allowed to use them in meets anyway, so you'd better get used to it.
If you're learning, you can use paddles to understand how to pull, completely. You'll also learn that some of the things you're doing are incorrect. You'll notice that just about all the paddles we use have the straps removed -- except but the center strap. We do this to make sure we're finishing our stroke, and not using the crutch of the back strap to hold the paddle on our hands. We know the manufacturers have put a lot of thought into the designs of these, but we like what we like, which is probably why they give the option of removing them (thanks).
If you're learning, you shouldn't try to force the paddle though the water. Instead of muscling the paddle, try to feel for the point of connection, when the paddle catches the water and starts to move you forward. Many newer swimmers seek the feeling of heavy pressure on the paddle, and they'll push down, out, in and all around to maintain the feeling of force. This can be counterproductive. Try instead to simply connect and hook in -- in a way that will pull or draw you forward.
When NOT to Use Paddles:
First, as stated above, don't use them too much unless you're REALLY used to this sort of thing. If you're prepubescent, you should use paddles ONLY for learning, and not so much for training. They simply put too much strain on young joints. If young swimmers are going to use paddles, make them SMALL. Don't use the biggest ones you can find, because those are REALLY meant for training... BIG SWIMMERS... not for teaching. Imagine strapping a canoe oar to your forearm and pulling that through. While you MAY be able to make it through... once... it's not something you'll want to do again unless you're trying out for the ULTIMATE SWIM GAMES (hasn't been invented yet, but who knows). Just be CAREFUL when you start using paddles and keep in mind that less is more.
We LOVE paddles. They allow us to create so many different types of sets, they keep the daily workouts so much more interesting, and allow us to teach and train our swimmers so much better. We all have our favorite type of paddles, and over the next couple months, we'll be showing the benefits of many different types. We hope you discover the ones you like the best, and while this will be a lengthy process to get through them all, the people who would be in a hurry to find out the final answer or which one to choose already know their answer... because they'll be swimming in China next summer. If you're not one of those... you've got time. :)