Special Test Set: What A Pull Buoy Can Tell You About Your Stroke

On this week's Blog we're going to share with you a test swim set we use over here in sunny Perth which looks at how a swimmer performs under pressure with or without a pull buoy and fins. This set might hold a few answers for you about your own stroke and what you need to do to improve your swimming. Over to Swim Smooth Head Coach Paul Newsome:

In recent weeks I've been working one to one with a triathlete called Gillian who has a strong running background. We've identified that Gillian is a classic "Kicktastic" Swim Type and so needs to develop a better catch and feel for the water to generate a little more "oomph" and propulsion in her arm stroke. Gillian used to find that she would be substantially slower using a pull buoy between her legs (i.e. no kicking) than swimming normal freestyle. She found it very frustrating to see other swimmers with quite ungainly strokes suddenly being able to keep up with her - or even outpace her - with a pull buoy.

Gillian has been working hard on developing her catch and feel for the water and to see how she's progressing with this I reverted to my own coaching-type and designed a test-set! Try this set yourself, you might really learn something about your swimming which will help you move forwards.

Special Test Set: Free/Pull/Fins Comparison

Swim at maximum effort over a progression of distances from 50m to 200m. Swim each distance three times, one each using either a pull buoy (no kicking), normal freestyle (normal kicking) or fins (accentuated kicking). The main set looks like this:

- 3x 50m + 15 seconds recovery between each: 1) freestyle 2) pull buoy 3) fins
- 3x 100m + 30 seconds recovery between each: 1) pull buoy 2) fins 3) freestyle
- 3x 150m + 45 seconds recovery between each: 1) fins 2) pull buoy 3) freestyle
- 3x 200m + 60 seconds recovery between each: 1) freestyle 2) pull buoy 3) fins
(fins are flippers in swimming jargon)
Warning - this is a hard set! All these swims are to be performed at your absolute fastest pace for that distance! The recovery times are quite generous to allow for this. The order of the freestyle / pull buoy / fins changes during the set to ensure that you are not biasing one over the other as you start to fatigue.

The recovery times don't need to be exact but you do need to be accurate in recording what times you swim for each interval as this is the data we need to analyse and compare.

Gillian performed this set admirably and whilst she was 2½ seconds slower on the 50m pull buoy than she was without, her 100m times were exactly the same, she was (surprisingly) 3 seconds faster with the pull buoy than without over 150m and 2 seconds slower with the pull buoy than without over the 200m when fatigue had definitely started to kick in.

For someone who used to be 12 seconds per 100m slower with a pull buoy than without, Gillian has done some great work in modifying and improving her catch. This was a point which she noticed in today's squad session during a pure pull buoy set - she kept up with the group rather than being dropped like many  Kicktastics would do. A clear sign of improvement in her catch!

Why not give this session a try yourself? You may have noticed these idiosyncrasies in your swimming during a session but have never quantifiably tested them - this set will allow you to do that and get a great workout in the process. If you are consistently more than 6 seconds per 100m slower with the pull buoy than without then you need to be addressing developing a better catch and pull through as your limiting factor.

Conversely, if you are more than 4 seconds per 100m faster with the pull buoy, it's very likely that a poor body position is holding you back and needs fine tuning. Swimmers who are significantly faster with a pull buoy normally have 'sinky leg syndrome' and are classically Arnie/Arnette and Swinger Swim Types. Their body position is a key limiting factor for them, especially when tired.

If you find that your speed with and without a pull buoy is similar then this would indicate that the balance of power between your kick and your catch is relatively sound.

(Of course, all the methods you need to make these improvements to your stroke are in your type's Swim Type Guide)

A Few Points To Bear In Mind:

- You must resist the temptation to kick when using the pull buoy - everyone has the tendency to do so when swimming fast!

- Don't get flustered during the equipment changes - take a few seconds longer to swap over if necessary.

- On the longer intervals (150m and 200m) you may feel there's too much recovery time but stick to it - this is designed to allow you to continue at peak speed through the set.

- Most swimmers will be substantially faster when using the fins than without - the question is how much faster? Gillian's 100m time was 1'17" with fins compared with 1'52" for her pull buoy and normal freestyle swims - massively faster. This is very typical of a Kicktastic who generates a lot of propulsion from their legs. Swingers with a 2-beat kick will see a much smaller improvement with the fins.


I then tested this set with three squads of twenty swimmers each and it proved to be very interesting indeed. For example take two swimmers in the same lane with near identical times for freestyle and freestyle with fins: Trevor (who's a fast Arnie) was 5 seconds per 100m faster with a pull buoy than without, whereas Mel (another classic kicktastic) was a good 11 seconds per 100m slower with a pull buoy than without.

From this test information you could then run a technique session and assign three lanes based purely on how your swimmers responded to this set:

a) A Kicktastic and Bambino lane (those who were much slower with the pull buoy than without and need to work on their catch)

b) An Arnie and Swinger lane (those who were much faster with the pull buoy than without and who need to work on their body position)

c) An Overglider and Smooth lane (who probably saw very little variance on the test set and can focus much more on developing the rhythm of their stroke and fine tuning a variety of areas).

It will certainly make for quite a dynamic session and challenge you to recognise the different needs of your swimmers and how best to develop each of their strokes.

Enjoy and have a great weekend!

Coach Paul


Anonymous said...

While this set pointed out the obvious to me - that I am primarily a swinger with a bit of kicktastic in me as well, I found it interesting how much faster I was with a pull bouy that without. If my legs are sinking, what are some things I should focus on to correct this and improve my stroke?


Adam Young said...

Hi Carl,

Good question. There are two reasons why you could be quicker with a pullbuoy. First, like you say, you could be sinking with the legs, although if you are kicking quite hard (are you aware of this yourself?) then your body position should be fairly good. Good exhalation into the water, stretching through the core and kicking technique (see below) are three of the most common ways of improving your body position.

The second reason could be that you're generating more drag by kicking than propulsion. Some kicking technique work (www.swimsmooth.com/kick) and dropping off the kick effort could really pay dividends for you.

Hope that helps,


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