Five Ways Fins Can Improve Your Swimming (Without Using Them For Drills)

Perhaps the single best tool you can buy to help you develop your freestyle swimming is a good pair of swimming fins (also commonly called flippers). Swimming with fins gives you extra propulsion and support in the water, allowing you to focus on developing a particular area of the stroke much more easily.

Elite swimmers use fins for "overspeed work", allowing them to swim faster and really work their kick hard in doing so. For that reason they often use short "zoomer" style fins:

Whilst short fins fit more easily in your swim bag, generally we don't recommend them for age-group adult swimmers as they don't provide enough propulsion for most adults and their stiffness can place unnecessarily stress on your ankles.

Instead, we recommend a longer rubber fin such as the Finis Floating Fins:
These are long enough to provide good propulsion but the rubber is highly flexible, reducing the pressure on your ankle joint. You can see them in our swim shop here:

(Note you might have a pair of long plastic diving/scuba fins in the back of the cupboard but these are best avoided as they will be very stiff and place a lot of stress on your ankles.)

Using Fins To Improve Your Swimming

Fins are probably most famously used for performing Swim Smooth drills such as 6-1-6, Broken Arrow and Javelin. However, even without performing any specific drills there are some great benefits you can gain from swimming with fins during your sessions, especially for relatively new swimmers.

Here's five benefits:

1. Practise Breathing Bilaterally

As we discussed here breathing every 3 strokes (bilateral breathing) is hugely beneficial to your stroke but many find it challenging at first. Breathing every 3 becomes considerably easier with the support of the fins whilst you adapt to it.

Use fins to practise bilateral breathing the next time you swim but don't overkick with the fins on (it's tempting) or you'll burn a lot of oxygen and place pressure back on your breathing. Focus on a nice smooth exhalation into the water and kick gently but with a nice rhythm.

2. Keep Your Head Low When You Breathe

If you are quite new to swimming and feel you are still working on the basics of freestyle, then it's likely you are lifting your head clear of the water to breathe:

Doing this causes you to press down on the water with your lead arm (losing you propulsion) and it lifts the whole front end of your body up, sinking your legs (adding lots of drag).

Instead you should keep your head low when you breathe and use the trough of the bow-wave to find air:

The support from the fins will help you develop this technique as it can feel strange and disconcerting at first. You'll be moving quicker with the fins on too which makes the bow wave bigger and easier to access.

Find out more about bow wave breathing here:

3. Kick With A Straighter Leg

Many adult onset swimmers bend their knee excessively when they swim:

This sinks the legs low in the water and burns a lot of oxygen and energy.

Instead you should kick more from the hip with a straighter leg, keeping a slight softness at the knee to allow a small amount of bend:

The good news is that swimming full stroke freestyle with fins naturally pushes you into a straighter leg position. Swimming steady paced freestyle with your fins on for 200 to 400m allows you to get the feel of a better leg kick technique.

4. Gently Stretch Your Ankles

Not only do fins help you keep a straighter leg when you kick, they also push your feet into a straighter (plantar flexed) position:

This reduces drag and helps bring the legs higher in the water.

As discussed above, stiff plastic fins will force you into this position aggressively, so are best avoided. However a pair of soft rubber fins will apply a light stretch and gently increase your ankle mobility over time. After a few months of regular use (little and often) your ankles will be better able to achieve a good kicking position.

5. Experience "Overspeed"!

Just like elite swimmers by swimming with fins you too can experience moving through the water significantly faster than your normal pace. This helps you feel the water better, get an appreciation of streamlining your body more effectively and helps you develop a sense of "purpose" to your stroke.

Overspeed work should only be performed for short distances (perhaps 50 to 100m at a time) but if you feel a bit "one paced" in your stroke it can help you break out of that rut to faster swimming.

But What If My Pool Won't Allow Fins?

In some countries around the world (notably the UK) it is common for pools to not allows fins in public lanes. If you're in this predicament then it's well worth asking the pool staff if there is a session during the week where fins are allowed - perhaps an evening sessions with adult-only lanes. If not then ask your pool manager to create one.

For those pools that have a blanket ban in place then it's well worth travelling a little further once a week to find a pool where they do allow fins - they really are that beneficial to your development in the water!

Swim Smooth!


RikV said...

I only read 5 ways to improve ... 1,2,3, ..., 5 and 6. Am I missing something?

Tyler B said...

So what do you do when you have been using fins and can't seem to swim well at all without them. As in you are nearly 30 secs slower per 100 without fins. I know I probably use them too often but I can't seem to swim well at all without them. Please help me!!!

Oliver K said...

The biggest problem I see with using fins for adult swimmers (late starters) are:

1. You get away with a big knee bend. Contrary to Point 3 of the article, I believe 100% of adults swimming with fins in our pool have a very big knee bend.

2. It encourages a very low kicking rate, especially the big fins. Again, you get away with it, and I see a too high numbers of otherwise bodily capable swimmers using an excessively slow diving-style with the long fins.

Cyndy said...

Oops looks like a numbering typo and left out #4. Thanks for that!

Cyndy said...

Tyler, everyone will be a lot slower without fins. That is how you can do the overspeed training with your fins. You won't ever be as fast without your fins. Use them for their purpose then take them off. Don't worry about the pace difference between fins and no fins. Just keep swimming, you will get fitter and improve your technique with dedication. Cheers Cyndy

Adam Young said...

Hi RikV - doh sorry we have corrected now!

Hi Oliver K, certainly it's possible to bend significantly at the knee with fins on but they do act to straighten the knee and if the swimmer knows they should be kicking more from the hip it does help them get a better feel for that. On your second point, certainly that could be an issue if they are doing a lot (or most) of their swimming with fins on - we're recommending only 400-600m here which should mean 70-90% without fins on. Also, as we mentioned in the article we're *not* recommending the long diving style of fins.



Chris Ford said...

I first used long fins after witnessing them being used by someone with severe hip arthritis. She said that it strengthened her sufficiently to reduce the hip pain and make walking bearable.
I have been using medium long flexible fins now for many years, although I still spend time swimming without them. A slow straight leg movement from the hip is all that is required to swim at maximum efficiency and speed. A remarkable turn of speed is possible when swimming hard, whether on front or back, but so much energy is used it is difficult to sustain the speed.
These moderately long and flexible fins produce minimal water turbulence when used correctly, making them far more efficient than the short inflexible training fins which produce considerable turbulence but are probably better for strengthening your legs and stroke for when swimming without fins.
Certainly good fins combined with a rolling front crawl technique can mean less stress on the vulnerable shoulder joints and obtaining more enjoyment from swimming.

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