They look a bit like some sort of medieval torture device, or perhaps an late nineteenth century disciplinary contraption for kids who cannot keep their hands to themselves. However, the swim paddle is not a pain inducing tool or the reaction to a bad action; the swim paddle is for…
…well see, that’s just it. Until today, I had never actually used a swim paddle, and definitely did not know their purpose. I spent plenty of time in the vicinity of swim paddles, warily leaning away from my lane partners lest their arm go wonkily-wide and whack me with the hard plastic disk fashioned to their hand with elastic. Plenty of regular lap swimmers use these paddles like they are the neatest thing since toaster waffles, but never in my years of swim team, masters swim, or even recreational swim, had someone suggested I give them a go.
And why should they?
There is a purpose to the swim paddle, besides making the swimmer feel clunky in the water. According to helium.com, “Paddles, by increasing the surface area of your hand, increase the resistance and the amount of force needed to pull yourself through the water, strengthening your arms.” The general theory is that eventually, if the resistance of the water never changes (which it won’t because it is water), you will plateau in your swimming performance and not swim faster. Thus, if you have more resistance, you can build arm strength and speed up. *
Another reason paddles are used is to clean up your freestyle stroke. Due to the increased surface area and the cumbersome shape, you must hit the water and pull through correctly in order to execute the stroke with the paddle attached to your hand. However, paddles should be removed once you have identified issues in your stroke in order to avoid injury.
Injury plays a big role in the “Should we use paddles?” debate (I know, you’re in shock that there are people debating this topic. I was surprised too. Who knew such little, primary colored guys could be so controversial?). Kerry Sullivan, a triathlon trainer who is educated in fitness, notes this in his discussion of the debate: “Paddles may also be harmful if an athlete has upper body injury issues such as the shoulder or elbow. Pulling a pair of paddles through the water may put extra stress on these areas creating more pain or break down of the area.” So it’s important to note that pain during or after using paddles is a bad sign, and you should proceed with caution. **
Other triathlon trainers take an even more stern approach when discussing swim paddles. Trifuel’s SuperCoach says, “However, guard against becoming dependent on paddles. Many swimmers swim faster when using paddles — and therefore end up using them most of the time! Using paddles too much can lead to shoulder injuries and will almost certainly cause your swimming skills & general speed without paddles to deteriorate over time. We therefore instruct you to utilize them sparingly — they can be very effective tools for improvement if they’re not overused.” Like a fin for your foot, the paddles are going to increase your speed, but you still have to swim without them to really get the benefits of the strength training. ***
My opinion? Well, here’s what happened today:
The pool I swim at now has a collection of swim paddles to borrow along with the usual suspects (kickboard, pull buoy, fins) I swim with during my workouts, and today, they lay in a multi-colored mountain, calling out to me to give them a test drive. How could I refuse?
Using the paddles made me feel doubly klutzy in the water – how one can be klutzy in the water is easier than you might imagine, what with lane sharing, those plastic lane lines, and the constant threat of drowning. I used the paddles with a pull buoy, since that is what I have seen done by my swimming comrades. I felt like I was clobbering the water with my hands rather than gracefully gliding through it. My father spent a long time with me working on my entry into the pull, so luckily my stroke is smooth due to hand placement; I definitely recommend that you be sure you are not a water slapper before you use paddles! It would hurt to put them on and then hit the water.
I did not feel as though I was moving particularly faster than I normally do when I pull, though that might have been due to the fact that I was exceptionally concerned with not clocking the swimmers near me with the paddles. It was a very different sensation to have the paddles whisk through the water as opposed to just my hands, but I adjusted rather quickly and did not worry too much the changes after the first few laps.
What was incredibly different was taking the paddles off. I did not feel slower, and I would if I had just removed fins; rather, I felt like centaur attempting to freestyle like a human. My body did not belong to me, and I clunkered through the water for a good 150 meters before I began to get my swimming arms back.
It will take much further analysis and use to determine if paddles are for me. Having suffered from bursitis in my shoulder before though, I am wary of how much I should considering using a shoulder strengthening device that is known to hurt shoulders.
I would recommend checking out paddles if you are interested in them and feel like your swimming is at a standstill. However, I firmly believe that if you want to jump higher, you should practice jumping higher****, and the same goes for swimming. If you want to swim faster, practice swimming faster. Pump your legs harder and for longer. Pump your arms harder and for longer.
**** I learned idea in a Baby-Sitter’s Club book, and while it was reinforced by my dad, I took the concept from #61, Jessi and the Awful Secret.