The pull-buoy debate
Updated: Jan 23
‘Pull-buoys will enhance every age-group athlete’s capacity to swim’
Over the last couple of months some of our trisutto patrons have sent me an article on pull-buoy and swim gear use and asked me to weigh in. Many are noticing that the trisutto programs have a heavy focus on the use of swimming tools and so sometimes get a little spooked when they read articles suggesting they are a ‘hindrance’ in developing a proper stroke:
Triathlon Magazine Article: How often should swim tools be used
Now I’m not about getting into fights with other coaches as most seem to think. However, I won’t step back in giving readers an honest insight into what I’ve observed standing on pool deck for the past five decades.
The fact is swimming with a modified pull-buoy will enhance every age-group athlete in some capacity with their swim. As for the debate about on how much pull-buoy work you should do? There is no debate. Feel free to use the pull-buoy as much and as often as you like. Do so with the confidence that it will not hurt your swim.
Some of the best swimmers in the sport only take their pull-buoy out to go to the bathroom, while others use it for everything apart from the main set. Do I jump up and down and complain they are affecting their biomechanics ? No, because they are enhancing them.
Before we go down the ‘Oh yes, but all your guys were already good swimmers’ track. No, they were not. Bella Bayliss (16 x IM Winner) never swam outside of a race without her swim toys. Never. She went from a 1hr 07min swimmer to get to the stage where she was swimming around 53 minutes with a wetsuit in most of her later Ironman swims. All done at training with a mixture of paddles, pull-buoy and band. Her husband, Stephen Bayliss (4 x IM Winner), yes, that guy who leads or is in the main pack at every race used to swim 55 minutes but now manages to get out in 47 min with or without a wetsuit.
The list of age-group athletes I’ve trained who have made massive gains using swim gear goes back 25 years. This year Brooke Brown has had to reassure age-group athletes at my camps: ‘I know, I didn’t believe in it [heavy use of pull-buoy] either but I’ve improved 8 minutes in 11 months and so I’ve been told not to take it out.’
So why the hesitation in using the big three – pull-buoy, paddles, band? The big hang up with swimming equipment seems to be that because it makes swimming easier then it’s a ‘cheat’. That if it’s not hard then you mustn’t be working. This statement is so misplaced around a swimming pool it ranks right up there with the myth about the need to be ‘smooth’ in the water. As if Janet Evans hadn’t demolished that one 30 years ago.
A Coach’s Perspective: If you’re not from a swimming background and find the very thought of swim training daunting then the first swim correction that needs to be made isn’t in the pool, but in the head. The most important obstacle non-swimmers need to overcome is to figure out how to enjoy going to the pool. If using a pull-buoy and paddles makes your swimming a little easier and allows you to enjoy your time in the water, then it’s the best thing you can do.
Because in our sport (let’s say an Ironman) you will be taking a mininum of 3,800 single arm strokes in a race. It is a huge effort. To be able to get out of the water not totally exhausted before you even start the bike is the core issue that needs to be addressed.
And if you don’t like to swim and hate every lap you’ll never do the amount of training required to be swim fit enough to enjoy your triathlon experience. Not even the BEST swimmers in the world with outstanding swim skills could swim 3.8km without exhaustion if they only trained twice a week doing a 2.5km or 3km. So I don’t know how I can convince the average age-group swimmer that the ability to regularly put in the miles and enjoy swim training is the biggest ‘technique’ one must acquire.
Pull-buoys also mimic wetsuit swimming, which is an entirely different body position than normal non-wetsuit position. It is by far much closer in biomechanics to a wetsuit swim than bad swimmers struggling along trying to hold techniques that feel very restricting.
As for the inevitable question about how athletes then cope in a non wetsuit legal race? The answer is far better than if they wasted the preceeding months thrashing away like a frog in a blender, increasing their swim ability by zero. Instead the combination of enjoying swimming, making it more likely the miles get swum, while also helping to swim with more good strokes and fewer bad strokes will both improve swim !tness and swim mechanics without ‘drills’. A double whammy of swim improvement. This established, the next question I’m often asked is: What size pull- buoy should I use?
This again is the wrong question. The question should be how much buoyancy is in the pull-buoy? For me as buoyant and as high as you can get. This is difficult because most pull-buoys are total rubbish. This leads the Sutto squad reverting to slightly unorthodox approaches, such as buying two pull-buoys and glueing them together. For those shorter in limb length we’ll cut one of these in half. This will get your butt up to the level one has when racing with a wetsuit.
Our squad also uses the ‘new’ wetsuit shorts you may have seen, which we’ve been using with swimmers since 1983.
In conclusion, if you’re a poor swimmer or if you don’t like hurting in the pool under any circumstances, there just isn’t a correct amount you should use a pull-buoy. I’d advise wearing it the whole time.
When I’ve watched a triple Olympic gold medal swimmer (Keiran Perkins) using a monster pull-buoy for all work outside of main sets and Triathlon Champions (Loretta Harrop, Craig Walton) swim entire sessions and never take the pull-buoy out, I can’t for the life of me understand why we so often advise age-group athletes the pull-buoy should be used ‘sparingly’.
We just can’t get enough of it.