On pull buoys

On pull buoys


This is a pull buoy ————–>

At once the most common of training aids, and the most disrespected. According to conventional wisdom, pull buoys:

  • encourage weak body position – swimmers don’t have to kick and engage their core to raise their body position as they would without a buoy.
  • inhibit body rotation, causing swimmers to swim “flat” and thus less efficiently.
  • put extra strain on the shoulders, making injuries more likely.
  • discourage underwater kicking off walls.
  • are, along with hand paddles, a crutch used by lazy swimmers to help them swim faster and with less energy.

See, for instance, this thread on the USMS discussion forum, or one forum member’s memorable suggestion of a drill to “throw a pull buoy as far away from yourself as possible.”

Personally, I’ve always liked pulling with paddles and a buoy. I try not to overuse them – typically, I’ll use them at the end of a main set (say, the last round of a 4-round set) for a little extra “oomph.” Actually, it’s more than just a little – I’m usually about 6 seconds per 100 faster with paddles+buoy than without.

So, I’ve never paid much attention to the scorn heaped on pulling gear (buoys in particular). But what do I know? Would I be a better swimmer if I “tossed my buoy away as far as possible”? Might the haters have a point?

Here’s the thing, though: I’m not the only pulling enthusiast out there. And some of these people are actually fairly accomplished swimmers. More accomplished than, say, your average USMS forum participant.

One particularly passionate pulling proponent is none other than Mark Warkentin. Mark, of course, was a 2008 Olympian in the 10K open-water event, and a two-time U.S. national champion in the 25K. He had an impressive career in the pool before that, including four NCAA All-American honors at USC and three individual golds at the 1999 World University Games in the 200 Free (1:51), 400 Free (3:53), and 800 Free (8:00).

Mark also does (and has always done) an enormous volume of pulling. I know this because we swam together with the Santa Barbara Swim Club from when we were 7 years old until we left for our respective colleges. Mark still lives in Santa Barbara, and I occasionally work out with him when I’m in town for the holidays. Knowing that he has a somewhat unconventional view on pulling, I decided to ask him a few questions. Here’s what he said:

[Evan] Why do you like pulling so much?

[Mark] In my experience I don’t have mental/emotional fatigue as quickly when I have a pull buoy sustaining my body position.  Because I do not have naturally good body position in the water I find that when I swim a lot in practice I get “burned out” quickly because I have to focus so much on maintaining good body position.  A typical distance swimmer or open water swimmer needs to spend a lot of hours in the pool on a weekly basis, but a 1500 race only lasts 15-16 minutes and a 10K only lasts about 2 hours.  If you’re tapered and rested you should be able to handle the mental/emotional stress for that period of time, however it’s a lot harder to justify 20 hours per week (every week) at that same stress level.  I can do 20×400 with a buoy and go fairly hard the entire time without too much emotional duress, but if I were to do that same set swimming I would be very burned out afterwards.  If a swimmer has naturally good body position then it may not make any difference, but in my experience I can emotionally recover from a 8,000 meter pulling set significantly faster than an 8,000 meter swim set.

[Evan] Do you find that you have trouble maintaining good body position during races when you don’t have a buoy?

[Mark] To make up for the lack of swimming I do a lot of running, cycling and kicking to make sure that I have strong legs and I do a lot of core work to make sure that my abs are ready to handle the body position requirements for a race, so it’s not like I only do pulling sets.  I find ways of working these necessary muscle groups outside of swimming because I find that it’s emotionally easier.

[Evan] What do you think of the view that buoys can compromise stroke mechanics?

[Mark] I don’t think that buoys can compromise stroke mechanics – in fact I’ve found that my catch in the front of the stroke is much cleaner after I’ve done a long buoy only set.  Additionally, I think that I emphasize body roll more when I have a buoy than when I’m swimming because I know that I need to get my hips into the stroke to give me more power (because my power source is limited to my arms only).

Lessons learned? Here’s what I take from Mark’s comments:

  • Beware of broad generalizations and one-size-fits-all training recommendations. Each swimmer is different, and it’s important to find methods that work for you. Long pull sets might be sub-optimal for a sprinter or a breaststroker, but might work for a marathon swimmer who swims most of his race with a 2-beat kick.
  • Mental fatigue is an obvious and important but not-often-discussed issue for marathon swimmers – especially those with careers as long as Mark or Petar Stoychev. Mark is now 31 years old, and has been training almost nonstop for 25 years! How does anyone maintain motivation over that period of time?
  • The issue of motivation is another long conversation in itself, but I think part of the answer is in finding ways to “trick yourself” into training even when the motivation is absent. For Mark (and for me, as well), pulling sets are fun. We swim faster but with less energy. It’s a crutch, perhaps, but a useful one. On days when I’m fatigued or feel terrible in the water, using pulling gear might mean the difference between getting in a full 90 minute workout or getting out after 30.
  • Another useful “trick” Mark mentions is mixing up his training. Swimming for hours on end can be mind-numbing, but mixing in various dryland activities (running, biking, weightlifting, core work) can help you extend your overall workout time while making it more interesting.

So, next time you hear a coach or fellow swimmer mock the pull buoy, remember Mark. You can’t argue with his results.

5 Responses to “On pull buoys”

  1. Tweets that mention On pull buoys | freshwater swimmer -- Topsy.com

    2011-01-08T20:16:38+00:00

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul Ellercamp. Paul Ellercamp said: RT @pointswim: Interview with my friend and open-water Olympian Mark Warkentin on, of all things, pull buoys: http://j.mp/fuk8yg […]

    Reply
  2. IronMike

    2011-01-09T07:54:19+00:00

    I use pull buoys to work on bilateral breathing. I don’t know what the problem is, but when I breathe left, my right arm dips (I do front-quadrant swimming), and my head when I turn to breath always feels out of position, as if I’m overcompensating for breathing over there. My legs, thus, try to make up for my right arm and my head and then I get all out of position.

    To compensate, I take the legs out of the equation so I can simply concentrate on my pull. I want to become a bilateral breather because, as you know, I can’t swim straight. I think my problem comes back to the fact that I breath right only in OW races.

    Since starting swimming seriously 8 years ago (at the ripe age of 35), I have been coached for 2 years. The rest of the time, I coach myself. I generally take something I need to work on (flip-turns every time; stroking off the wall before breathing; front-quadrant; not crossing my centerline when my hand enters; etc.) and work on it during pull sets for months, until it becomes second nature. That is where I am at now with bilateral breathing, and w/o a pull buoy, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.

    Reply
    • Sully

      2011-01-09T10:54:32+00:00

      Ironmike, I am the last person to listen to for advice, but…Your right arm is probably crossing over on the breath so to balance you drop the arm. If its further out (2 o’clock) it will stabilize your balance and shouldn’t dip making the breath easier. Also you may lift your head more on the uncomfortable side.

      Reply
    • Evan

      2011-01-09T11:16:17+00:00

      Mike, you’re right, buoys are also a great tool for drill work. Buoy-only swimming also works well for backstroke. It helps you focus on the catch, and I think swimmers are generally even likelier to cross over the center-line in backstroke than in freestyle.

      Also, I think Sully is probably on to something with that analysis.

      Reply
  3. IronMike

    2011-01-09T13:36:15+00:00

    Thanks Sully. I’m gonna have someone watch me the next time I’m in the pool. I hadn’t thought of that. I spent so long making sure my arms don’t cross when swimming & breathing right only, that I hadn’t thought my arm might cross when breathing left. Damn, I need the pool now!

    Reply

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