Reason Not to Use a Pull Buoy

Originally from AquaVolo.com

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the use of the pull buoy in training for quite some time now but, unfortunately, never got around to it until today. What finally made me sit down and write this post was the swimmingscience.net article titled “7 Theoretical Reasons to Use a Pull Buoy.” It’s an interesting read and I highly recommend it. As the title implies, the article outlines reasons to use a pull buoy. I, on the other hand, would like to talk about one reason NOT to use a pull buoy. I believe my argument against the use of pull buoy outweighs most of the arguments for it.

For reasons that will become apparent later, I’ll first quickly explain the paramount importance of the core in swimming.

Core

We can think of a human body as a set of interlinked components that work in unity. It’s helpful to visualize this set as a chain where each link represents a different body part as in the diagram below. This chain is called the kinetic chain.

(Image source: Complete Conditioning for Swimming. Dave Salo and Scott A. Riewald (2008))

To swim fast and efficiently, all links in the kinetic chain must work in coordination. Because all links in the chain are connected, a change in one link impacts the entire chain. When one link breaks, so does the coordination between the links. We call the link that orchestrates the coordination of various parts of the body the core. The core achieves this coordination by performing several important tasks—transfer of power, base of support, stability, link between arms and legs, and balance—that are illustrated in the following image and explained in greater detail below.

Transfer of power

Chains are often used to transfer power. A bicycle chain, for example, enables the transfer of power from the pedals to the wheels. In swimming, the core transfers power between the legs and the torso and the arms.

When a link in the chain breaks, the transfer of power is impeded. When the core fails to transfer power between the lower and the upper parts of the body, the swimmer is left with power produced by smaller muscles (e.g. shoulders). This not only reduces total available power, efficiency and speed, it also increases the risk of injury.

Base of support

Swimmers, unlike land-based athletes, must create their own base of support to generate propulsive movement. Runners, for example, use ground as the base of support that they can push off from. Swimmers, however, train in a fluid environment and don’t have a solid surface to use as the base of support. What swimmers use instead is the core. The stronger the base of support, the more propulsive power the swimmer can generate.

When the core fails to provide stable base of support, swimmer’s efficiency and speed drop. Frequently you can see a swimmer who is working very hard with his legs and arms yet moving forward very slowly. It looks as if he’s spinning in one place. This happens because the core doesn’t provide the stable base of support and the swimmer has nothing to push off from.

Link between the arms and the legs, balance and stability

Fast and efficient swimming requires coordinated movement of the body. The core achieves this coordination by linking the upper and the lower parts of the body and by providing balance and stability. When the core fails to perform these tasks, coordinated movement of the body breaks down and efficiency and speed drop.

Let’s look at one example. An outward hand sweep during the initial phase of the pull is a common flaw in freestyle swimming. What causes this flaw, many people believe, is late breathing. Late breathing might indeed be the cause, but the root of the problem is a lack of balance and stability.

When the core fails to provide balance and stability, the body is forced to find an alternative way to accomplish these tasks. Late breathing and outward hand sweep are the two side affects of the body’s alternative way to provide balance and stability. The outward hand sweep is a clear indicator that the core is failing to perform these two essential tasks.

Putting it all together

The core is the foundation upon which everything else is built. When the core is properly trained to perform the tasks discussed above, the swimmer has a strong foundation and potential to become fast and efficient.

Back to the pull buoy

Now that we understand the importance of the core in fast and efficient swimming, let’s look at what happens when you introduce a pull buoy.

When a swimmer puts a pull buoy between his legs, he essentially removes the core link from the kinetic chain (see the kinetic chain image above). As we have already established, when a link in a kinetic chain breaks, the entire chain is compromised.

The pull buoy provides artificial support and in essence relieves the core of its duties. The core no longer needs to provide a base of support, stability, balance, transfer of power or the link between the arms and the legs. All these tasks are outsourced to an artificial device: a pull buoy. The core can just sit back and relax.

Hopefully, it is clear by now why I believe that the pull buoy should not be used in training or at least their use should be minimized. While there are situations in which a pull buoy might be beneficial (such as drills, for instance), traditional use of a pull buoy for pulling is detrimental to a swimmer’s improvement. The pull buoy compromises the kinetic chain and robs the swimmer of an opportunity to train the core to perform the essential tasks that are necessary for fast and efficient swimming.

Improve Balance and Reduce Drag with VB AIR

[repost from AquaVolo]

The goal of every competitive swimmer is to swim faster. One way to swim faster is to reduce drag. One way to reduce drag is to improve your body position in the water by making it more horizontal and stable. A more horizontal body position displaces less water as you move forward. The less water is displaced, the less drag the swimmer has to overcome. What makes the body position horizontal, creates stability and reduces drag is balance. This balance is achieved by engaging core muscles and by pressing down the lungs. (Pressing down the lungs brings the hips and legs up, acting as a lever.) When one of these two components—engaging core or pressing down the lungs—is missing, the body position gets distorted, efficiency falls and speed drops.

I have mentioned in a previous post that when we learn a new movement, our brain generates new motor pathways that carry the signals from the brain to the body parts responsible for that movement. And that “the more a particular pathway is activated during consistent, purposeful action, the likelier it is to be stabilized [become automatic].”(1)

Let me summarize what I have just written:

1) one way to swim faster is to reduce drag;
2) swimming with a horizontal body position reduces drag;
3) balance is required for attaining a horizontal body position;
4) balance is achieved by engaging core muscles and pressing down the lungs; and
5) swimmers need consistent and purposeful training to make new movements automatic.

Based on these insights, we can assert that swimmers need to consistently and purposefully try to achieve balance by engaging the core muscles and by pushing down the lungs. We can also say the opposite, that swimmers need to minimize activities that distort horizontal body position and discourage engagement of core muscles. One activity that both distorts the horizontal body position and discourages the use of core muscles is kicking with a kick board.

Kick Board

The idea behind a kick board is to provide support for swimmers’ arms so they can concentrate on the kick. However, for many swimmers, especially younger swimmers and those with weak core and poor balance, kick board introduces serious drawbacks.

First, as the swimmer kicks, his hands press down on the kick board that is extended in front of him. In addition to adding pressure on the shoulders, pushing down on the kick board creates a lever that lifts up the lungs.

Arms Lungs Lever

Similarly, when the lungs go up, hips and legs go down (it’s the same lever effect).

Lungs Legs Lever

As we have already established, to have a horizontal body position the swimmer has to push down with the lungs which aids in elevating the hips and legs. The exact opposite happens when you kick with a kick board: the lungs go up and the legs go down.

Some might argue that the swimmer doesn’t have to press down on the kick board, which is a valid argument. However, due the physical properties of a traditional kick board, which is very buoyant and not easily submerged, there will always be some pressure from the hands on the board. The arms of a perfectly streamlined swimmer reside slightly below the surface of the water. When the swimmer places his arms on the kick board, which is on the surface of the water and is not easily submerged, he is faced with two choices: to press down on the board to try to attain a horizontal body position (which causes the lever effect outlined above) or not to press down on the board and leave the arms at a slight angle (from shoulders up to the surface of the water). In either case, there will always be some distortion in the body position.

Second, many swimmers use the kick board as a stabilization platform. They grab on the kick board and use its high buoyancy property to balance their body in the water to achieve stability. Instead of using the core muscles to stabilize and balance the body, they use an external device. When swimmers do this, they are discouraging the use of the core muscles which are essential for developing a horizontal body position. Swimmers that use the kick board as a stabilization platform never get an opportunity to learn how to use their core to balance and how to develop an efficient body position.

After we created VB AIR and started training with them, we discovered a latent benefit that we had not anticipated: VB AIR are the perfect split kick board. VB AIR and kick boards are made from similar materials and both are buoyant. However, VB AIR are significantly less buoyant and easily submerged, which makes them so great for kicking.

VB AIR Kicking

First, although VB AIR do provide support for arms, they are not as buoyant as the kick board. The weight of relaxed arms will submerge VB AIR just below the surface of the water, which is ideal for streamlined body position. Swimmers cannot press down on the VB AIR, as they can with the kick board, because the VB AIR will sink and the swimmer will lose balance. Hence, the lungs will not be pushed up and the legs will not be pushed down because there is no lever effect as in the case with the kick board.

Second, unlike the kick board, VB AIR cannot be used as a stabilization platform because they do not provide enough buoyancy to support the weight of the body.  As a result, swimmers must engage core muscles to balance themselves. If there is no external device to use as a stabilization platform, swimmers have no choice but learn how to use core muscles and lungs to balance themselves in the water.

To summarize, balance allows the swimmer to achieve a horizontal body position which reduces drag and results in increased speed. Balance is gained by engaging the core muscles and pushing down the lungs. As with any movement, to make the horizontal body position automatic swimmers need to consistently and purposefully practice by engaging the core and by pushing down the lungs. Activities that distort horizontal body position and discourage use of the core to attain balance, such as kicking with the kick board, need to be minimized. We believe that VB AIR are an effective alternative to traditional kick boards. Like the  traditional kick board, VB AIR provides support for swimmers arms so that the swimmers can concentrate on the kick. Unlike the traditional kick board, VB AIR force the swimmers to use the core muscles and to push down the lungs to achieve balance in the water. Improved balance leads to improved body position which results in faster speed.

 

Related Posts:
Introducing VB AIR

References
1. What’s Going On In There. Lise Eliot (2000)

Introducing VB AIR Paddles

[repost from AquaVolo]

There are three common types of underwater arm pull in swimming:

1) the dropped elbow arm pull;
2) the straight arm pull; and
3) the high elbow arm pull.

Here is how James Counsilman describes each in his book, The Science of Swimming (1):

“The dropped elbow arm pull is the poorest type of pull and provides the swimmer with very little forward propulsion, since very little water is pushed backwards.

Dropped Elbow Pull

“The straight arm pull is better than the dropped elbow arm pull so far as effectiveness is concerned, but at points A and B the force applied downward is too great, and at points D and E the force applied upward is too great. This tends to push the swimmer upward at points A and B and downward when the hand is at D and E.

Straight Arm Pull

“The best pull is that which will minimize the dropped upward and downward components of the straight arm pull and provides a greater push backwards. It begins almost as a straight arm pull except that the elbow is higher. The elbow bends during the pull and then nearly straightens as the pull finishes.”

High Elbow Pull

The “best pull” here is synonymous with fast and efficient swimming. One of the prerequisites for the “best pull” as seen in the illustration above, is the high elbow catch (the arm position between the points A and B). To achieve the “best pull” the swimmer must first establish a high elbow catch, which is why the high elbow catch is considered a critical component of fast and efficient swimming. Swimmers and coaches dedicate a lot of time and effort to refining the technique involved in high elbow catch.

When we learn a new movement, our brain generates new motor pathways that carry the signals from the brain to the body parts responsible for that movement. For instance, if the swimmer consistently drops her elbow during the catch, the brain sends the information necessary to perform that particular movement (dropped elbow catch) to the appropriate body parts along established motor pathways. Let’s call these pathways the “dropped elbow catch” motor pathways.

If this swimmer wanted to develop a high elbow catch (a new movement), she would first have to develop the new “high elbow catch” motor pathways that would carry the appropriate signals from the brain to the body parts responsible for the high elbow catch. For the brain to activate new motor pathways, however, it needs to receive certain information related to the new movement. A logical question to ask at this point is: How can the swimmer perform the new movement in order to send the information related to this movement to the brain, if she doesn’t know how to perform the movement? It feels like a chicken and egg question, but the answer is to do drills and use tools that emphasize certain parts of a stroke and stimulate active thinking at critical moments. Drills allow the swimmer to perform in a consistent manner, over and over in order to refine a specific movement. Appropriate tools bring the swimmer’s attention to specific aspects of a stroke and/or build awareness of the water and the muscles involved in particular movements. VB AIR is one of such tools.

VB AIR

VB AIR inherit their design from our popular VoloBlades paddles. As we have written before, the design of VoloBlades shifts the point of pressure down to the lower palm, which promotes a high elbow catch and quick engagement of core muscles, resulting in a faster and more efficient swim. Furthermore, due to the unique design of VoloBlades, the fingers have direct and unobstructed contact with water, which is a crucial requirement for increasing the feel for water. VB AIR have an additional unique property: they are buoyant. To overcome this buoyancy, the swimmer has to exert extra effort when her arm enters the water and establishes the catch. When the swimmer is forced to exert extra effort in an unexpected place, it brings about awareness of that particular place and time. It forces the swimmer to pay closer attention to the details of the movement that she is performing.

Pushing down with the lower palm on the buoyant VB AIR promotes superior high elbow catch. The design and the buoyancy of VB AIR in combination with the swimmer’s awareness and active thinking during the catch phase create an environment in which the swimmer is able to make adjustments necessary for improved high elbow catch.  As it happens, the information related to the high elbow catch is sent do the brain that begins to activate new “high elbow catch” motor pathways. “The more particular pathway is activated during consistent, purposeful action, the likelier it is to be stabilized.”(2) VB AIR allow for this consistent, purposeful action and the creation of an automatic high elbow catch.
Related posts:

VoloBlades: Shifting The Center Of Pressure Down To The Lower Palm

Do Finger Paddles Increase “Feel For Water”?

References
1. The Science of Swimming. James E. Counsilman (1968)
2. What’s Going On In There. Lise Eliot (2000)

Why the U-Shaped Snorkel Has Never Been Embraced by Swimmers

(Reposting one of my older posts. This one is from 2012)

A few months ago I wrote a post about the evolution of the center-mounted snorkel.  Today I will look at another type of swimming snorkel, the U-shaped snorkel. Over the last hundred years many U-shaped snorkels have been invented but, to the best of my knowledge, swimmers have not embraced any of them.  Below I will show a brief evolution of the U-shaped snorkel and then try to answer the question why swimmers have not adopted them as training gear.

The first device I looked at was not a snorkel per se but it had all the elements of such and theoretically could have been used as a snorkel.  “Respirating Device” invented by Martin Hilgers in 1914:

The purpose of this device was to be used “while massaging the face or treating the eyes.” It had a mouthpiece, a nose clip and the means to secure air-tubes behind the ears.  Even though it was not a U-shaped swimming snorkel, it could have easily become one by making the air tubes a little longer, which is exactly what Percy Greer did when he invented his “Swimmer’s Appliance” in 1928:

As you can see, the air tubes are significantly longer than in the previous device, which allows a swimmer to keep his/her head in the water and still breath.  There was also a “buoyant attachment,” something like a ball, at the top ensuring that the air tubes remain clear of the water. Unfortunately, the “buoyant attachment” in this device is too large and bulky to be used comfortably by most swimmers. It would generate a lot of drag; the faster the swimmer swam, the more drag it would generate!

The 1988 invention by Donald McGilvray, “Exercise snorkel apparatus” solved the problem of keeping the air-tube tops above the surface of the water differently:

This snorkel looks a lot like the device that was described first.  The air tubes curved around the face and were secured behind the ears.  The tubes could either be projected upwards separately or be connected together behind the swimmer’s head.

In 1995 Glenn Albrecht invented the device shown below:

The main difference between this snorkel and the previously described ones is the flexible air tubing.  Again, it had a buoyant slip piece at the top to connect (and adjust the tightness) of the two tubings together. As previously mentioned, you need the buoyant piece to keep the top of the air-tube above the surface of the water.  The buoyant piece, unfortunately, was still too big.

The last snorkel I wanted to show was a recent invention that received a design patent in 2005.  “Snorkel” by Mathais Weigner:

U-shaped snorkel

I couldn’t find any information about this snorkel.  It has an interesting looking valve below the mouthpiece.  This snorkel looks a lot like the “Powerbreather” snorkel, that is shown on the right, but I can’t be sure if it is actually the same snorkel.   (here is a video about “Powerbreather”, if you are interested)

A lot more U-shaped snorkels have been designed in the past but most of them look similar to the ones described above and none of them have been widely adopted by swimmers.  The snorkel that was adopted by most swimmers, however, was designed by Dean Garraffa in 1996 and is known as a center-mounted snorkel:

Center-mounted snorkel

This poses the obvious question: why did the U-shaped snorkel fail and the center-mounted snorkel succeed?

To answer this question we need to first understand the minimum requirements for a swimming training device.  Or to phrase it differently, we need to understand what makes a swimmer dislike a certain swimming device.

Generally, swimmers do not like to use swimming training devices that fall into at least one of the following three categories:

  1. A device that is uncomfortable, because discomfort will eventually hinder technique.
  2. A device that negatively affects swimmer’s body position in the water, because it will lead to bad habits and bad technique.
  3. A device that generates unexpected drag, because it might lead to discomfort, annoyance or bad body position in the water.

The last category, unexpected drag, is the least intuitive so I will briefly explain it.  Every piece of equipment used in the pool generates drag to a certain degree.  Some equipment is specifically designed to generate drag to make swimmers stronger and more powerful (e.g. parachutespower tower,DragSox, etc.).  Swimmers purchase these devices expecting drag and will continue to use them if the level of drag meets their expectations. On the other hand, much equipment is designed to increase a swimmer’s comfort level in the water (e.g. goggles, caps, etc) or enhance technique (e.g. snorkel).  Swimmers expect these kinds of devices to generate very little drag.

Unlike parachutes, snorkels are considered a device to enhance technique and increase comfort in the water. Swimmers expect very little drag from a snorkel.

If we compare the U-shaped snorkel with the center-mounted snorkel we can see that the fundamental different between the two is the number of air-tubes.  The U-shaped snorkel has two air-tubes and the center-mounted snorkel has only one.  Since each air-tube generates at least some drag, the more air tubes you have the more drag they will generate.

It is possible then to assume that one of the reasons why swimmers have not adopted the U-shaped snorkel is simply because the amount of drag it generates with its two air-tubes swimmers perceive as unacceptable.

Another possible reason why U-tube snorkel failed could be explained by the position that swimmers assume when they push off the wall.  When swimmers push off the wall they try to assume a streamlined position as it reduces drag and can propel them farther and faster in the water.  One of the attributes of being streamlined is tightly squeezing the head between the arms (see image below):

Streamlined

In the streamlined position the air-tubes of the U-shaped snorkel would be between the swimmer’s head and his or her arms.  Squeezing the air-tubes against the swimmer’s head would not only make swimmer’s position less streamlined (unacceptable drag) it would also make it uncomfortable and possibly painful.  The center-mounted snorkel doesn’t have that problem because the air-tube curves around the forehead and between the arms in the streamlined position.

The U-shaped snorkel meets all three categories of what swimmers dislike. The tubing will hit against the head in a streamlined position causing discomfort and/or altering the swimmer’s technique, and it causes much more drag when the expectation is little drag to none. There could be other reasons for the failure of the U-shaped snorkel, but these are plenty to push swimmers away.

Do Finger Paddles Increase “Feel For Water”?

(originally posted at AquaVolo.com)

finger paddles

 

Finger paddles, sometimes also known as sculling paddles, are frequently touted as paddles that help swimmers increase their “feel for water.” Evidence to support this claim, however, is never provided.

One way to think about the feel for water in this particular context is as a sense of the position and the movement of the swimmer’s hand in the water. This sense is vital when swimmers want to improve technique. For instance, if a swimmer tries to improve her hand entry and catch, she needs to be aware of the precise position and movement of her hand first. Once she has that awareness, she can work on improving it. In other words, she cannot improve something that she is not aware of. Mindful swimmers work hard to increase their feel for water so they can then refine their technique.

Where does this sense of the position and movement, or the feel for water come from? What events trigger this awareness? What information does the brain receive that allows it to create an accurate map of the swimmer’s hand position?

This information starts with the fingertips. Fingertips are one of the most sensitive regions of human body. In fact, “there is a hundred-to-one ratio of touch receptors in your fingers compared to your torso.”(1) The more sensory receptors, the more information reaches the brain. It is this information, originating from the fingertips and processed by the brain, that allows the swimmer to know her precise hand position and the movement in the water.

They key point to understand here is that when the swimmer presses the water, the fingertip receptors are activated. “These special receptors translate mechanical pressure into long-distance electrical signals” (2) and send them to the brain. The brain then processes this information and provides the swimmer with a sense of the hand position and movement, or the feel for water. It is important to emphasize that the source information provided by the fingertip touch receptors determine the feel for water.

Now that we have this insight, it is easy to see that the feel for water with the finger paddle will be quite different from the feel for water with bare fingers. When you press water with bare fingers, the water flows around, over and between the fingers. The finger receptors, having direct and unobstructed contact with water, collect accurate and relevant information and send it to the brain, resulting in the accurate feel for water. Inserting a finger paddle between the fingers and the water dramatically changes the information collected by the fingertip touch receptors: the sensory input from water, a liquid, is fundamentally different from the input from a solid paddle.

By shifting the fingertip touch receptors from water and placing them onto a solid surface, finger paddles deprive the fingertip touch receptors from registering as much crucial information necessary to increase the feel for water. In essence, you create a barrier between the sensory collector and the environment. It’s analogous to putting on opaque glasses to see more. Your eyes may register the inside of the glasses, but they won’t register what is beyond them.

In conclusion, to increase the feel for water, it is crucial to have unobstructed contact between the fingers and the water. Only when the fingers have unobstructed contact with water, the fingertip receptors can provide the brain with accurate and relevant information that will result in a more accurate feel for water. Inserting a finger paddle between the fingers and the water will only increase the feel for solid surface. In this case, swimming with finger paddles is more likely to increase the feel for plastic than the feel for water.

 

 

 

Reference

1. The Body Has a Mind of Its Own. Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee (2007)

2. What’s Going On In There. Lise Eliot (2000)