By Holly Pennington, DPT/Outpatient Physical Therapy
If you have been a swimmer for at least a decade, you will remember the Before Swim Toys (B.S.T.) era, a time when red or blue kickboards and used-to-be-white pull buoys were the only two ways to spice up a workout. Now, small mesh bags filled with brightly colored fins and paddles of all shapes and sizes dot pool decks, marking the lanes of serious swimmers and rolling the eyes of B.S.T. purists. What is the real deal with fins and paddles? Are they signs of advancement in the sport or money-making fads? What does scientific research say about them? And which ones are best for you?
This is where fins and paddles come in – when used correctly, these swim “toys” improve both efficiency and technique. Fins (as opposed to flippers, which are used for scuba diving) force a pointed-toe position during kicking, which helps move more water backwards. They also provide resistance during the up-kick, recruiting large, powerful muscles like the hamstrings and glutes to make the kick more powerful. Fins also cause the body to ride higher in the water, allowing swimmers to efficiently skim the surface of the water. Paddles train upper body technique by promoting fingertip water entry and increasing both the pull and push phases of the stroke.
This means that overtraining with fins creates an artificial level of conditioning and contributes to fatigue during competition. Because paddles place an increased demand on the smaller upper body muscles, overusing them causes fatigue-related compensations such as stretching out the stroke too long and dropping the elbows. Thus, these tools that were designed to improve your stroke can backfire and impact it negatively when used too much.
In this A.S.T era, we can confidently conclude that fins and paddles have a well-deserved place in the triathlete’s toolbox. So, the next time you feel judged by a toyless lap swimmer, bypass the kickboard shelf with confidence and strap on your neon fins for a more productive – and fun – workout!