How do you improve your swimming? If you ask most swim coaches, they’ll give you one simple response: add water.

There really isn’t anything you can do on land to make you faster in the water. Yes, if you’re stronger you’ll be able to generate more power in the water, but unless you can utilize all that added strength – read, your technique is good enough to see the benefits – you’re not going to see any improvements.

If you’re confident that your technique is good enough that you will see the benefits of improving your strength, one of the best ways to do that is by incorporating paddles into your training program. Used properly, paddles can improve both your technique and strength, but you have to be careful because if you’re not ready to use them, they can also lead to injury. Here are some key points to consider when starting to add paddles to your swimming regimen:

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  • Before you buy any paddles, make sure you’re not going to hurt yourself or your technique by using them. Talk to a masters swim coach or experienced swimmer who has seen you swim and get some feedback from them.
  • If you have shoulder issues at all, don’t even think about using paddles.
  • Start with smaller paddles. We start the kids in our triathlon program with finger paddles and let them gradually work their way to bigger paddles. Adults could certainly do the same, but for the most part will be OK to start with a paddle that’s about the same size as your hand.
  • There are a variety of different styles of paddles that provide different benefits. It’s felt that paddles with holes provide a bit more feel in the water and a bit less stress on your shoulders. Some use small fins on the bottom to help the entry and finish of your stroke.
  • Some paddles attach with just one strap around a couple of fingers. These can also be very helpful in developing technique because they will fall off if your hand doesn’t enter the water at the right angle or if you finish your stroke too early.
  • Start slowly with your paddles – start with just a few hundred metres and gradually build up the amount of training you’re doing with them.
  • Triathletes will often use paddles in conjunction with a set of pull buoys, but you don’t always have to use the two together. Six-time Ironman World Champion Dave Scott does a lot of his swimming with paddles, which no-doubt helped him develop the long, powerful stroke he was famous for.

Adding paddles to your training program might help you make some gains this swim season, but it’s important to be careful.