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Pull buoys, pull buoys: Developing Swim Power

Power in the water is just as critical as on the bike.

Most seasoned triathletes understand the importance of training with power on the bike. Power in the water is just as critical, but unfortunately it is less understood. The good news is that swim power is easily explained and the tools can be bought for less than $40 – considerably less than power for your bike.

Simply put, strength is the ability to push or lift a certain amount of weight.  Power is the ability to push or lift the same weight quickly. On the bike, triathletes strive to push large amounts of power over their chosen race distance. The same should be sought in the water.

The tools
The tools below are listed in “shoulder load” order, from easiest to hardest. Be cautious when using power tools for the first time, especially if you have a history of shoulder injury. All of the tools listed below can be used in a pool or in open water.


Pull buoys are the most common tool for developing power. Pull buoys force you to use your arms for all forward movement. For triathletes it is very important to use pull buoys, especially when your legs are smashed from biking and running.

Unfortunately too many triathletes use pull buoys as a crutch for bad body position. You must commit to using pull buoys for what pure swimmers use them for – power – instead of as a break, or for lazy training. In order to train for power you must resist the urge to kick, and you must try to match the zone pacing that you are able to do when not using the pull buoy.

Hand paddles are the most effective power tool. Paddles increase the surface area of your hand and force your arms to pull and push more water on each stroke. You must make sure that you buy paddles that fit your hand. Paddles that are too large can have two detrimental effects: injury because the load on the shoulder joint is too great and cadence (or stroke rate) reduction. Recall that power is the ability to pull or push weight quickly. Start with small paddles and move up in size once you have developed some power-endurance. Australian Olympian Greg Bennet has two pairs of paddles – a smaller pair he uses in the winter and a slightly larger pair for the spring. Once your shoulders are strong enough, you can use pull buoys and hand paddles together.

Swim parachutes are a great power tool, but are more expensive (over $30). I like the parachute because I find that it eliminates any ability to cheat during the hard parts of the arm stroke. The parachute trails behind the swimmer on a strap that clips around the waist. The parachute catches water and creates drag, which forces you pull harder than usual with each arm stroke. Like the paddles, these devices also come with various sizes – larger sizes have larger chutes. Once a swimmer has developed good power and power endurance, they can gradually increase the size of the chute.

Ankle bands are the cheapest tool because you can make your own. Ankle bands work in the same way that pull boys do, they isolate your arm stroke, but you don’t have the extra buoyancy provided by the pull buoy. This difference makes the ankle band the hardest swim power tool to master. Ankle bands require a swimmer to have an almost perfect body position, excellent balance, good rhythm and good overall swimming mechanics. If a swimmer has most of these requirements in place, then ankle band training can be the most beneficial power training. You can make your own ankle band out of any kind of smooth, elastic material – an old bike tube is perfect. You need a device that will stretch to fit around your feet and then recoil to hold your ankles together snugly. The band trains you to develop the power needed to swim fast without relying heavily on your kick.

Training to increase your power
Swim power training can be broken down into three phases:  adaptation, power development and power-endurance.

In the case of each of the power tools mentioned above, you need to spend some time adapting your muscles and joints to the increase in load. If you decide to start training with a parachute or band, work up by slowly adding intervals to a short, easy set of 50s or 100s.

Once you have adapted and are able to remain injury free with higher workloads, you can start to do 50s or 100s that are fast (but with perfect form) which have a 1:1 or 2:1 work to rest ratio. In this power development phase you are looking to cover the distance faster, with the same amount of rest, in each consecutive workout. Power is a time dependent measurement, so the only way to gauge whether your power is improving is to take note of the improvement in your times.

Improving your power-endurance (commonly and misleadingly referred to as strength endurance) is the last and most important phase. This phase should start sometime between February and April for beginner or intermediate swimmers, and can last all year for veteran swimmers and seasoned triathletes. In this phase, you should do longer repeats (at a slightly lower intensity) of 200 m to 800 m with shorter rest between intervals. The work to rest ratio needed to develop your power endurance in swimming can be anywhere between 10:1 and 25:1 depending on the interval distance. It is important to note that intervals of band and parachute should not exceed 300 m in length due to the higher shoulder load. Building power-endurance can be done concurrently with the power development phase for veteran swimmers.

In order to repeatedly apply power stroke after stroke (whether you’re biking or swimming), you need to train with power. Now all you need is a pool and a pace clock.

Ayesha Rollinson is a Masters swim coach and runs  Team Atomica