What hand paddles should I use?

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Mar 21, 2012

What hand paddles should I use?

Let me stop you right there, let's ask a better question: what do I need paddles for? If your answer to this question is "I don't know, everyone else is using them" or "I feel more powerful with paddles" or "I swim faster with paddles" or something along those lines, then chances are you should keep wondering what paddles you should use for a bit longer. If you do not, chances are that the current paddles you are using or the paddles you will purchase will do more damage to your stroke and your body than they will do good. You will not have any benefit from them, except maybe thinking you are swimming faster or that you were clever to spice up your swim workouts to be less boring.
The confusing world of swimming hand paddles

Paddles are actually an advanced piece of swimming gear which should only be used by swimmers either with correct technique or by swimmers working on improving specific part of their stroke. So if you find yourself asking a question like "what paddles should I use?", then just save yourself the hassle of going down the cul de sac and of wasting your money. You are better of focusing on improving your stroke through some other means such as body positioning drills, proper kicking etc. However, if you are still wondering what paddles are for and whether you need them, let's explore the idea of what swim paddles to use and for what.

There are literally hundreds of different types of paddles including plain square pieces of plastic with holes in them, more sophisticated palm molded paddles, paddles with vertical protrusions, finger paddles, humongous sprint paddles, backstroke forearm paddles, or antipaddles. There are also many sizes, ranging from small teeny weeny paddles which barely fit into the palm of your hand to crazy looking ores many times bigger than your hand. So no wonder many people out there just blindly follow the trends of what equipment they see the top athletes using, not realizing that the top athletes have mostly different needs in terms of hand paddles as someone that is just starting out with a triathlon or pool swimming.

Majority of the paddles are just simply pieces of plastic which have no other purpose, except to make your palm larger, therefore making you exert more strength throughout your pull. Note: this does not mean that the stronger you pull, the faster you will go. Nowadays, these plastic molds have some sort of holes in them to allow water properly stimulate your palm during the usage, so at least some feeling for water is retained after the swimmer takes the paddles off. In the old days, this was not so, the paddles hand no holes, so the difference between swimming with paddles and without was a bit more radical which was more than likely also causing more shoulder injuries. Personally, I don't recommend extended use of these paddles to anyone unless their stroke is up to par with being efficient and effective, otherwise it is just painful to watch :). A swimmer who has no control over the way arms/hands move under the water should stay away. On the other hand, using these paddles once in a while as a sort of a checkpoint how you are doing might not be a bad idea. Especially, if you follow the competitive swimmer landscape and only use the middle finger strap on the paddles. Usually, these paddles come with a wrist and finger strap. The finger strap is the important part, the wrist strap, just get rid off it ;). By getting rid off the wrist band, you have to make sure that your hand enters the water correctly and that your hand also travels through the water correctly not deviating from almost straight line going backwards. If you have trouble with the stroke technique, chances are the paddles will slip off at the hand entry or during the pull, so this is a good indication whether you are improving or not. If you do for some reason want to power through the water with these types of paddles, be sensible and buy the smaller pairs or your shoulders will regret it later. Furthermore, do not swim with hand paddles your entire workout. Add a set here and there and don't swim with them every day.
What a mess :)

Smaller subset of the paddle family are paddles specifically design to improve your technique. These are the paddles that anybody could benefit from and unfortunately are not considered cool to buy as the simple pieces of plastic. Smart swimmers utilize these types of hand paddles the most. I've already mentioned couple of these technique oriented paddles in my previous posts. The TechPaddle for improving your early vertical forearm motion, in other words, for grabbing more water during your pull. And the Antipaddles to help you with better water perception. I'd definitely recommend the use of these paddles on almost daily basis until your stroke feels right. There is also another set of paddles which I just found online which will do wonders for your underwater pull, but I'll leave that for a next post ;).

In addition to using the regular plastic paddles for all the strokes, there are also paddles specific to individual stroke. Breaststroke paddles are usually tiny triangle like pieces which attach and support only your fingers. They allow you to utilize your hands early, so you can start your catch sooner. Because of their small size, they also put less pressure on your shoulders. Backstroke paddles which span from your fingers to your elbow, covering your forearm, allowing you to focus on better catch. Sprint freestyle paddles with the front part of the paddle bent in an angle down, allowing you to get into the catch much sooner than with regular flat paddles. Freestyle paddles with a vertical piece of plastic for helping you get rid off the thumb first entry into the water. etc. etc.

Finally, there are hand paddles which look more like gloves than paddles with membranes between fingers, so they are not really called paddles. However, they serve very similar purpose in terms of increasing the surface area of your palm. If you are struggling with the proper finger/palm relaxation in the water, in other words, if your hand is too tight or fingers are spread too far apart, the glove paddles actually do wonders for this problem. There are a few kinds, ranging from neoprene to rubber material and from finger tips cut off to full-blown gloves. I am not a big fan of the gloves where the fingertips are cut off as it does not feel natural having the water enter the glove every time you push off the wall or put hand into the water. If you are going to choose this type of glove, use the full-blown glove with no openings at the fingers and as thin of a material as you can find. I got my hands on a set of interesting gloves which are mainly used for ocean water sports, however, they can be totally utilized for swimming as well, so a review of these will come to your computer screen near you very soon.

So as you can see, the paddle family is a very complicated beast and there is no wonder a lot of swimmers are confused. It is much easier to follow a faulty trend than to spend the time and research what is good for me. This of course does not only pertain to paddles, swim suits are in the same boat. The bottom line is, if you really really want to get you some paddles and you have no other thing you'd rather buy with your money, then go for it, but choose wisely. Because swimming with the wrong paddles with the wrong stroke is like lifting heavy things from the ground using your back instead of using your legs and we all know how that can cause some serious back pains. If on the other hand, I managed to convince you that you do not need to invest into hand paddles, but you would still like to buy something, get the front mounted snorkel instead.

TIP: there are more exercises you can do with paddles than what they were originally made for, check out the 8 ways to use hand paddles post to learn more.

Be seen, keep your stuff dry and take a break when needed.

3 comments:

Wendy Tarlow said...

Would any of you like to join us in the Swim Across America Hamptons Open Swim this summer? https://www.facebook.com/SwimAcrossAmericaNassauSuffolkCommittee

Libor J said...

thanks for sharing Wendy and good luck getting a lot of participation. I'll spread the word in our Facebook and Twitter communities.

Swimming Pool said...

Hand paddles look like great fun! I have never used them before, but I now have a better understanding of them.