Which brings me to the reasoning behind this post. As the coach for the University of Missouri triathlon team, I work with a wide range of swimming abilities. Our coached swim sessions are where I get to push each athlete's limits and provide technical feedback. Knowing that several of the athletes have only been swimming a short period of time, I have become keenly aware that they need everything from fundamental instruction to technique refinement. This also includes the proper use of swimming equipment, as I know not what type of (un)structured swimming environments they might find themselves later in life. Therefore, I like to provide a highly varied practice, with a focused goal for each session. As we are just a few months away from the USAT Collegiate National Championship, speed and intensity are at the forefront. Generally, from a workout design standpoint, I like to find ways for my athletes to gain some recovery from the intense stuff, while maintaining their endurance and preventing excessive rest. And so the buoy occasionally makes an appearance in a recovery set.
Recently at swim practice, a striking observation occurred to me, there is a proper and useful technique for using a pull buoy! Duh, right? Because swimming can be a challenge for most of us and at times we seem to have a million things we are trying to improve and focus on in our stroke, this often gets lost. I mean how often do you push off that wall thinking, "I'm totally going to nail this pull set?" Much like the kick board the pull buoy can be a mindless swimming drill, dominated by the upper body and used for building strength and power up front. After watching several swimmers of varying skill level all lose their Cylinder (the vertical, head to toe streamline, about which a swimmer rotates horizontally), I realized something was being missed.
Whether it happens in your regular freestyle stroke, just when using a pull buoy, or both, if you lose your cylinder when you swim by over-arching your back, flexing at the waist or letting your legs sway generally about, you are losing focus. The core of swimming (and running and biking for that matter) are the hips. I don't mean the anatomical hips, but the muscles surrounding the pelvis that stabilize our torso and lower body during activity.
If you have poor hip drive, then you likely lose your cylinder when using a pull buoy. For the ideal technique take a look at this short video. Although a head-on viewpoint would be more dramatic, I think the point still comes across well. Pay attention to the hip rotation of the swimmers and the excellent streamline/minimized drag of their lower bodies. You might also notice the occasional kick, which I think addresses Ian's point, and helps maintain a more natural rhythm with the upper body while pulling.
Additionally, hip drive and strength may be augmented by the substitution of a kickboard for a buoy (see image below).
|(Please ignore the significant differences from an anatomically correct pair of legs)|
By placing the board vertically between your thighs, the board acts as a resistance to your hip rotation, providing great sensory feedback and promoting strong, powerful hip rotation. Give it a try, you might be surprised by what you've been missing.