Steve’s review of pull buoys opens this way: The pull buoy is a standard piece of equipment that enables you to build upper body strength.
My rating: 1.5 out of 5 – I would never use one personally but might recommend its use in a very limited and conditional way (see note below.)
I used to think as Steve does. I justified using pull buoys on the basis that they were ‘strengthening’ my pull. I believed it strongly enough that for nearly 20 years I ignored the obvious. When I wore the buoy it was easier to swim nearly any distance and pace with them, than without. That quality makes buoys both seductive and insidious. I can’t count the number of triathletes and Masters I’ve encountered who can barely be separated from their buoys.
The reason is that buoys do precisely the opposite of what Steve and most others believe. They don’t overload the arms. They underload them by providing artificial buoyancy.
Mat Hudson the leader of TI in Turkey made this comment about my review of the Swimmer’s Snorkel: Terry tells us if a certain tool enbles the swimmer to turn a weakness into a strength, then it is useful. But when it is used to avoid dealing with the swimmer’s weakness, it has become merely a contaminant.
The notion that buoys ‘build upper body strength’ allows those swimmers who are most attached to turn a crutch into a virtue. Why a crutch? Because the buoy allows those who have poor balance to mask their skill deficiency. They hate taking the buoy off because it masks their skill definciency while doing nothing to correct it, In fact it seduces them into thinking that – along with their wet suit – they don’t really need to learn balance. Ever since I finally learned balance in my early 40s – after 25+ years of unbalanced swimming – I’ve felt far better, and swum much faster, without the buoy than with it.
As well, Steve’s reference to ‘building upper body strength’ as a workout goal, differs from TI philosophy in two ways:
1) It puts swimming in the context of being ‘exercise.’ I’ve long since stopped swimming for exercise. I get exercise while swimming, as a natural byproduct I almost take for granted. I practice swimming as a movement art, which I seek constantly to refine and master. And those efforts to master it as an art bring me Flow experiences nearly every time. Exercise happens.
2) Pulling with a buoy (or paddles) – like kicking with a board or fins – advances a concept that the stroke has an Arms Department that has the job of pulling you along, and a Legs Department responsible for pushing you. Conventional training treats them as separate entities to be trained – and strengthened separately with targeted work. Twenty-plus years of studying swimmers and their video has shown me that at the highest level of skill and efficiency the arms, legs and torso work in a harmoniously integrated system. Take out any part and the others all suffer. When they work together all benefit. Therefore virtually all training should be designed to promote integration.
So, what are the circumstances in which I could reluctantly endorse a buoy’s use? I could imagine suggesting to a lean or muscular and highly uncomfortable swimmer, one who was struggling mightily to learn balance to swim a few 25s with one. However in doing so I would combine that with many reps of Superman Glide, SG-to-Skate. and SG-to-Swim.
In those prior reps he or she might swim only 3 to 5 strokes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for a short period of learning balance. But if I felt it might benefit him or her to experience ease and comfort for a slightly longer duration, I would consider use of a buoy for one to several 25s, interspersing ‘naked 25s as early and frequently as possible, to accelerate transition of the easeful experience to real swimming.