One of the most common questions amongst those new to swimrun, and even those not so new to the sport, is whether or not to use paddles. Do they give you an advantage in open water? Will they make you swim faster? Those who have had previous injuries to their shoulders also wonder whether it is safe to use them.

Paddles increase the load on your shoulder muscles by increasing the surface area of your hand, thus creating more resistance in the water. To cope with this increase in load I often set my swimmers some strength training drills on dry land using resistance bands, working the rotator cuff muscles both concentrically and eccentrically to build a level of protection. This can be done with well-controlled functional movements. Skipping this step and jumping straight into using paddles can often lead to achy shoulders and time missed from swimming altogether.

The second point to consider, particularly if you are getting really fatigued or achy when using paddles in training, is your technique. If your stroke is not terribly efficient you may find you swim better without paddles than with them as the increased load may be to your detriment and slow you down. Over reaching to the front of your stroke, not catching through your wrist, dropping your elbow and not finishing your stroke fully can all lead to ‘swimmers shoulder’. This is a generic term meaning that the tendons of the shoulder are being irritated - either overstretched or pinched in the shoulder joint. Most commonly the tendons affected are the biceps and supraspinatus tendons. Without treatment this problem can take a few weeks to a few months to settle down..

What’s happening with the rest of your body is important too. Swimming with a buoy in place will elevate your leg position and decrease the power of your kick. This means your arms need to do more. Ensure you have good upper back mobility to allow you to roll and glide easily. This will decrease the strain on your shoulder, particularly as you bring your arm out of the water.

If I could offer you just a few pieces of advice:

  • Starting a transition to paddles early is important. Ensure you spend time in training using them and don’t try using them for the first time on race day.
     
  • Slowly build up the time you swim with paddles to become comfortable and develop good technique. A rough rule of thumb is a 10% increase (in number of lengths) per week – do this for 3 weeks and then have a ‘rest’ week by repeating the number of lengths performed with paddles in week 2 before increasing again in week 5. Repeat this cycle as you build – 3 weeks increase and 1 week rest. The rest week allows conversion of training effect into a performance gain.
     
  • Use them in open water and make sure you get some sea swim training in if you are taking part in a coastal event. The unpredictable nature of waves and currents adds another dimension that is hard to replicate in a pool.
     
  • If your shoulders are achy or sore have a coach check your technique or invest in some swim analysis by a professional. Ironing out niggles before they become a problem is vital to success.
     
  • If you experience pain see your GP for advice or better still see your physiotherapist for some quality treatment. They can assess to see where you may have a muscle imbalance and point you in the right direction when returning to training.

So it seems there are no rules as to whether you should swim with paddles or not. Try them in training, work on building your baseline shoulder strength outside of the pool, ensure you have good spinal and shoulder mobility and perfect technique. If you simply don’t like using them and for whatever reason you find they slow you down then concentrate on swimming well and strongly without them. If you are having trouble with your shoulders or have had problems in the past you may find that ditching the paddles is for you. Don’t ignore injuries, get them seen to quickly to avoid missing time from training.

Aileen Sullivan specialises in biomechanics and sports injuries, she has worked in the public health system, private practice and elite sports and is herself a keen triathlete. Currently Aileen consults at Victory Health & Performance in Liverpool Street in London, and is part of a skilled team of physios, sports and massage therapists and movement team (Pilates and yoga) who assess your whole body to treat the source of your problem rather than simply treating the symptoms. Book an appointment today at Victory Health & Performance or by calling 020 7175 0150