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Is It Time To Start Training With A Snorkel?

  • By Paul Moore
  • Published September 10, 2010

Is it time we all started swimming with a snorkel? Obviously, we can’t do it during a race, but Olympic swimmers frequently use snorkels to help improve their lung capacity, technique and body position. As Sara McLarty explains, maybe it’s time we jumped on the snorkel bandwagon.

By Sara McLarty
Front-mounted snorkels are showing up at more and more swim practises every day. They are now a common piece of equipment in the mesh bags of athletes at all levels, from young age-group swimmers to Olympians. Finis, a worldwide leader of technical swimming equipment, has a monopoly on the market with its three styles: junior, adult and freestyle. The junior is shorter for smaller heads and lungs. The freestyle is hydrodynamic for faster swimming and advanced athletes. The adult version is most popular and works in almost every situation.

Is it time for the average triathlete to jump on the snorkel bandwagon? I believe the best way to train for triathlon swimming is to mimic the training of pool swimmers closely, with the exception of some open-water practices. That includes incorporating the newest technology, techniques and training tools into swim practice. The front-mounted snorkel has already helped many swimmers (and triathletes) improve their technique, lung capacity and position in the water. All triathletes, from the beginner level to advanced, can benefit from using a snorkel.

One benefit of using a snorkel is stronger and more expansive lungs. Just imagine breathing air through a small tube while performing a hard set in the pool. Finis reports an increase in VO2max and the body’s ability to deal with carbon dioxide after regular use of a swim snorkel. The restricted airflow creates a hypoxic effect, mimicking the decreased oxygen in every breath that an athlete would experience during training at high elevations. Even easy swimming with the snorkel can improve breathing by encouraging swimmers to maintain a steady exhalation between inhalations. The main reason swimmers feel out of breath is that they hold their breath with their face in the water, and snorkels help correct that.

Wearing a snorkel in the pool can help all swimmers improve their technique. By removing the necessity of turning his or her head to breathe, a swimmer can relax in the water and focus on the small details of his or her stroke. A lower head position is easier to maintain without turning the head to breathe. A horizontal and streamlined body position can be achieved at a slower speed and easier effort level. Swimmers can focus on the entire catch, pull and finish phases of each arm stroke through the water. This is especially true for beginner and young athletes who are just starting to get a feel for the water.

I see an immediate benefit from using the snorkel during kick and drill sets. I can kick continuously in a perfect streamlined position along the surface of the water without having to adjust my body to breathe. This helps me work on my balance and position as well as on improving my lung and leg strength. Single-arm drills, six-kick-switch, catch-up and sculling are just a few of the freestyle drills that I do with a snorkel. I can relax and focus solely on the small part of the stroke that I am improving, without worrying about running out of oxygen or breaking form to take a breath.

Like any other pool toy, the snorkel must be used in moderation. Snorkels are not allowed in some triathlons, so learning to swim while relying on the assistance of a snorkel can be detrimental to your race performance. Kick and drill sets are the ideal times for snorkel use. Sometimes the main set can be designed for snorkel use, or it can be substituted for a hypoxic breathing set. Whatever you do, make sure you get the most out of using the snorkel. Don’t use it as a crutch for an ineffective aspect of your stroke; use it to address your weaknesses and improve your flaws.

Before starting to swim, make sure the snorkel is comfortable on your head and that you can breathe easily with your face in the water. Only the junior snorkel comes with a nose plug. Novice adults might consider making this additional purchase to help with the tricky breathing. Happy snorkelling.

Sara McLarty coaches swimming at the National Training Centre in Clermont, Florida. Do you have a swim question you would like to have answered in this column? Send it to swim@competitorgroup.com.

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Paul Moore

Paul Moore

Paul Moore is the Online Editor for Triathlete Europe. When not glued to a computer he can be found writing books - most recently Ultra Performance: The Psychology of Endurance Sports and The World's Toughest Endurance Challenges. Both are available on Amazon. Paul has also written Ultimate Triathlon: A complete training guide for long-distance triathletes which is also available on Amazon.