Incorporating hand paddles in swimming

If you’re new to triathlon and swimming, you may have seen other swimmers using a variety of swim paddles, wondering: “What are these paddles and what is their purpose? Should I be using them as well?” In this article, I have set out the guidelines for hand paddle use – remember, with hand paddles, bigger is not always better.

  • Hand paddles are most commonly used for swimmers looking to develop their upper body strength as they work the muscles in the back, chest, arms and shoulders. They do this by stopping the water from flowing through your fingers, allowing you to perform your arm-pull with more power.
  • Using hand paddles in training can provide you with other significant benefits, in addition to developing your upper body strength. Hand paddles can help you to improve your swimming technique as you become much more aware of your arm-pull and general swimming stroke. If you feel a lot of resistance when you pull, then your hand is positioned correctly and you’re pushing the maximum amount of water under your body to help you move.
  • Your stroke lengthens when your wear hand paddles, which means that you reach further with your leading arm and can pull more water. A more extended stroke means that you
    get a better distance per stroke, so each arm pull becomes much more efficient.
  • Don’t do too much too quickly. Build up your hand paddle use gradually, so you’re not at risk of injuring yourself.
  • First time users should go for a smaller sized hand paddle to start. These are designed to give you a tough work out so again, start small and build up.
  • When swimming with your hand paddle on, keep the palm of your hand open and flat as you would when swimming normally. This makes it feel more natural and so when you take your paddles off you continue to swim in this good position.
  • The best combination is to have a few different sizes. For your bigger set – don’t automatically reach for the biggest paddle on offer – the medium sized paddle (you’ll find bigger paddles usually come in sizes XS through to XL) is big enough for most triathletes. Also, try adding in a pull buoy, so it puts your body into a better position and prevents any leg kick, so makes your upper body work harder.

  • A smaller set of standard paddles or go for an even smaller set called finger paddles are great to use at times also. While the bigger paddles increase your resistance through your catch and pull to work swim-specific muscles, they do slow your stroke rate somewhat. You may see triathletes or tri coaches specify the use of paddles and pull buoy work leading to wetsuit orientated swims in Ironman or Ironman 70.3 to get used to swimming in a wetsuit and to strengthen the arms, shoulders and triceps. Your stroke rate slows a bit with long sleeve wetsuits so the paddle work will help prevent that last third of the swim fatigue that will creep into weaker swimmer’s arms.
  • The finger paddles are much smaller and only cover the finger area of your hand and are great to give you some extra ‘feel’ in the water without the slowing down of you stroke rate like the larger paddles do. The finger paddles may be used in drill sets or sometimes in main sets when you need that little bit extra to catch the water more efficiently than your hand alone.


Nick Croft

Nick Croft is a former professional triathlete, Australian Triathlete of the Year and two-time winner of the Noosa Triathlon.
With 19 years coaching experience under his belt, Croft provides online training programs for athletes of all ages and abilities through and runs Noosa Tri Camps in Noosa Heads, Australia.

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