Swimrun: Should you swim with paddles and a pull-buoy?

We ran some tests to find out how much difference they make

In swimrun, I’ve always been a sceptic of the benefits of using a pull-buoy and paddles. I understand the theory. Shoes create drag and cause your legs to hang lower in the water. Paddles add power to help overcome the drag and the pull-buoy raises your legs, restoring a more streamlined body position.

The case against, at least for me, is that using paddles and a pull-buoy in the pool (when not wearing shoes) makes little difference to my swim speed, so why should they in open water? Using paddles slows my stroke rate and makes my shoulders and arms ache. A pull buoy puts my body in an uncomfortable position with excessive use leading to lower backache. Using paddles and a pull-buoy on a swimrun adds extra kit hassles with more potential for things to go wrong, plus the annoyance of having to carry the stuff while running.

With seemingly little to gain and lots of potential irritations, I’ve therefore done all my swimrun events to date without either a pull-buoy or paddles. That is, however, a minority position. Most people use both. However, making kit decisions based on a theory and feelings is bad practice. It’s better to test and get data, so that’s what I did. I took a set of paddles and a pull-buoy to Shepperton Lake, put on my swimrun shoes and timed myself over a series of 400m laps. The results surprised me. Swimming with shoes in open water is quite different to swimming without shoes in a pool.

Impact of swimming in shoesjpg

The numbers speak for themselves. Contrary to what I believed, using paddles plus pull-buoy gave me a big boost in speed compared with not using either – a massive 45 seconds over 400m (almost 10%). Using either a pull-buoy and no paddles or paddles but no pull-buoy gave the same result – a 31s improvement (see laps 2 and 4). However, note the time on lap 3. A kit malfunction resulted in a delay of nearly a minute.

Also, in line with a previous trial on this, removing shoes completely (still not using paddles or pull-buoy) is the fastest still.

What does this mean for my future swimrun racing? Given the impracticality of removing and carrying shoes in an event, will I gear up with paddles and a pull-buoy?

I should point out that this wasn’t a completely fair test. The water temperature at Shepperton on the day was 26.7 degrees and I couldn’t bring myself to wear a wetsuit, even a shortie swimrun one. I suspect the wetsuit will narrow the difference in time between using the kit and choosing not to. I will test this when I can.

The other factors to consider are perceived effort, faff factor and what you have to carry while running. I’d list the options in order of perceived effort as follows:

  • Pull-buoy only (easiest)
  • Neither or paddles + pull-buoy (roughly equal)
  • Paddles only (hardest)

Paddles noticeably add to the workload and cause a marked decrease in stroke rate, which may be less efficient in rough water. There is also the risk of breakage (this happened once to my race partner in an event) that could result in a large loss of time. I like running as unencumbered as possible and I find the clacking of dangling paddles particularly jarring. However, a pull-buoy can be carried relatively easily.

Given the above, I’m planning on using a pull-buoy in my next event. Despite the additional speed from using paddles, I’m not yet ready to embrace them for racing. The effort of swimming with them is too much and I worry about the risk of kit failure. I haven’t done enough training with paddles to have built up the strength to use them for long distances when fatigued and to be fully confident they won’t break on me.

I recommend doing your own testing rather than blindly copying either me or the majority of swimrunners. Also, consider what is most important to you. Is it speed at any cost? Or does the all-out pursuit of speed taint your overall enjoyment of the event?

I’d love to see data from other swimrunners. Do you see the same changes or do you benefit more or less than me from paddles and a pull-buoy? Let me know.


Image (c) Breca Swimrun (from Bay of Islands 2021)