Swim Gear 101

By Elli Overton – November 1, 2014
photo by Brian Fitzsimmons

New to swimming? That bag full of gear might leave you wondering what on Earth you’re meant to do with it all. Some swim gear is functional and necessary (goggles) and some (fins and paddles) are intended to keep things fun and vary workouts. 

So what does a swimmer really need? What is it for? Which brand or kind should you buy? Here’s the lowdown on some of the most common gear you’ll find poolside.  

Pull Buoy

What It’s For: isolating the upper body to focus on strengthening the shoulders, arms and back. (What it’s not for: artificially improving bad body balance by bringing the hips up to the surface. Those of you who do this know who you are. Don’t use the pull buoy as a crutch. It should not feel easier to pull than to swim.)
How to Use It: wedge the buoy between the upper thighs
If the two sides of the buoy are different sizes, the bigger side should face the bottom of the pool when you place it between your legs and start swimming. 
How to Choose: most pull buoys are created equal 

Swim Cap

What it’s for: keeping hair out of the eyes and face and making swimmers more streamlined
How to use it: hold the center fold of the cap in the middle of the forehead and pull the cap from the front to back of the head. Those with long hair: put it in a low ponytail, then wind the hair into a bun before tucking it into the cap (keep the bulk of the hair closer to the base of the head rather than on top) 
How to Choose: Silicon caps generally last longer and are more comfortable because they don’t pull hair. They are also warmer than latex caps. If you find your head getting too hot, then try a latex cap. They are perfectly good (and cheaper than silicon), but be sure to dry them out after use and store them flat.

Goggle Anti-Fog

What It’s For: keeping goggle lens from fogging up
Pre-coated goggles don’t work. Using a goggle anti-fog solution, however, keeps your goggles clear all-practice long.
How to Use It: rub a small amount of solution on each lens, then rinse it off in the pool before wearing (one application should last all session)
How to Choose: The tried and true swimmer formula is to use a mix of one part baby shampoo (no tears) with two parts water. Get a small squeeze bottle, mix up your own solution, and voila! You’re in business. 


What They’re For: keeping water out of the eyes (duh)
How to Use Them: straps go directly around the head at eye level 
Watch positioning: don’t pull the straps down around the base of the scull, place them too high, or put them over the ears.
How to Choose: always try them on before buying
Every decent pair of goggles easily comes out of its packaging. They need to fit your face. Make sure you feel suction around the eyes when pressing the rims to your eye sockets. Leave them on for a minute and move your head from side to side; you shouldn’t feel air moving into the goggles. If you do, this will be water when in the pool. Having an adjustable nosepiece is also helpful for a correct fit. Swimming outdoors? Go for goggles with mirrored lenses to block the sun’s glare. 
Tips: Goggles need not be super tight to keep the water out; wear them as loose as possible for comfort. If your goggles are leaking and you have tried tightening them and adjusting the nosepiece to no avail, throw them away and try another pair. I have yet to meet a pair of goggles that magically started fitting my face better. 

Mesh Gear Bag

What It’s For: carrying swim equipment in an easy, portable way that also allows it to dry quickly
How to Use It: Some people try to put all their swim gear in their gear bag—towel and dry change of clothes included. This isn’t really what these bags are for. You want to be able to keep all that aforementioned training gear in this bag and drop it at the side of the pool. It’s going to get wet, so keep a separate bag for things you want to keep dry.
How to Choose: Since gear bags are intended to get wet, don’t get anything too fancy; a simple mesh bag with a drawstring top is all that’s needed. 


What It’s For: to isolate legs for focusing on practicing and strengthening the kick 
How to Use It: hold it with two hands at the bottom (flat) end of the board; new swimmers can use it with their head down in the water between breathing, making it easier to kick the feet at the surface. Experienced swimmers hold it at the rounded end, laying their arms over the top of the board; they typically kick with their head out of the water at all times.
How to Choose: all kickboards are pretty much created equal 


What They’re For: strengthening the legs, improving foot flexibility, correcting kicking technique, helping with propulsion during drills, and having some flat-out fun (they make you go fast)
How to Use Them: put them on and go in kick sets, swimming, and drills
How to Choose: there are many different types and lengths. Swim fins are typically two-tone rubber (as opposed to snorkeling/diving fins). Longer fins are more common than the shorter version—known as “zoomers”—that add more weight and offer less propulsion. 

Front Swim Snorkel

What It’s For: focusing on stroke; breath control.
How to Use It: place it in the mouth, adjust the head strap, and swim
When exhaling, breathe out of your nose so the tube doesn’t fill with carbon dioxide; breathe in at a normal rate. Don’t try to inhale through the nose.
How to Choose: there are bigger models and smaller, lighter selections—most prefer the smaller, lighter ones
Tips:  if you’ve never used one, it’s worth a try! 


What They’re For: strengthening arms, shoulders, and back by offering more resistance in the water (like lifting weights in the pool). Paddles also make swimmers more aware of how their hands hold the water.
How to Use Them: the whole hand goes through the lower, larger rubber band; the middle finger goes in the smaller, middle rubber band 
How to Choose: size matters
The bigger the paddles, the stronger you have to be and the better technique you have to have. Start with small paddles—just larger than the size of your palm—to increase your feel for the water. If you start with paddles that are too large, you put yourself at risk for shoulder injuries and building bad technique. 
Tips: Paddles that mimic the shape of your hand are better than those that don’t (i.e. rectangular-shaped paddles). Also, I prefer plastic paddles to mitts or gloves.


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