I know it is a cop-out but I keep telling my triathletes, “If you could just race with a front-mounted snorkel, 80 percent of our issues would be solved!” Unfortunately, they aren’t race legal.
What is it that is so magical about this one piece of training equipment? The front-mounted snorkel allows a swimmer to breathe with a normal breathing pattern, without turning the head. Generally, when average—and even some elite level—swimmers turn to take a breath, technique is compromised. Most swimmers rotate for breath in conjunction with the rotation of the hips and shoulders rather than turning the head to the side independently of the shoulder rotation. This action creates a long breath and an unstable body position that often leads to a balancing act with the arms. These swimmers’ bodies sink, which begins to create more frontal resistance. So, in short, swimming with a front-mounted snorkel eliminates the traditional breath and generally has folks swimming in a more horizontal—and more balanced—position on the water for extended periods of time.
Training with a snorkel is typically done for two very different purposes: hypoxic or technical training. Breathing through a snorkel does not simulate altitude training, which is breathing in a regular volume of air that contains less oxygen. Instead, the snorkel restricts the amount of air you can breathe in and increases the distance the air needs to travel to get in and out of your lungs, thus requiring your body to deal with an excess of carbon dioxide in your bloodstream. A coach can create a set that requires an athlete to work hard while wearing the snorkel—thus limiting his or her intake of oxygen—that will, in turn, boost mental toughness; learning to breath less often and adapting to feelings of discomfort are an everyday part of race training. Wearing the snorkel doesn’t have to be limited purely to swimming; you can kick, pull, and even do some dry land exercises with it on. Just use caution, and, if you begin to feel light-headed, take a breather—literally!
I am a huge advocate of using the snorkel for technical purposes. There are a dozen skills a swimmer can focus on at any one time in a single stroke cycle. Taking away the act of turning the head to breathe can allow the swimmer to hone in on catch, kick, recovery, body position, rotation, and stroke count (just to name a few areas to target). One of the first skills I work on with any swimmer is body position, and there isn’t a better tool than the snorkel to allow you to practice swimming, drilling, or kicking in a balanced position. Once you master a skill like positioning or how to set a catch, it is equally important to practice it without the snorkel. Technically, your goal should be to be able to swim using the same stroke technique without the snorkel as you do with it. You can obviously take the snorkel off but a better first step is to practice a low, quick breath to the side WITH the snorkel on. That way, you are still able to get air at any time you want and are also still practicing the act of turning the head.
I have to admit, when I first used a front-mounted snorkel, I felt a bit claustrophobic. Give yourself some time to adapt; begin by swimming very smoothly; do an open turn if needed rather than a flip turn; and consider wearing a nose clip to keep water out of your nose. You’ll want to breathe normally—no quick and shallow or deep and long breaths. Keep your mouth relaxed and resist the urge to bite down hard on the mouthpiece. The one-way purge valve allows you to blow out any water that might get into your mouth. Keep your eyes down and just the crown of your head above the surface of the water. You can use a snorkel with any stroke—even backstroke—since the snorkel tube turns!
Finis has had control of the front-mounted snorkel market for many years now and offers three versions of their Swimmer’s Snorkel: the Junior, Adult, and Freestyle. They are definitely tried, tested, and true, setting the standard for any other company out there. I recently tried the TYR Ultralight and was equally impressed. True to its name, it is lighter than other brands but still sits securely on the head with very little wobble, even at faster speeds. The main difference I found between the TYR and the Finis was the comfort of the head strap; the TYR head mount is form fitted for your forehead and is padded with silicone, a much softer material. If you choose a Finis snorkel, you may want to wear a cap, since their head mount is harder and might even pinch a touch. Both have airflow restrictors that allow you to enhance the hypoxic training aspect (as if I’ll need it any harder!).
Whether you are training for a tough and mentally challenging set or are slowing down to work on technique, the snorkel can be a tremendous asset to either endeavor. It is also a great way to relax, keep your head in line with your spine, and focus on getting up and down the pool in the least number of strokes.