Freestyle – How to Use a Pull Buoy

Originally published May 5, 2006

You take a piece of foam, hold it between your thighs, and go swim. Could it get any simpler? Well, yes. Here are some pull-buoy dos and don’ts that will help you EXCEL on your next pull set. And for triathletes: Learn how to use your pull buoy to simulate wetsuit swimming in the pool.

Some swimmers and coaches have banned pull buoys from their tool kit, arguing that they give you a false sense of balance, that they inhibit core rotation, and that they’re more like a binky than a pool tool. But when used correctly and in moderation, pull buoys have many benefits.

Pull Buoy Dos:
Use a pull buoy that’s the right size and buoyancy for you. Young swimmers will find it difficult to manage a large pull buoy, and really young swimmers — under age 10 — probably shouldn’t use them at all. Young swimmers and lighter swimmers will do best with a small pull buoy, like one shown at the right. If you are a larger swimmer, or if your legs are dense and heavy, you might find it helpful to use TWO pull buoys for extra buoyancy.

2. Use a pull buoy that feels comfortable to you. They come in all shapes and sizes. If you have a two-piece buoy, experiment with the cord adjustment until it works for you.

3. Wear the pull buoy as high as possible. The lower it is, the harder it is to hold.

4. Keep your front end LOW in the water. The idea is to minimize resistance. So…look DOWN and just slightly forward… and press in on your sternum. This is a key focal point for triathletes. When you wear a wetsuit, the extra buoyancy tends to make your head and torso ride higher in the water. Also, when you’re swimming in open water, there’s a tendency to look forward rather than down. The result is that you often swim "uphill" in a wetsuit triathlon. Wearing a pull buoy simulates this "uphill" position…and gives you an opportunity to learn how to correct it. So the idea is to look down and press in on your chest when you wear a pull buoy. Learn what this feels like in the pool, so you can get the same feeling when you’re wearing a wetsuit.

5. Point your toes! This reduces drag and let’s you rotate a bit more freely. It also lets you get maximum power from your pull. If you feel like you are the slowest person in the pool during a pull set, try pointing your toes and see what happens. It can make a HUGE difference.

6. Engage your abs.  AKA suck in your gut…pull in your stomach. This gives you a longer, straighter bodyline, and can help you swim a bit faster with less effort.

7. Breathe less often than normal. Using a pull buoy takes a huge burden off your leg muscles — some of the largest muscles in the body. This gives you an aerobic cushion and you should DO something with it, rather than swim as if you were on an oxygen tank. Use the extra air as an opportunity to extend your breathing pattern by one or two strokes. You might be surprised at how good this makes your stroke feel, and how easy it is to do. It might feel so good that you decide to try it all the time! (Just one of the benefits of using a pull buoy.)

DESCRIBE THE IMAGE8. Focus on your pull. This seems obvious, but lots of swimmers simply zone out when they put on a pull buoy. The point of a pool tool is that it helps you focus on a particular aspect of your stroke. So when you’re pulling, pick one part of the pull — hand entry, catch, elbow, release point, etc. — and pay attention to it.

9. Focus on your pushoffs, streamlines, and breakouts. The pull buoy gives you a boost for doing all these things a little better, stronger, and longer. Go with it.

Pull Buoy Don’ts:
Try not to kick.  It gives you an unfair advantage over other swimmers in your lane who are not kicking, and who are trying to focus on the pull. It’s OK for your feet to shift a little for balance, but don’t make whitewater.

2. Don’t always do flip turns.  Wearing a pull buoy can help you improve your open turns for breast and fly (and free). The pull buoy forces you to keep your legs together and to tuck efficiently. It also increases your awareness of your foot/toe position during the tuck. Try to keep the toes pointed (and even overlap your feet) during the tuck.