10 mile swim

It isn't far to swim when you have friends waiting at the end.

On Pull Buoys and Ankle Bands and the Trousers of Michael Phelps

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A lot of people love pull buoys, and that’s just fine with me. Other people’s love for pull buoys in no way impacts me; I hope that those who enjoy using pull buoys will continue to enjoy using them for many happy years to come.

But while I like doing pull sets–that is, swimming using arms only–I don’t like using pull buoys. I don’t like them for the same reason I don’t like wetsuits: they mess with my body position. Most pull buoys are made of a piece of foam (or two pieces of foam) that you stick between your thighs to help your legs float behind you when you are not kicking. I don’t need help floating, and I especially don’t need a piece of foam designed to keep my butt bobbing near the surface.

Here I have to admit to a physical advantage: I am proportioned like Michael Phelps–if Michael Phelps were a five-foot-four-and-a-half-inch-tall middle-aged woman. Phelps has a long torso and short legs; he’s 6′ 4″, but he has the torso of a 6′ 8″ man and the legs of a 6′ one. As Bob Costas says in this video, “Phelps is perfectly tall–and short.” I too have a long torso and short legs. It’s an advantage for swimming. It’s a disadvantage for buying trousers. I sometimes wonder if Phelps has to hem his own trousers and if he’s better at it than I am. But these proportions (and good body position) mean that my legs float just fine and I don’t need or like pull buoys.

But I do like to do pull sets, and I am doing more and more of them in preparation for the ten mile swim. When I was a child on swim team, instead of using pull buoys we tied our ankles together with an inner tube. I don’t know what kind of inner tubes they were, but I know mine was an actual, complete inner tube, not a cut piece of rubber, because I remember how you had to be careful when you twisted it not to end up with the valve stem digging into an ankle. It was like this:

Image from Don Gambril's Swimmer and Team. Found at http://aquavolo.com/journal/article/2011/10/pull-buoy-or-not

Image from Don Gambril’s Swimmer and Team. Found at AquaVolo.

I liked using the inner tube, and that’s why I was especially pleased to learn that in the 21st century you can buy ankle bands that do the same thing without the ankle-piercing valve stem. The kind I own appears at 6:10 on the video I’ve embedded below, the yellow one from Finis. I think it’s terrific; it’s cheap and portable, and it works just fine. You can’t kick, not the least little bit, but you can still do a reasonable flip turn and push off the wall. The woman in the video uses it with a pull buoy, but I don’t; I just twist it around my ankles and go.

If you like pull buoys, more power to you. But if you don’t, or you’d just like to try something new, consider the ankle band.


This SWIMMER Magazine (from USMS) video review of pull buoys goes on for over nine minutes. It presents more types of pull buoys and ankle bands and other things than I ever thought possible:

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