Should we train with drag suits, or is there an advantage to swimming faster in practice? Itâ€™s an important question that takes me a while to qualify and even longer to answer. If youâ€™re short on time, learn to skim.
When I was growing up my swim coaches would always encourage us to train with as much drag as we could handle. I remember once in high school buying a size 42 drag suit to go over my size 28 under-suit. Another time my coach had us all bring in old t-shirts to wear for a â€œstrength blockâ€ at the beginning of the season. Our suits would get old, faded, holey, and eventually they would turn to shreds â€“ at which point we would buy an even bigger drag suit. On my first trip to the Olympic Training Center, back in 1997 for a US Swimming Select Camp, we were warned not to bring any suits that were decaying to the point that they may clog the pool filers. Basically, everyone swam with baggy drag suits that would never last more than a month or two, and weâ€™d keep them for 6. It was normal.
It was after the 90â€™s had passed that the trend started to change. In 2000 I got my first polyester drag suit from Speedo â€“ a size 34 â€“ which seemed tight at the time. By the time I was a sophomore in college I had downsized to a size 28 of the same polyester style (the poly trainers never fade like the nylon suits) and thatâ€™s what I wore until I discovered Splish custom suits at the beginning of 2009. The attraction of custom briefs and colorful practice suits is all it took to make me forget about two decades of training every yard with a baggy brief.
Okay, I didnâ€™t really forget about it. I wrote Splish and asked them to design a poly-mesh trainer after the Speedo/TYR suits, which â€“ I pointed out â€“ would also provide more surface area for menâ€™s suit designs. As of yet, they havenâ€™t taken my advice.
When I started swimming with Cascade Swim Club last year in Seattle (coached by one of the most old school coaches around, who, ten years ago, certainly would have encouraged everyone to wear massive baggy suits) I noticed that the drag trend seems to be universally fading. Many of the younger kids are wearing jammers (the ugly spandex shorts that swimmers are now racing in), though luckily â€“ with the exception of Hunter Kemper â€“ Iâ€™ve never seen a good swimmer train in a jammer. Most of the senior swimmers, are wearing tight polyester briefs â€“ a sign that drag is no longer being encouraged like it was in the 90â€™s.
All this I have been observing with only mild interest until a few weeks ago when I was given a size 30 TYR Poly Mesh Trainer (drag suit) from USAT. I decided that it was time to get my swimming back on par with my ego, and I resolved that the drag suit would help me raise the bar. Unfortunately, it also made me much slower than I anticipated. At this point, Iâ€™ll admit, I came looking for a reason to take off the suit.
I started my research locally within the triathletes at the Olympic Training Center. Brandon Rakita (XTerra Pro and USAT Bike Mechanic) and Greg Billington (5th at World University Games last weekend) are the only two people in our practice who wear drag suits, though both take them off for the main set (which is backwards, and Iâ€™ll explain that in a minute). After one practice where I had struggled just to make the normally easy sendoff, I asked Brian Fleischmann causally, â€œhow big of a difference do you think drag suits make?â€ To which he replied, â€œI donâ€™t know, man, maybe a second or two per hundred.â€
That surprised me. I figured maybe a second, but certainly no more. I turned to Hunter and asked him the same question. â€œYeah, man, it makes a big difference, Iâ€™d say two or three seconds depending on your stroke.â€
I was starting to feel better about my recent swims, but it certainly didnâ€™t answer the real question. â€œSo why donâ€™t you wear a drag suit?â€ I directed toward Brian as Hunter hustled off to the treadmill for his post-swim trot.
â€œI tried it. Andy [Potts] and [his coach] are into the drag thing, but it just doesnâ€™t work well for me.â€
â€œDo you just like to swim faster in practice, or was it something else?â€
â€œNo, I just think it builds more strength in the upper body, and that extra mass wonâ€™t help your run.â€ This was a good insight, and it got me thinking about how I feel when I wear a drag suit.
On the days I wore a drag suit I felt low in the water. Not just slower, but physically less buoyant. My stroke rate would be higher than normal, and it was harder for me to get a good glide in the front of my stroke. Until now I had just told myself I was weak, but Brianâ€™s comment inspired me to look outside the locker room to confirm my suspicions of what has caused the decline in drag suit favorability.
At this point I had decided that a combo approach, much like Gregâ€™s was probably best. Though I argue that the main set is the only time for a drag suit to be worn, if at all. Warm-up, cool-down, drills, and kick sets are the parts of practice where you should be the most aware of your body. Itâ€™s the time to put all of your attention to technique and body position. The drag suit changes your hydrodynamics so that the body awareness drills do very little to improve your feel for the water. Itâ€™s like placing the propeller on a boat according to where it was most efficient on a completely different hull. For the main set, however, the goal is strength, so why not throw on a drag suit?
For this I emailed the two most qualified people I know: Brian Davis, who was born without coordination or any god-given talent, but who managed to become one of the best distance swimmers in the country (15:05 in the 1650y free) through hard work and a great technical coach (my second contact) Kyle Johnson (of Issaquah Swim Team).
This was my email:
A few weeks ago I went back to wearing a drag suit. Itâ€™s amazing me how much slower Iâ€™m swimming, and I’ve also noticed some stroke changes. I can’t get the same glide between strokes and I have to have more of a continuous stroke (Iâ€™m not sure thatâ€™s a bad thing). I know Brian never wore a drag suit, and it seems like the trend in the swimming world is going toward less drag in practice (North Baltimore â€“ think Phelps â€“ is here this week and there’s a definite mix in preference, but I think non-drag suits have the majority). The top two american triathletes take opposing sides. One says the extra drag increases upper body strength and weight, which decreases running speed; the other says that the added strength is what allows you to break somebody off your feet during a race.
What’s your opinion on training with a drag suit?
And their responses:
Personally, I don’t endorse them because they seem to impact the body’s natural buoyancy and create balance and timing issues like you’re experiencing. When your pelvis is pulled down by drag, you’re forced to go to your extremities for stability.
Exactly, I think it’s a power exercise, which wouldn’t have made any sense for my frame or style. If your stroke is similar to what it was when last we talked, the *last* thing you need is more power emphasis. You need to work on getting those hips on the surface and relaxing your shoulders. That said, you shouldn’t be doing much gliding, either. Try to just slow down your rotation, but keep your hands moving continuously, without pausing up top. Pausing at the “glide phase” of your stroke is just a form of mental rest, anyway, and provides almost no physical rest, since you need to reinvest energy in the power phase to get you started again after the glide. If you think of the analogy of rowing, it takes significantly less effort to have a smooth, even, symmetrical stroke than to pull really hard, rest, then pull hard again.
As for drag suits, I think the only major benefit is mental, since the contrast in sensation between training in a drag suit and racing in a fast suit is so huge. But you race in a compressive suit, anyway, so if you just train in a regular suit, you’ll still get that contrast. Besides, you compete in lakes and stuff… it’s not the controlled environment of a pool, where those tiny differences are instantly noticeable. I don’t think that a lot of the training methods in swimming translate well to triathlon, where you don’t have lanes, drafting is legal, and shoving your fist down someone’s throat is a valid maneuver. 🙂
The conclusion? Iâ€™m not planning on wearing a drag suit anymore. Perfecting my â€œfeelâ€ for the water â€“ the way I interact with the fluid around me â€“ is more important than the strength that I would gain from the added resistance. But I still maintain that adding resistance for short periods of strength focus, like during the main set, is probably beneficial. Doing the opposite, removing the drag only for the main set, is definitely not the way to go.