Here is a question I am often asked in workshops: “Can I use a snorkel when doing drills?”
The short answer is “Yes.”
The obvious advantage in using a snorkel while doing drills is that it allows the swimmer to concentrate on the drill without having to stop and stand-to-breathe, or to roll-to-breathe when those actions might break the rhythm, concentration, or disrupt balance. Integrated breathing (think ‘smooth, easy breathing built into the stroke’) is a skill that is built on top of stable balance. If balance is poor, then breathing is a struggle. If a swimmer is still working on getting his balance in place, being able to bypass the balance-disruptive breath by using a snorkel is very helpful.
The Finis Swimmer’s Snorkel is probably the best device you could use. It is positioned nicely in center of the face, cutting the water evenly in front. It is a great price too. I have a couple on hand in case one of my students would like to use one.
But there is a down-side, and for this reason you may use one for a while, but set it aside later.
The part of the snorkel that is submerged has air in it and is therefore buoyant (this applies to any snorkel, not merely Finis’ version). It pushed back up against the face. If the swimmer has a classic ‘eyes looking forward’ head position, then this may not be noticed so much because the swimmer is already used to pushing his head up against gravity and has become accustomed to the strain. But in TI we promote the neutral head-down, aligned-spine position that is both more hydrodynamic (which I can quickly prove) and much, much easier on the neck (however awkward it is at first for the classic swimmer to learn). This means laying the head down into the ‘weightlessness’ to the point where the mass of the head is literally floating in neutral position between gravity pushing down and water pressure pushing up. The air in the submerged part of the snorkel adds more push-up against the swimmer’s face, urging the swimmer to tilt the head up a bit. This creates that curve, and thus a strain in the neck after a period of time. And, as we explain in our workshops, any time the head is pushed up above the neutral plane, it causes a proportional force downward on the hips (Newton’s Third Law). So balance is immediately disrupted. For a swimmer who has come to enjoy the advantage of the weightless head position and the easy fore/aft balance it supports, a snorkel can be a bit uncomfortable.
A snorkel is still useful when you need it. It is a tool the provides a temporary trade-off. For those swimmers who are frustrated by stopping to breathe too often while doing drills, especially, switch drills, and want to keep them slow (rather than doing them fast in order to get more done in between breaths) using a snorkel can buy some extra patience and concentration time.
But eventually, we want to have breathing smoothly integrated into the drills and into the stroke cycle. A snorkel is a temporary solution enabling a swimmer to work on one aspect of skill while setting another aside for the moment.
The same can be said of using short fins for drills. They allow the swimmer to turn off concentration on the back half of the body in order to work on the front half. But eventually in the skill sequence, the swimmer needs to integrate both on top of balance and stability without the assistance of fins.
Fins compensate for skill in one zone so that a dependent skill can be developed in another. But once a swimmer has developed full-body synchronized propulsion, such devices are used in moderation because they can too easily disrupt that complete synchronization.
These comments above regard the use of these devices for drills and skill development. If we want to discuss using such tools during power development I would bring up the same points, but add a few more to think about because we want to develop power while protecting our best technique. I am not completely against using tools like these. Rather, I promote a careful assessment of the cost/benefit of using such devices and determining what is in the best interest of a swimmer and his goals. They are too easily thrown into a practice with little consideration for what bad habits those tools provoke while the swimmer is trying to imprint a good one. Being aware of the liabilities of any tool is essential for a swimmer (and coach) to recognize in order to use those tools to their greatest benefit. Perhaps we’ll bring that up in another article one day.