A reader recently asked about my perspective on using a snorkel in training, particularly to help set aside the concern for disruptive breathing for a while.
With any pool tool, if you understand what the tool can help you with, what it’s role in the process is, and what it’s liabilities are, then you are in a better position to choose when to use it or not.
This post is discussing the snorkel specifically, but these considerations apply to other swim training tools you might consider, like fins, paddles, boards, etc. It does not necessarily mean that all tools are OK, just that you should think critically about the device’s stated purpose, then find some substantiated guidance on whether you should use a device, and if so, how you’ll get the best benefit out of it, according to your needs and goals. Every coach is going to have an opinion, though, unfortunately, only some may have some solid logic or scientific explanation to back up that opinion.
When To Use A Snorkel
A snorkel made for swimmers is a good tool to remove the concern for turn-to-breath, when used for short periods of time. If breathing is yet disruptive to body position or distracting to the mind in some significant way, then using a snorkel can allow you to set aside this problem for short periods of time to work on some other feature of the stroke. Then set aside the snorkel to work on breathing.
Breathing is an urgently needed skill, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is an advanced skill that is dependent on fundamental stroke skills. The stronger the foundation the easier it will be to establish smooth, easy breathing, and vice versa. That’s just one of the reasons that we are so adamant about your patience in setting up those fundamental body positions and movement patterns. But we also introduce breathing skills within Level 1 training… at the end, once you can lean upon those foundation skills to make breathing easier to do.
In my tool kit I have a Finis Swimmer’s Snorkel, just like this one pictured. I do not need to use it myself, but I sometimes lend it to swimmers to try in order to recognize the benefits and liabilities of using one.
This Finis Freestyle Snorkel has a longer tube which is extended farther back on the head. This may actually work better for drills too because when you are doing slow-motion recovery arm swings, gravity will push down on the arm and torso, causing the head to sink a bit, and this could submerge the tube on the normal swimmer snorkel. Having that extra length of the tube may help prevent this.
One liability is that the snorkel has that small volume of air in the tube in front of your mouth that you have to hold underwater if you want your face underwater, and it pushes back on your face, urging your neck into a local extension fault (i.e. tilting the head, putting a local bend in the cervical spine, to look ahead). There’s no way to avoid this push-against-the-head even with your head in neutral – it’s just water pressure pushing up on the air space in the tube.
If you are trained and loyal to a neutral head-spine position (as you should be as a TI swimmer), then this will put a strain on the neck with that air pocket trying to push your head up and out of neutral position. You’ll feel the difference within a couple minutes and may likely find it unpleasant, from the neck or even down to the low back. The whole body follows the head position, so anytime the head is out of this neutral position, realize that the rest of the spine will have a hard time finding or staying in its ideal balance and alignment.
Therefore, one would want to use a snorkel sparingly to avoid this strain. Certainly, many swimmers seem to adapt to that head position with or without a snorkel and claim no problems, but with a tilt-down of the head into neutral position we’ve quickly fixed too many people with sore necks and sore lower backs now to encourage that tilted-up head position for anything but the shortest periods of time – as with ‘snapshot’ sighting in open water. (Discussing the use of a snorkel for other training purposes would be another topic, but the same spine health concern remains).
Solve One Problem, Don’t Cause Another
With any tool, it’s effectiveness depends on how well one uses it to imprint the skill into the brain while removing the need for the tool, and without causing new problems.
Inventors (we love them!) are constantly trying out new ideas on us swimmers, to solve what we in TI often recognize as neuro-muscular problems, whether the inventor or users recognized that or not. The inventor see the possibilities, and generally leave it up to coaches or swimmers to figure out the best way to use them – it’s not a bad way of crowd-testing these clever ideas, but it certainly has it’s risks for swimmers. When a new tool comes along, we need to look for the transition process, to consider how that device can be used safely, to uncover the process that needs to be employed to move from dependence on the device for control the body to dependence on the brain to control the body, and to avoid creating new problems. Except in the case of adaptive equipment for permanently disabled athletes we generally want to use devices in order to eventually leave those devices behind.
The tool may not be at fault for poor skill development, the lack of a thoughtful brain-training process likely is. Too often these tools are used without understanding of how complex neuro-muscular skill is developed and imprinted into the brain (often without much help from the way in which this device was marketed), and just hope that by using it regularly new skill will magically happen. Nope. It usually doesn’t work that way.
Good tools won’t create strong skill; good process with good focus will. A good tool might assist with that.
In conclusion, a swimmer snorkel like this is a nice tool to have in your bag to use on occasion, or to lend to a friend in the throes of stroke+breathing struggle. But if you are going to use one for this purpose, I strongly recommend that you spend at least as much time in that practice working on improving your breathing skills (correcting head position, timing, and air management) so that the breathing problem and subsequent need for the snorkel is eventually removed. Then you may consider using it for other purposes – but please employ the same critical thinking process before you do.
You can find more on breathing in my blog and you are welcome to send me questions those posts don’t answer for you.
More posts on breathing look at our Blog Highlights page for a list of those under that topic.