Swimming with fins during rigorous military training, such as BUD/S, Coast Guard HRSS, Air Force PJ, Army Ranger/Special Forces training and many law enforcement SWAT programs, is required for open-water tests.
My philosophy with teaching swimming is "a picture is worth a thousand words, but a moving picture is worth 10,000 words." See my demonstration of the combat swimmer stroke with and without fins below. The combat swimmer stroke is a very efficient stroke with and without fins and done by SEAL, pararescuemen and other special forces/special ops men and women.
The type of fins you should use when swimming in open water for any of these professions is a strong SCUBA-type fin that also can be used for SCUBA diving. Getting your ankles used to the strain of the kick takes a few weeks of 500- to 1,000-meter swims, but the initial pain will go away as long as you incorporate swimming with fins regularly into your program. I recommend anything made by Cressi or the U.S. diver's rocket fin; these are used by many special operations training programs. You will need to wear booties with these types of fins.
Here is the email question:
"Recently I bought a pair of Rocket fins and booties. Up until now I have been using soft fins for your workouts and I have been able to fin 1 mile under 30 minutes with soft fins. With rocket fins, however, it feels much more awkward and painful. It seems as if my arm-pulls get me more propulsion than the flutter kicks with rocket fins."
1. "Is there a specific technique to finning with rocket fins? Does the kick have to be a certain width? It seems that bigger kicks give me a stop/start movement and interrupt my momentum, but while smaller kicks give me constant movement, they still don't seem to propel me that fast."
There is no one best way to swimming with fins, because we all have different kick strengths. I have found that athletes in sports like football and soccer may not be the best swimmers without fins, but when they place a pair of SCUBA fins on their legs, they are faster than most people in the class. This is because they have well-developed leg and hip strength and can use bigger kicks to build speed. Some athletes with weaker legs and hips tend to swim fast, but they kick with smaller strides at a faster pace. You have to find out what works best for you. Learn how to swim on both sides as well, because you can alter your kick as long as your top leg always extends forward on both the left and right side. Learning to swim on both sides offers a form of "rest" by changing the pull-push stride of your left and right leg.
As for arm pulls and breathing -- as pictured in the video below -- the arm pull can be used as another method of propulsion, especially if you need to rest your legs by skipping a few kicks during a long-distance swim. Many people take a slight pause from kicking while breathing and recovering the arms forward again to remain streamlined. As with any swimming, recovering your arms should remain streamlined and not impede forward motion.
2. "The fins seem to cause pain in my feet after a couple hundred yards and stiffness up the front and side muscles of my shins. Is this just a matter of conditioning and getting my feet used to wearing these fins?"
It is a matter of conditioning. When first wearing fins, you should swim only a few hundred yards and push slightly past discomfort in the ankle and shin area. Do not push too hard and for too long at first, as overuse injuries such as tendinitis in the feet and knees can flare up. This process usually takes about 10-15 swims or 2-3 weeks of swimming with fins. It is recommended that you swim 500 meters with fins and then, if they start to bother you, remove the fins and swim 500 without. Then try fins one more time until the discomfort returns. Do this for a few weeks, and you will add greater distances each time you swim.
Good luck with adding fins to your swim workouts. It takes time to get comfortable so do not feel weak if you only can swim a few hundred yards the first time you wear a "real" pair of fins.
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Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to email@example.com.
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