This Dog Paddle Swimming Workout Takes Real Discipline


Don’t write off the dog paddle as a swim stroke for little kids. At 52, Dean Jarvis, an above-knee amputee, uses the basic swim technique to log 20-plus miles a week in the pool.

“I don’t zip up and down the lanes like Michael Phelps,” the Maryville, Tenn.-based insurance agent says. “But it’s been a way for me to lose weight and improve my cardio fitness.”

Mr. Jarvis lost his left leg below the knee, as well as use of his left hamstring, at 19 after getting bone cancer. The former high school athlete, now cancer-free, struggled to find ways to remain competitive and keep pounds off. In his late 40s, he started to compete in ParaLong Drive competitions, where success is measured by how far you hit a golf ball. But that didn’t provide enough cardio. The stress of his nearly 265-pound frame on his prosthesis put too much pressure on the top of his leg.

Realizing he needed to find a low-impact cardio exercise, he embraced long-distance swimming. “I never dreamed I’d be a swimmer,” he says. “My original prosthetic had a computer chip in it, so I used to avoid being near water at all costs.”

Mr. Jarvis hadn’t swum since childhood and started to familiarize himself with the water again by using the dog paddle. The technique focuses on the underwater catch and the pull of the arm strokes and resembles the actions used by a dog when swimming.

Mr. Jarvis uses a snorkel as he dog paddles in the pool at Fort Sanders Health & Fitness Center in Knoxville, Tenn.

The stroke is significantly slower than freestyle, but because the body is positioned lower in the water and you are pushing against water as you paddle forward, the stroke requires at least two to three times more energy expenditure, says former Olympic swimmer Mel Stewart.

Mr. Jarvis says the dog paddle, combined with the use of a snorkel, enables him to balance and stabilize in the water without wearing a prosthetic socket. He lost 15 pounds between late 2019 and the start of Covid-19, then gained it back when pools closed. Looking for motivation, he set a goal this year of dog paddling 25 miles within 30 hours. Dedicated training has helped him drop 20 pounds.

“For the first time since I’ve had a prosthetic, I need to be fitted for losing weight,” he says. “I never thought I’d feel stronger than I did as a high school athlete.”

This Dog Paddle Swimming Workout Takes Real Discipline

Mr. Jarvis says the dog paddle stroke enables him to maintain his balance in the water without having to wear his prosthesis.

The Workout

Mr. Jarvis trains four days a week at the pool at the Fort Sanders Health & Fitness Center in Knoxville. He swims 1.5 to 2 miles using the doggy paddle and a snorkel. This typically takes him two hours. Mr. Jarvis says this stroke puts less strain on his shoulders and rotator cuffs. Once every few weeks he attempts a long swim in the pool. His max so far has been 16 miles, which took him 18 hours, including 45 minutes for breaks.

He performs physical therapy exercises for 20 to 30 minutes daily. These include a seated straddle stretch to work hamstring flexibility, and hip-mobility drills that use a resistance band to work his residual limb in various planes of motion.

Mr. Jarvis goes for a 1.5-mile walk daily. He can still drive golf balls while seated in a metal chair.

This Dog Paddle Swimming Workout Takes Real Discipline

Mr. Jarvis says a mix of swimming, golf and walking has helped him regain his fitness.

The Diet

Breakfast: Mr. Jarvis admits he could make better breakfast decisions. Some days he’s healthy and eats boiled eggs, but more often than not he says he falls back on a blueberry muffin or bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios.

Lunch: Taco salad ordered from a local restaurant.

Dinner: Roasted chicken and green beans.

Splurge: Vanilla ice cream.

Essential Gear

AMEO Powerbreather Snorkel $130

Aquasphere Seal 2.0 goggles[JM2] $35

TYR Swim Cap $10

This Dog Paddle Swimming Workout Takes Real Discipline

Mr. Jarvis is training to dog paddle 25 miles within 30 hours.

Which Stroke Is Right for You?

The dog paddle may be synonymous with rookie swimmers, but many competitive swimmers integrate the technique into their training, says Sascha Kreideweis, an Ironman athlete and coach at Empire Tri Club in New York City.

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Because swimmers must continually move their arms against the resistance of the water with no glide phase, the stroke can serve as a high-intensity drill. Mr. Kreideweis says the dog paddle is a great option for people who are just learning to swim or who are re-familiarizing themselves with the water.

Because the head remains out of water, you don’t have to worry about the timing of your breath like you do in freestyle, he says. It’s also easy to see where you are going. Mr. Kreideweis often has athletes use the stroke for recovery when they are doing intervals.

Freestyle is the most efficient stroke if you look at time per distance. Butterfly is the next-fastest and activates the most muscles. New swimmers often graduate from dog paddle to breaststroke, particularly in open water. Backstroke can be daunting because swimmers cannot see where they are going. Mr. Kreideweis says mixing up the strokes not only helps you get more comfortable in the water but can help reduce overuse injuries and provide a more challenging workout.

“Each swim stroke has its own technicalities,” he says. “Having an instructor or coach who can help you recognize and learn them will make a world of difference in your swimming.”

Write to Jen Murphy at workout@wsj.com

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