As a swim coach at Experience Triathlon, I am constantly bombarded at our ET Masters Swim workouts by questions about why triathletes need to develop a good swim kick. Many of my swimmers express the common sentiment, “I don’t need to worry about kick training, all I have to do is put on my wetsuit and I don’t have to worry about my legs at all!” My typical response is “What happens if it’s too warm to wear your wetsuit?”, which leaves them scratching their heads in frustration. I’ll admit that I do dearly love my wetsuit, but mainly for the warmth it offers as opposed to the buoyancy. Experienced open water competitive swimmers typically don’t wear wetsuits in races even in some of the coldest of waters as they dislike the change in center of gravity that the wetsuit produces. The secret to feeling comfortable and confident in the water is to develop a flat, horizontal body position so as to produce the least amount of drag, and much of that body position comes from a strong, efficient kick.
So what does a strong, efficient kick look like? The hallmarks are as follows:
- Straight Legs – Legs should be predominantly straight with a pointed toe. Knee bend should be very minimal. A common problem with strong runners is the tendency to excessively bend the knees, or bicycling (moving the legs like riding a bicycle). In addition to moving the water in a circular motion around the body (as opposed to pushing it past the body), excessive knee bend creates drag by breaking the tight cylinder of water that the body is displacing.
- Flexible Joints – Knees and ankles should remain flexible and loose. One of the reasons why Michael Phelps is such a strong swimmer is because he has extreme flexibility in his joints. Flexible knees and ankles provide resistance but move with the water, effectively acting like a fish’s tail. Flexibility can be developed, as in running and biking, by performing stretching exercises like sitting on your ankles and figure four stretches on the back.
- Quick Cadence – Just as cadence is important in running and biking, kick cadence can affect swim efficiency greatly. I hear many swimmers complain of not being able to sustain a fast kick because it’s too tiring, but end up dragging their lower bodies through the water if they kick at a perceived “comfortable tempo.” The trick to an efficient kick is sustaining a fast enough tempo to lift the lower body but not too fast that it fatigues the muscles quickly. Most swimmers use a 4 or 6 beat kick in which the feet kick 4 or 6 times per arm stroke cycle. Obviously the distance up and down decreases as the kick gets faster, so quick, short range of motion kicking is more efficient than slow, deep kicking, especially for beginner or intermediate swimmers whose balance in the water is still developing.
- Muscle Development – Let’s face it, the leg muscles used in swim kicking are different than those used in running and biking. An efficient swim kick utilizes the muscles at the top of the thigh and hamstrings while the calf remains in a compressed or shortened position which results from pointing the toe. This is almost completely counter to the elongated calf and mid-quad and hamstring emphasis of running and biking, and the muscular development doesn’t necessarily transfer between all three activities.
So how does your average run or bike- focused triathlete develop a strong swim kick? Practice – which means grab your board and kick, kick, kick! It’s very important to integrate kicking into every swim workout. As with biking and running, the winter or base season is a great time to develop those leg muscles, cadence, and flexibility, and as a result, you may see more workouts built around kick sets. Don’t cut these important workouts short – it will make a difference during the summer race season when you exit the water with fresh lungs and legs. So when your swim coach starts putting a kick set up on the board, instead of groaning and whining or looking at your watch, take a deep breath and dig in! It’ll only make you a stronger, faster, more comfortable swimmer in the long run!
Coach Sue is a Swim Coach with Experience Triathlon. As leaders in the endurance services industry, Coach Sue and the Experience Triathlon staff help athletes of all ages and abilities achieve success in training, racing and life. Learn more about Coach Sue and Experience Triathlon at www.experiencetriathlon.com and www.ET-Youth.com
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