Myths and Mysteries of the Flutter Kick

Myths and Mysteries of the Flutter Kick

Our leg muscles are arguably the largest muscles in our body. Yours are probably rock solid from all that running and biking you’re doing. Why, then, don’t they work when you’re in the pool?  Here is the deal with the swim kick: if you kick correctly, you can make yourself faster and conserve energy. If you’re kicking incorrectly, you can exhaust yourself and make it harder for yourself during the rest of the race. By using proper technique and conditioning your swimmer’s legs, you can make your triathlon race faster and more pleasant.

The first step in swimming correctly is ensuring you have a good body balance, which means your head is even with your feet. If your feet are sinking, you are creating extra drag and making it more difficult for your body to propel forward in the water. Practice getting your body to balance by spending some time doing various drills such as the back balance, side balance and six-kick drills.

Kicking is very closely intertwined with body balance. People with low body fat or an uneven body fat distribution generally have a harder time floating and keeping their legs up towards the surface of the water. Therefore, kicking can be an essential component in maintaining body balance and stability. When trying to maintain equilibrium between your head and feet keep your legs close together and kick from the hip. Knees should be locked or slightly bent. Keep in mind you want to make small kicks so that your legs don’t sink and create more drag, but your kicks should be enough to move you forward.

In freestyle swimming, having flexible ankles can be a key part of your kick mobility. Increasing flexibility in your ankles allows your feet to act like flippers and gain more propulsion in the water. This does not mean that your whole leg should be flexible. Ideally, a good freestyle kick is one where the legs are straight (the swimmer is kicking from the hips with very little bend in the knee) but the ankles are flexible. The legs should also be close together to be as streamlined as possible. The wider the legs are from the body, the more drag they create and the more likely they are to sink and not move in synchronization with the upper part of the body. Wearing flippers during kick sets, especially at the beginning, is a great way to improve technique and help with ankle flexibility. Flippers or short fins force you to put your body in the correct position for your legs because of their mechanics; you’ll find quickly that you’ll go nowhere with bent legs, stiff feet and a wide stance.

Alright, so you’ve got a good feel for the kicking technique because you are balanced and you’ve minimized drag. Is that enough? Yes and no. It’s time to start conditioning your legs to work. Although legs are not the main component of propulsion in swimming, they play a vital role in keeping your body in synch with your arms and providing a tempo. In general, the faster your legs go, the faster your arms will go. This is proven repeatedly in competitive swimming where elite swimmers are often the fastest kickers. On the other hand, triathletes do not need to have an incredibly fast kick to win the race. No triathlete has ever won their event being the first person out of the swim and then being the middle of the pack for the bike and run. What you should do is work on finding a kick beat that allows you to keep a decent pace that you can sustain for the event you are doing that does not compromise the rest of your race. Also, keep in mind that conditioning your legs to kick in practice will make it easier come race day.

Happy swimming!

Karli Wilkinson is a USA Certified Swim Coach with Experience Triathlon Coaching Services.   As leaders in the endurance coaching industry, Coach Karli and the Experience Triathlon coaching team help athletes of all ages and abilities achieve success in training, racing and life.  Learn more about Coach Karli and Experience Triathlon at www.experiencetriathlon.com and www.ET-Youth.com.

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  • Great article Karli. I’ve noticed the kick and swim improvements from several of your swimmers recently! Nice work!!

  • Annewhitcomb

    This makes total sense in terms of drag. I notice if I kick with a board, that creates that imbalance that impedes my kicking. If I kick without the board, my kicking rhythm and speed improve exponentially – whether on my back kicking or face down. Unfortunately, the lack of body fat does not apply to me! –

  • Sarah F.

    Thanks for the great visuals, Karli — very helpful!! Enjoyed the article!!
    –Sarah

  • Makes a lot of sense, Karli! I’ve often heard athletes performing kicking drills say, “I’m kicking…why am I not MOVING?!” Thanks for putting it in terms that everyone can understand!!