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The Right Kick for Your Swim

By Morgan Johnson

Since I first entered the world of triathlon, I've heard advice that runs the gamut on how to kick (or not kick) on the swim. First, let's establish that the most efficient stroke for triathlon is the freestyle stroke or “crawl.” Athletes might occasionally revert into another stroke, but that should be purely for recovery purposes and to maintain momentum until the swimmer can resume the freestyle stroke.

swim“Proper” freestyle stroke entails:

  • Body parallel to the surface of the water, consistently breaking the surface at the head, hips/glutes and feet.
  • Arms in an alternating forward rotation, extended at the front and back of the stroke and bent at the top and bottom.
  • Rotation of the hips in congruence with the arm stroke, with the hips opening to the side of the arm at the bottom/back of the stroke.

At the USA Triathlon Performance Center where I coach (Playtri Performance Center – Dallas, Texas), we have spent years researching how to achieve proper swim form in age group athletes, and athletes who came to the sport of swimming after childhood. What our head coach, Ahmed Zaher, noticed was that the techniques traditionally used for swim teams and swim lessons just didn't seem to be effectively improving the technique of these athletes. After a certain point, the development of their technique seemed to plateau before it reached its intended peak. So, the next step was to try something new. What we found is that there are certain aspects of the swim that have a much bigger effect on an athlete's speed and efficiency than other aspects.

Based on our research, the thing that had the biggest negative impact in general on athletes' swims was poor balance in the water, which just means that their feet and hips had a tendency to sink down and create more “drag” for the swimmer. Triathletes seemed to struggle with this far more than other swimmers, and there are a wide variety of reasons for this, however, one of the culprits we heard over and over again was athletes who explained that they “tried not to kick so they could save their legs for the rest of the race.” I think we've all heard this idea before, and it seems to make sense — we have to bike and run after the swim, so why waste our legs on the swim when our arms can do all the work?

Here's the problem with this technique.

Most of us, when we don't kick, our legs start to sink. When our legs sink, our arms have to expend more energy to pull our bodies through the increased drag they create by not being in line with the rest of our body. The new body position puts more stress on our lower back and hamstrings and, believe it or not, in most cases sets us up for decreased performance in the bike and run.

So how do we fix it?

There are a few key kicking drills that we've found can get your balance where it needs to be. First, trade in your kickboard for a swim snorkel (not the same as a traditional snorkel — check your local swim store). Kickboards can be good, but they force us to hold our body in a position that is not the same as the position we want to be in the water.

Start with a basic kick drill:

  • Arms by your sides, face looking straight down at the floor.
  • Make your kick as small and as fast as possible — no big kicks!
  • Body balanced on the water — you should feel air on your glutes and your heels and toes should just break the surface of the water as you kick.

At first, you might feel like you're kicking really hard to maintain your balance — it's because you are! Whenever we make an adjustment to the technique our bodies are used to, our body has to adjust to the new movements and use of the muscle groups. This means that the new movement might feel harder at first, but stick with it and you'll be surprised at just how fast your muscles adapt.

Once you are able to maintain good balance in the water, it's time to add the arms! So your next drill is a snorkel swim:

  • Just like in the kick drill, your body should be balanced on the water with the kick small and fast. This should never change – if you feel it changing, lose the arms, regain your balance, then add the arms back in.
  • Rotate your arms in a continuous motion, without adding in the usual pause or “glide” at the front part of the stroke.
  • Keep the snorkel on!

From here, we work on adding the breath and refining the stroke, always maintaining our balance with a proper kick. As our bodies adapt to the new position in the water, our legs won't have to work as hard to maintain our balance. You'll be able to kick less while still staying in the correct position. When you're ready to take your swim to the next level, come visit us here Playtri or find a USA Triathlon certified coach for a one-on-one swim or swim analysis. Always remember that the best drills in the world are never a substitution for real, face-to-face coaching with an experienced professional.

Here's to your new-found speed and efficiency on the swim — and remember, balance is the goal, and the right kick is the way to get there!

Morgan Johnson is a USAT Level I Certified Coach and the Lead Developmental Coach at the Playtri Performance Center in Dallas, Texas. Morgan has been coaching triathlon for three years, and specializes in youth and developmental athletes. She can be contacted at morgan@playtri.com.

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