Kicking is a swimming skill that is often neglected, especially by masters swimmers, but it is an important skill and can make a big difference to your swimming if you can improve it. So for this article I’m going to give some suggestions on how someone can improve their kick. In this article I am speaking about the flutter or freestyle kick, I will hopefully cover the other kicks in the future.
A common issue I see in adult swimmers is a lack of mobility in the ankle. This is especially prevalent in runners or those involved in sports that require a lot of running. Of course, non-runners will often have reduced mobility in the ankle too, but it is usually far more pronounced in the runners that I’ve seen take up swimming. The ability to point and flex the ankle is crucial to kicking. On one extreme you have the likes of Michael Phelps whose extremely flexible ankles were one of the advantages he had with his kick. On the other extreme I’ve seen people learning to swim who couldn’t flex their ankles at all and the foot remained at almost 90 degrees to their leg (flat as if they were walking). In that extreme scenario if someone were to try to kick with their toes pointed to the floor of the pool lying on their front not only will they not go anywhere, but they will also likely start going backwards. Try it, it’s a fun trick our coaches used to use on us as kids to show us the value of a flexed ankle. There are plenty of videos on youtube that can show you how to increase your ankle mobility if you think you have a problem with it. Even if you don’t think you have any problem it doesn’t hurt to keep it in mind and work on mobility as you age anyway.
Getting the technique right
Unfortunately, just because you can point your feet and flex your ankles does not mean your kick is going to be fine. Kicking, for all four strokes, requires technique. I’ve seen plenty of swimmers, even club swimmers, struggle and thrash the water with their legs and get nowhere when kicking. How to kick correctly is a tricky thing to describe, so I’m going to give bullet points on things you should and should not do:
- Do not point your feet, straighten your legs locking them out like two planks and work them up and down
- Do not leave your legs come apart. Keep your legs close together so that they are almost rubbing off each other (but not actually rubbing off each other)
- Your feet will need to point on the downward motion of the kick and stay pointed, but not rigidly stuck so that they can flex ever so slightly
- Your foot, or any part of your leg, should not come out of the water, if anything breaks the surface it should be your heel, but even that should be just below it
- On the other hand don’t kick down too deep, we want shallow kicks
- Your knees will need to flex a little as you follow through with the kick, this is only a small bend (see previous point)
- Start and lead the kick from your hips and glutes, follow through down the leg to your toes
- Try not to tense up when kicking
Dryland work is great for helping to build explosive power, strength, flexibility & mobility, and for fixing imbalances. While these are important for all swimmers to work on, it is especially necessary for us masters swimmers as we age and lifestyles such as sitting at a desk all day catch up with us. Unfortunately masters swimmers are also usually time poor as we juggle family, work, and sport so its hard to dedicate time to going to a gym if we are struggling to get enough pool sessions in per week. If you can’t get to a gym there are still bodyweight exercises you can do that will pay off for you in the pool. While I have my own dryland routine, I am not qualified to recommend them to people, but there are plenty of resources online especially now during the covid pandemic. My advice is to try a number of things and see what works for you and what you can do with the resources and time available.
Training your kick
Before I start this section, I have to mention fins. Fins will affect your kick and not always for the better. They type of fins you wear will have different effects on your kick, you can see examples of this in my reviews of various fins. Fins should be worn for a reason and it needs to be for a clear reason, are they being worn to build strength? Are they being worn during a drill so you can focus on arms or body position? Or are they only being worn because you want to keep up with the lane next to you or because it makes that kick set feel easier? Have a reason for the fins when you put them on and don’t overuse them. With that said here are some practical ways to work on your kick:
Yes, you read that correctly and yes I am still talking about freestyle kick. I’ve found a great drill for people that struggle to get the feel or technique of the kick. This drill is simple, the swimmer is vertical in the water in the deep end, they raise their hands out of the water and have to kick freestyle only. They should be encouraged to get their legs under them when kicking (not raising the knees), flex the legs, kick down through to their toes. I tell them to imagine they have socks half on their feet and they are trying to kick them off.
Kicking on your side
A classic, kicking on your side has a number of benefits. It works the legs on the “up” and “down” beats of the kick, it doesn’t put pressure on your arms or lower back as a board would, it make you very aware of, and therefore work on, your body position and adapting it. Of course, it can also be a pain to breathe during this, personally I prefer to wear a snorkel when doing it. Make sure you don’t always kick on the same side, challenge yourself and switch sides every 25m or 50m.
Drills are often how I sneak kicking into the training sessions I coach when I want the swimmers to work on kick without them realising it (for some reason I get no protests for drills, but I do for kick sets). If you don’t wear fins for freestyle drills then you need to work your kick that bit harder, of course you will still get some benefit even if you do wear fins. Doing the drills off a set time also encourages a faster kick during the drills, but it can be a double-edged sword as you don’t want to rush drills and sacrifice doing them correctly for speed.
One suggestion I read during the summer on training kick was to over kick when swimming. It is an interesting concept that I haven’t had a chance to try in the pool yet, but which I hope to try when I’m back in the pool and everything settles down.
As far as I’m concerned there is nothing better than doing kick sets to improve your kick, assuming your technique is ok. My personal favourite is 50s off a time working on a steady aerobic pace. I feel this helps me a lot when racing the 200m and 400m. Alternatives are 50s where it is 25m easy, 25m fast and I would do these off the same time as my aerobic 50s. Kicking for longer distances on repeat times are other alternatives, as is kicking something like a 400m for time, personally I find these too repetitive or boring, but that is a personal preference.
Sometimes for threshold sets I would put on fins and a snorkel and do 100s off a challenging time. During every build cycle I always try to do at least one or two anaerobic/lactate tolerance kick sets.
I try to add kick sets in some form to every session or at least almost every session. I’m still not the best at kick, but I have seen a huge improvement in my kick both in training and when racing. Hopefully this article has helped you and your kick.