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Wherefore Art Thou Kicking?

Adapted from my responses in a thread in the discussion forum and subsequently adapted for use in Runner Triathlete News in April, 2004.

There are three common uses for kicking in swimming (not all of equal value):

Balance - many swimmers use their kick predominantly to keep their hips and legs at the surface (or, failing that, to keep them from falling further toward the bottom). Unfortunately, this is a huge error that wastes loads of energy. The hips and legs can be kept at the surface nearly effortlessly by proper positioning of the head and upper torso.

Direct Propulsion - many swimmers try to add direct propulsion to their swim with their kick (as in a fast flutter kick that pushes the swimmer forward like a motorboat). Kicking for direct propulsion, even when done by the most accomplished swimmers, is greatly wasteful of energy - e.g. you spend a lot of energy to get a pretty small (or, for some swimmers, zero) return in extra speed.

Indirect Propulsion - instead of the direct propulsion "motorboat" analogy above, we can think of a car engine that, through it's transmission, turns the crankshaft, which is connected to the axels, which turn the wheels to make your car go. Similarly, the best use of your kick is to rotate your entire body longitudinally - think of this as your crankshaft. Your shoulders and upper arms, then, are your transmission and axels while your hands and forearms are your wheels.

Of course, for a rotation kick to result in large forward propulsion it must be timed correctly with the stroke - you want as much of the stroke to coincide with the actual core rotation as possible. Think of this as having your transmission properly engaged to (or in proper sync with) your engine of leg-driven core rotations. When it is all timed properly, rotational energy created by your legs can be turned into lots of linear motion (see the Bottom Up Swimming articles).

Kicks that primarily rotate you do not push you forward in the same way that flutter kicks do. Flutter kicks provide small amounts of direct forward propulsion and, used correctly, rotation kicks provide large amounts of indirect forward propulsion. In fact low intensity rotation kicking, properly timed with your arm strokes, will net you far more propulsion indirectly than any amount of direct motorboat flutter kicking will provide. For this reason most distance swimmers opt for a 2 beat kick -- one kick beat for each arm stroke where the primary purpose of these kicks is to initiate body roll.

I'm not advocating never using more than a 2-beat kick. Rather, I encourage you to learn to swim using 2-beat rotation-only kicking with zero loss of balance (consider this a critical success factor for effective distance swimming), then experiment with judiciously adding some flutter kicks for small increases in speed in appropriate situations (which may be few and far between).

If you are unsure about your current kicking and how you are using it (or how you might change it), talk to your coach about getting a tune-up! v

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2004

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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