Triathletes aren’t known as the most powerful kickers in the pool. Because many hail from running, their inflexible ankles make it difficult to develop the perfect flutter. Beyond initially learning how to kick, how important are kicking sets? Sara McLarty debates Shaun Guest, assistant coach for the University of California, San Diego Masters swimming program. After the debate, check out the drills they mention at the bottom.
Sara: In swimming, technique plays a bigger part than fitness, strength and power combined. Some triathletes think they can stroke their way through the swim with only upper-body strength and rely on their legs for the bike and run. As a result, many don’t work on their kick technique during training, but kicking sets are important for overall improvement.
Shaun: Every swim coach will agree that mastery of the flutter kick is essential to becoming a better, faster swimmer. However, performing an elegant six-beat kick in freestyle relies more on core strength and less on leg power. As the hips rotate, one side of the core is stabilized while the other side is mobilized. The stabilized side keeps the body balanced as power is generated through the pull. Rather than kick sets, triathletes should practice the 1-2-3 Drill (#1 below) to connect the legs to the core during the pull phase.
Sara: I agree that the age-old idea of kicking endless yards is not what any triathlete needs. Learning how to time kicking motions with arm strokes is key, as well as adapting an efficient flutter kicking motion that propels the swimmer forward.
Shaun: Comparing swimmers and triathletes is like comparing apples and oranges. Yes triathletes swim, but many have overdeveloped quads and tight hip flexors. Since power from the kick primarily comes from the hip flexors, kick sets with beginners may continue to strengthen the quads and inhibit proper long-axis rotation of the core. If the hip stabilizers opposite the side of the pull are not activated, then power is generated more from the shoulder. To avoid this, focus on strengthening your core, glute and hip extensors (see Extend Leg Drill and Vertical Kicking With Weight below).
Sara: Just because triathletes aren’t swimmers doesn’t mean they should completely eliminate kicking. Kicking sets just need a high rate of variation. I am also a firm believer in flexible rubber fins. Not only do they encourage a swimmer’s toes to be pointed, but the athlete gets more feedback about the motions of his or her legs because of the increased surface area.
Shaun: I am also a huge fan of using swim equipment. I use Finis front snorkels with buoyancy drills that utilize the core and legs together (see Gadget Drill below). Two critical factors we haven’t talked about are buoyancy and body drag. Swimmers lacking buoyancy tend to kick wildly as sinking legs force the body underwater. I agree kicking sets are necessary; however, kicking with a board ultimately puts the body in an “uphill position,” wasting energy. Working on buoyancy drills is an even better way to turn triathletes into efficient swimming machines.
Triathlete final thoughts: Your wetsuit can only take you so far—you need both a decent kick and a good body position to really propel yourself forward. Instead of the boring kick-with-a-board sets you’re used to, try the suggested drills below.
Sick of traditional kicking drills? Try these instead.
“Kicking sets should have a large amount of variation,” says Sara McLarty. Instead of kicking down the pool with a board, McLarty suggests these different positions: underwater; on the back; on the side with one arm extended; against the wall and kicking other strokes. Coach Shaun Guest offers these non-traditional drills to help with buoyancy and your kick.
1. 1-2-3 Drill
Count one kick per stroke, progress to two kicks, then finally three kicks. Start to pull on the count of the last kick, then begin the kick after complete rotation to the opposite side. When done right it can be more effective than pure kick sets.
2. Extend Leg Drill
Swim with one leg extended out of water, then switch to the opposite leg after a 25.
3. Vertical Kicking With Weight
Try vertical kicking sets holding a 1–5-pound object out of the water (10 rounds, 45 seconds kicking, 15 seconds off). “During this set, the legs are forced to kick with equal force and direction, while the core and shoulders contract in unison,” Guest says.
4. Gadget Drill
The objective of the drill is to eliminate up-and-down movement of the hips as the body rotates. While wearing a snorkel, relax arms by your side and begin kicking in a flat position. Rotate to your side focusing on 1) a slight downward press from the chest and 2) vertical displacement of the hips. If your butt remains near the surface from the prone to side position and you can feel water over the back of the head, you’ve achieved neutral buoyancy.