A Little Kick Goes a Long Way in Triathlon Swimming

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by David Wendkos

Yet again, my topic comes from a conversation with a fellow athlete. Nancy has completed more than one Ironman distance event, as well as a variety of other triathlons. Her swim is clearly her weakest leg, and so she has been trying to focus on improving it. She has spoken with more than a couple people about her swimming, and has gained a lot of good information from those interactions. Here is one problem that has arisen. Different people try to say the same thing in different manners.

As she and I got into a conversation about the differences between swimming as its own sport, and swimming as a part of triathlon, I brought up the difference in kicking. Nancy very quickly replied that another coach she has spoken with had been adamant that the kick was VERY important in all swimming, including triathlon, and so she put a large focus on developing a strong six-beat kick. At first, I believed this was specifically what she had been instructed to do. Sensing a learning opportunity for myself, I continued to ask questions about what he had told her What I ended up finding out was that he and I do not have differing beliefs, but rather,differing ways of verbalizing it.

Nancy took his statement, “Kicking is really important”, as “it is important to have a big, strong kick.” The intent, however, was not to instruct on the nature of the kick, but rather its involvement and impact on the overall stroke. There are two primary purposes for a kick in swimming: propulsion, and balance. In a “normal” swimming race, swimmers will generally try to maximize the kick for both of these purposes. In triathlon swimming, the issue of balance keeps the kick as a critical component of a successful swim technique. The propulsion aspect, however, takes a dramatic downgrade in focus. Remembering that the remainder of a triathlon after the swim is almost wholly lower-body driven, the less you can fatigue those muscles in the swim the better.

The physics of the human body in swimming dictate that if the legs do not contribute at all, they will sink. The center of gravity in a horizontal swimming position falls somewhere near the hips. Most of the floatation in the body will come from the air contained in the lungs. Picture the body as a see-saw, with the center point at the hips. As the chest rises, the legs will descend. It is key to maintain as horizontal a position in the water as possible, as the more vertical the body is, the more resistance you will create for yourself. Your kick, then, becomes critical to keeping your legs elevated and your body horizontal.

So what does all of this mean? The kick in triathlon swimming IS very important. How you kick in triathlon swimming is just as important. A smooth, relaxed, and relatively small kick will help with good balance without using energy inefficiently. And in triathlon swimming, efficiency is king. ‘Cause after the swim, we’ve still got a long way to go.

David Wendkos lives in Annapolis, MD and has over 30 years of competitive swimming, coaching swimmers for the pool, open water, and triathlons. He can be followed on twitter at http://twitter.com/SwimMD