Kicking in Freestyle – TSC Podcast #2

Posted admin Podcasts

What you need to know about kicking for your next triathlon swim.


Music: The Crystal Method, “The Bones Theme”

Welcome to the Tri Swim Coach podcast. Today is Friday, March 6, 2009 and this is podcast # 2. We’re going to be continuing with topics on technique, for the first few episodes here, and like I said the first time, we’re going to get to some interviews later on with coaches and pros and a lot of other fun information for you guys. So stay tuned, and also I’m really interested in your questions. My email address is and I would love to hear from you.

Today we’re going to be talking about kicking, and also I’ll be getting to a question I had from a listener a while back.

So, as far as kicking goes, in freestyle, and in distance swimming, like the swimming that comes at the beginning of a triathlon, kicking in freestyle only gives you about 10-15% of your total propulsion in the water. Therefore you might think that kicking is not an important aspect of your stroke, and that you don’t need to worry about it much. Well, that’s just not true. It is true that you don’t need a super kick to have a great race, or a great swim in a triathlon. Sprint freestyle specialists need a strong kick. Like you’ll notice in the Olympics, Michael Phelps and Grant Hackett and (1:45?) Biggs…in all the underwater shots you can see the powerful kick they have.

But trying to imitate someone who specializes in, let’s say, 100-yard freestyle or 200, or even a 400 yard freestyle, that would not be beneficial for you. Because a triathlete, to copy those guys and to try to have that kind of a kick for, let’s say, a mile swim, would put you in oxygen depletion. And that’s no fun going into the bike. Your kick is mainly for stability and body rotation; however, having no kick, or kicking improperly can lead to using twice as much energy to get through your swim. And no one wants to get on their bike feeling drained and knowing that they still have a lot of work to be done.

Let’s address these two challenges and see what can be done to remedy them.

The first challenge of having no kick, while it is important to save your legs and enough energy for biking and running, not kicking will not help you achieve this. You need to develop a kick that works for you. There is no one-size fits all with kicking, but it should be relatively rhythmic. In other words, work on developing a two-beat, a three-beat, or even a four-beat kick. In other words, 2, 3, or 4 kicks for every stroke.

A good drill to practice this rhythmic kick is six kicks per stroke. And that’s where you exaggerate the number of kicks with each rotation. So one stroke is when you enter your hand into the water and extend it forward. So that’s one stroke.

And the second challenge is kicking improperly. This is a common problem with many triathletes who have, what I call “runner’s kick.” What this really means is inflexible ankles, which create drag and force you to do a lot more work than necessary to get through the swim. There are three remedies to overcome runner’s kick. The first, and my favorite, and what I usually have most of my swimmers start off with, is vertical kicking drill. Find water that is deep enough for you to kick in place. Let go of the wall, cross your arms, and kick in place in a vertical position. Keep yourself in a straight line, pointing your toes and keeping your chin above the surface of the water. Get your power from your quads and hips on this drill. Try doing 20 seconds at a time, and do a few sets until you tire out. It isn’t an easy drill at the beginning, but it does help you to get your kick in the right place.

The second thing to do to overcome runner’s kick would be to use fins – not to keep up in workouts, but to improve your kick. If you have ankle flexibility issues, use fins for a few weeks, but wean off them as you get closer to your event.

The shorter kind are best. I prefer the Zoomers, and out of the Zoomers, the newest ones are the Z2s, you can get those actually at a discount at and use discount code, AGGIES for 20% off. Other brands may work as well, everyone has their preference. Fins can increase your ankle flexibility, allow you to do swimming drills with ease, and strengthen the right muscles you need to kick. And it also helps you improve that last 10-15% for propulsion.

The third remedy to overcome your runner’s kick is to simply stretch your ankles. You can try sitting on your feet in a seated position. Take one leg and bring it out in front of you. Extend your foot and push your toes toward the ground. Hold for about 15-20 seconds then repeat with the other foot. You can do this several times a day. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to use a kickboard to improve your kick. I talk a lot about this in my book and I’ve written an article on this, and I hate kickboards. So just leave the boards to the side, or just use them if you want to talk to your friends while you kick, which really doesn’t help you in swimming in any way, but it can be a nice break, and a nice change of pace. So for distance swimming and triathlons, you’re wasting your time with any of the flotation devices. That includes pull buoys, which I also do not like and have written a couple of articles on.

So stick with the drills, work on a rhythmic kick, have some patience, and you will definitely be pleased with your swimming results.

So there you have it for the kick, it takes a little time but you’ll definitely come along really quickly. I’ve seen some people and they kick and they actually go backwards when they kick so if they’re on their back when they kick they’re actually going the opposite direction because their ankles are so inflexible. And within a couple of weeks of doing some stretching and using Zoomers and doing some vertical kicks they are reversing their backwards pattern and they are actually moving forward. So there is hope out there if you have a really tough time with the kick. But just take some time with it.

So the next segment I’m going to talk about a question that I got a while back. I haven’t received too many questions lately. I think the podcast is just kind of getting out there and here’s one from I think a couple years ago. The triathlete says, “I’ve been training in the pool for the last four to five months, and I’ve seen a lot of progress in my technique and speed. I went from fighting to get down one length of the pool in 35 seconds, (terrible, I know) to actually being able to sprint down the pool in 15 seconds. I am very happy with my progress. However, lately I have been concentrating on trying to swim at a slower pace in the water to actually mimic the triathlon experience. My first one is this Sunday. I’m having an incredibly hard time keeping my heart rate below 60, on even the easiest of swims. I find myself kicking too hard to keep my body afloat. I try very hard to focus on looking at the bottom of the pool, and keeping my head down when I swim, to complete the teeter-totter to lift my legs out of the water. It just seems that if I swim that slow, I begin to sink, and I have to either kick or pull harder to compensate. Here is my question: is there a secret to swimming slow? I have read numerous articles about the benefits of swimming anaerobically, but how do you do that? Any help would be appreciated. Thanks a lot.”

Ok, so first of all, this guy actually did a really good job at improving his speed, and I believe what he likely did was to practice a lot, and swim a lot, and he went from 35 seconds to 15 seconds for a length, which is an incredible progress, but he’s still sinking, so that’s the issue with doing a triathlon. You can increase your speed in the water, but still have a tough time using too much energy on the swim and not having any left over. So…what do you do? Remember that triathlon swimming success does not necessarily mean swimming fast. When your body isn’t balanced in the water you end up kicking a lot harder to keep afloat. So you’re zapping your energy for the rest of the race, even though you may finish well in the swim. When you can incorporate some of the balance drills within your workout, you’ll see noticeable improvement in this area and actually feel much more effortless and fluid in the water while going the same speed or even faster than you were before.

So the previous articles I’ve written on kicking on your side, and the shark fin drill (and there was also a lot of information on this in my book, “The Complete Guide to Triathlon Swimming) provide demonstrations for these balance-improving drills. So these are the keys. Also, if you sign up for the Tri Swim Coach newsletter, you’ll get a series of four emails with just a demonstration of these two drills and a few workouts to go with that, that can kind of get you off in the right directions, and start your balance training. So that’s super important when it comes to distance swimming.

As far as swimming anaerobically, I think what the swimmer was saying is, I think he meant to say “aerobically,” because anaerobically just means sprinting, and getting your heart rate up really high. So I’m assuming he meant aerobically. So if you’re training for a triathlon, most of your training in the pool should be aerobic. Low heart rate, focus on technique, and economize your strokes by paying more attention to your stroke count per length than your time. So, especially at first, I always emphasize beginners to pay attention to their stroke count, and try to just work on getting whatever your range of your stroke count is, to bring that down and then you can start looking at your time and doing intervals and things like that. We’ll get into that more in later podcasts down the road.

So that’s pretty much it for that question, and the last thing is, don’t forget to get into the open water before your race. I’ve got other articles on that, I can talk about that another time.

I think that wraps up the show for today, and again, the website is The blog is actually at and that’s where you can check out the latest posts and also check out – we’ve added a new blog now, so it’s got a lot of different features, and you can get the RSS feeds and check out old articles and also old newsletters. So give that a visit, and again, if you have any questions swimming-wise or otherwise, shoot me an email. Also any suggestions on the show, I’ve been getting some suggestions over Twitter, so that’s great, thanks to you guys for sending me those. I am taking those into consideration. If you do have any suggestions, you can either email me at or get on Twitter. Get on if you don’t have an account. My Twitter is triswimcoach, all together. So follow me, and I’ll follow you back, and we’ll have some great conversations.

That’s about it for today, thanks for listening. Have a great week of training, and we’ll talk to you next week.