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An Ode To Kicking Part III

In part II, we explored the ways swimmers can kick faster. In this article, we’re going to explore what determines if improvements in kicking will lead to improvements in swimming. If we understand these factors ahead of time, we can decide whether pursuing faster kicking is worth the investment. For some individuals, it will absolutely be worth it. For others, they may be better off spending their time developing other abilities.

Faster Kicking = Faster Swimming?

(The following is about flutter and dolphin kicking on the surface. Considerations for underwater dolphin kicking and breaststroke kick are below).

I just got better at kicking, so what? What do improvements in kicking reflect?

Here are some scenarios where improved kicking may lead to improvements in swimming performance, and some situations where it may not. Not only is this valuable for reflecting on what happened, it’s also critically important to reflect on where time may be best spent in the future when deciding how much kicking should be included.

Probably Not

The following are situations where improved kicking is not likely to result in improved swimming. In these situations, performance is limited by other factors and failure to address these factors will prevent improved kicking performance from leading to improved swimming performance. However, if these issues are addressed, better kicking can and will lead to faster swimming.

Timing Issues

If a swimmer is not effectively using their kick due to poor kick timing within the context of full stroke swimming, swimming performance may not be improved. Better kicking is simply putting a bigger engine into a car the swimmer still doesn’t know how to drive. Until the kick is used effectively, it’s not going to enhance performance.

If timing is an issue, swimming performance may not reflect any improvement into kicking performance. The focus should be on better integration of the kick into the whole stroke, THEN improving kicking performance.

Kicking Skill

If swimmers are simply kicking hard when they swim, they’re going to be wasting energy. Propulsion is not going to be improved, timing is not going to be improved, and stabilization is not going to be improved. This is especially true if swimmers are kicking from the knees, which is going to increase resistance instead of reducing it.

If swimmers aren’t kicking well, kicking poorly with more effort is going to make the situation worse. Surprisingly, kicking may need to be taught. There is a skill to it, and it takes times to develop.

Sufficient Fitness

Is swimmers have sufficient fitness to sustain the legs for the duration of their races, and the legs are fit enough that they don’t take away energy from the upper body, more fitness is not going to result in faster swimming. At some point, the legs can only move so fast for so long. Once this limit is reached, performance is not going to be limited by the legs, and enhanced leg fitness won’t necessarily improve performance.

However, if upper body outputs are improved and swimmers learn to swim at a higher stroke rate, an improvement in leg fitness will be required, and a focus on kicking will become productive again.

Get On It!

Fortunately, there are some situations where, based upon what we understand about kicking, we can expect improvements in kicking to lead to improvements in swimming. It’s important to consider whether your swimmers are in these situations to inform how much time and effort should be devoted to kicking. The more these contexts apply, the more kicking can and should be emphasized in training.

Enhanced Effectiveness

If improvements in kicking speed reflect an improvement in kicking effectiveness, this increase in propulsion should transfer to improved performance. Swimmers are getting more out of each kick without increasing the kick rate or the kick range of motion.

Increased effectiveness will come about as a result of increased ankle mobility and a better whip/wave-like action through the kick. While these outcomes may result from simply performing kicking, directed efforts will yield better results. These must be addressed specifically through mobility programs and a focus on HOW swimmers are kicking.

Because the improved ankle flexibility and improved kicking skill lead to improvements in both kicking and swimming, improvements in kicking performance should show be reflected in faster swimming. It should transfer.

Enhanced Fitness

If swimmers are able to kick faster due to enhanced fitness, it could improve performance in one of two ways. Some swimmers are unable to sustain their legs for the duration of a race, and this results in a loss of stroke rate or a loss of stroke timing. For those swimmers, improved leg fitness can improve race performance due the ability to maintain rhythm and timing.

Improved leg fitness can also enhance swimming performance in another way. Let’s assume that the legs stay engaged and don’t fall off during a race, as they’re able to keep up with the arms. As the leg muscles are very large, they require a lot of energy and oxygen to sustain performance.

As the body has a limited ability to supply oxygen and create energy, the upper and lower body will compete for these resources. If fitness of the lower body is improved, it can reduce the energy requirement of the legs, or make a given energy requirement more sustainable. This ‘frees up’ energetic resources that can be used by the upper body to create more propulsion and directly improve speed. The legs become less of a ‘metabolic drain’.

Enhanced Repeatability and Recovery

In multi-round, multi-event, multi-day competitions, it’s not about what you can do fresh. It’s about what you can do AFTER all the other events. In the Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps didn’t need to swim the fastest 100m butterfly. He needed to be the fast 100m butterflier after ALL the other races he had to swim.

If swimmers are able to perform more kicking of a high quality, with more frequency, it indicates a that the legs are better able to recover, and they are better able to REPEAT performances. As discussed above, a loss of kicking action can result in losses in rhythm, timing, and speed.

Improvements in kicking speed and kicking consistency can reflect the ability to perform at high levels repeatedly during extended competitions. The legs must be fit not only to perform, but to perform over and over again. This needs to be trained, and kicking can be a more effective tool than simply swimming more.

The legs don’t have to ready for ONE race. They need to be ready for EVERY race.

Enhanced Fitness and Effectiveness

If the swimmer has a more effective kick due to better ankle mobility and/or better wave like action, they will hold more water per kick. If they’re able to hold more water per kick, it will require more force and more energy to create and sustain that kick.

In this case, increases in kicking effectiveness improve swimming directly, and they also allow for increases in fitness to make a bigger impact as there is now a higher ceiling for fitness improvements to positively affect performance. There is a larger demand and thus a larger requirement to sustain that demand. As well, that demand can also put a bigger drain on full-body resources.

If swimmers are kicking faster, it can be the result of improved kicking effectiveness and fitness, and this situation will positively improve swimming performance most of all.


There are many situations where improvements in kicking performance are going to improve swimming performance, either directly or indirectly. It’s important to understand WHY kicking will lead to improved performance as this can inform coaches about the best STRATEGIES to improve kicking performance.

If repeatability is the key trait that needs to be developed, this will require a different strategy than improving kick effectiveness. A given strategy may work brilliantly in the first situation and hopelessly in the second. Further, there may be some situations where a large focus on kicking is simply not possible, as other factors are a much larger limitation on performance.

With understanding, we can move toward effective action.

In part IV, we’re going to explore the worst-case scenario. We’re going to assume that kicking DOESN’T improve performance. Yet we’ll examine why there are many situations where a focus on kicking STILL makes sense. Stay tuned.

*A caveat*

Improving in underwater dolphin kicking speed (NOT necessarily dolphin kicking on the surface) will directly transfer to improvements in racing performance. This is because underwater dolphin kicking is the same skill that is performed in competition. There is direct transfer.

Improvements in breaststroke kicking will also likely transfer to improved performances, provided these changes can be integrated into the stroke. This is the case because the breaststroke kick is clearly propulsive during swimming actions. Again, the transfer is direct.

However, body positions are slightly different when using a board and kicking while swimming breaststroke. Fitness gains should transfer, and only slight changes in technique will be required. Sufficient breaststroke practice should account for these discrepancies.


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