An Ode To Kicking Part IV
In part III, we examined the situations where faster kicking abilities result in faster swimming performance, as well as the situations where faster kicking may leave swimming performance unchanged. Knowing the difference can help coaches decide how to allocate their practice time, as well as more effectively design the type of kick training they do choose to implement.
In this article, we’re going to assume that kicking DOESN’T improve performance. If kicking doesn’t improve performance, a logical conclusion would be that performing a lot of kicking in training is a waste of time. However, we’re going to look at the arguments for why kicking DOES make sense in some situations, even if direct performance improvements aren’t going to happen.
Why Kick, Even if Kicking DOESN’T Improve Performance?
I’m not saying kicking doesn’t improve performance.
But let’s assume it doesn’t.
What are some reasons you might want to include kicking work, even if it doesn’t directly improve performance?
The primary reason to keeping kicking is that kicking is still fitness training, and in conjunction with regular swimming work, it has some unique benefits in particular circumstances. If those circumstances apply, adding extra kicking makes sense.
The legs are BIG muscles. As discussed previously, the legs are going to be used in competition, and these muscles are large. These large muscles require the production of a lot of energy to fuel high-intensity muscle contractions. To produce a lot of energy, these muscles require the consumption of a lot of oxygen. The body can only take in and process a certain amount of oxygen. As intensity levels climb, oxygen demands increase as well. The body must be conditioned to meet this demand to avoid excessive fatigue in competition.
At some point, oxygen demands of the legs will compete with oxygen demands of the arms. If there is insufficient oxygen, something has to give. The tempo is going to drop off, or the timing is going to fall apart, as swimmers would be able to sustain the actions of both the arms and legs. In either situation, speed is going to drop off.
The legs need to be fit enough to continue to kick at the desired stroke rate for the duration of the race or there will be a loss of velocity. Even if kicking provides no direct propulsion, it serves a critical function in counterbalancing forces created by the arms. If these functions cannot be sustained, performance will suffer. Regardless of how the legs are impacting performance, they create a large metabolic cost and swimmers must be conditioned to sustain the legs throughout the duration of the race.
We can also use this oxygen demand to our advantage. Because the legs consume a lot of oxygen and energy, training the legs can be used to effectively train the cardiovascular system (heart, lungs, etc.). This work can be done in addition to regular swim training.
There are no negative effects on technique. When swimmers get sufficiently fatigued, technique can begin to suffer. As swimming performance is largely driven by technical skill, it doesn’t make much sense to spend a lot of time practicing bad habits.
Once swimmers reach the point of technical breakdown, they can still develop fitness qualities by focusing on kicking. As there is much less of technical component to kicking, there can be a much larger emphasis placed on developing fitness through the legs. For coaches that prefer to protect skill and minimize fatigued swimming, emphasizing kick training can be an effective way to continue to improve fitness.
It gives the upper body a break. The shoulders are relatively fragile. The small muscles responsible for maintaining control of the joint can become fatigued, and this fatigue can eventually lead to injury if it becomes chronic. If you can’t swim, you can’t get better. At some point, shifting some of the fitness work to the legs can help to develop total body fitness, while reducing load on the upper body.
It’s a safe and effective start to the season. For swimmers returning from a layoff, we need to be careful with the shoulders for the same reasons described above. Kicking can be addressed much more aggressively earlier in the season, with much less risk of injury. The legs are simply more robust. Developing these large muscles early can also be valuable for later in the training year.
It’s an effective plan B. Sometimes swimmers can’t swim as much as we’d like due to upper body injury. However, they very well may able to kick, and kick a lot. This is a great option for maintaining or improving fitness while the upper body heals.
If swimmers are limited in the total volume they can swim, it makes sense to perform much of that work with specific training speeds and loads. The more general fitness work, and even warm-up and warm-downs, can then be performed through kicking activities. This saves the upper body for the most important work. Importantly, it keeps injured swimmers feeling like they are progressing towards something.
Regardless of the direct impact of kicking on performance in the pool, kicking can and should be an important part of the training program. It can be used to develop the cardiovascular system in a general manner, it can allow for further training when technical skill has begun to erode, it can give the upper body a break, it’s a great transition early in the season, and it’s an effective as an alternative strategy when needed.
For all of these reasons, kicking should be included in a training program. In Part V, we’ll explore how to train the legs in a comprehensive manner.