An Ode to Kicking Part V
In parts III and IV, we looked at the situations where improving kicking performance could improve swimming performance. We also looked into why kicking should be part of the program, even if it DOESN'T directly improve swimming performance.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the more often-overlooked ways to develop the legs, and why these strategies are relevant. While kick training has traditionally focused on the cardiovascular element, and rightfully so, we’re going to look at how to develop the neuromuscular element.
Training the Legs
Hopefully, we’ve seen why and when you might want to focus on developing the legs. Now we’ll take a look at some of the different strategies for how to develop great kicking.
Train the cardiovascular and metabolic systems
This is the type of work most coaches do to develop the legs. Using a variety distances, intensities, volumes, and intervals, coaches have figured out how to train kicking. Where coaches tend to put their emphasis will depend on the training experience of the swimmers, the events they are training for, and the time of year.
Train the muscular system
Regardless of what type of training is being performed, the muscles need to do the work. They need to create force. As such, it’s important to spend some time training the kick with higher levels of force.
The best way to do that? Resistance.
The type of resistance is secondary to how the resistance is applied. While most coaches address the cardiovascular and metabolic aspects of leg development, they often fail to address the muscular aspects, whether approached from a force production or a force maintenance perspective.
The muscles need to be conditioned and resistance is an excellent means to do so. As this is an area that’s underemphasized, we’ll spend a little more time exploring the options.
Force production versus force maintenance
Training exists on a spectrum and kicking is no exception. To fully optimize the development of the legs, swimmers need to train to produce high levels of force AND sustain high levels of force. When training for the former, we’ll see higher intensities, higher loads, shorter distances and volumes, and more recovery. In contrast, training for sustainability training is generally going to be characterized by lower intensity, lower loads, longer distances and volumes, and less recovery.
In both situations, the quality of the work is important. Relative to other aspects of training, high forces should be present. A preference for production versus maintenance should be reflected in the time of year, the events targeted, and the training experience of the swimmer.
When it comes to this type of work, remember that swimmers can’t maintain what they can’t produce!
Types of resistance
There are two main ways to create resistance. Resist the body or resist the feet.
Resist the body
Requiring swimmers to kick with resistance against their body is going to overload their legs. Swimmers can kick against cords, power racks, parachutes, towers, wall kick, kickboards held vertically, or whatever else you can come up with. The type of resistance is secondary to how the work is done and the effort that is put into it.
While the type of resistance is not critical, using multiple types of resistance is valuable in reducing training monotony. Especially with kicking, options exist at low cost and they should be utilized as much as possible. Creativity rules here.
Resist the feet
Any strategy that is going to make it more difficult for the foot to move through the water is going to overload the legs in a manner that is distinct from over loading the body. In the former case, it’s more difficult to move through the water. In the latter, it’s more difficult to move the leg through the water. This creates a different type of overload.
This works well with dolphin and flutter kicking. The exception is breaststroke as there is already a large surface area presented by the entire foot and shin. However, mesh bags (see below) can be effective from a technical perspective, as well as providing a novel stimulus. In this case, GO SLOW to protect the knees and the groin.
A cheap and easy way to do this is an old pair of shoes. Bigger is typically better here as more surface area creates more resistance. Very small shoes aren’t going to do much to create resistance.
Dragsox are the commonly known brand, and others are available. Relative to shoes, they are durable and the resistance is standardized. They also are easily stored and less susceptible to the destructive effects of chlorine. An unappreciated aspect of Dragsox is that they tend to ‘whip’ off the end of the feet. This can provide swimmers feedback as to whether they are effectively whipping through their kick.
Putting fins on the feet affords swimmers the opportunity to move more water with each kick. Taking advantage of this opportunity requires more force. Especially when performed at high speeds, this extra force creates an overload that can strengthen the legs, as well as potentially loosen the ankles. This particularly true of shorter and stiffer fins.
Deeper water is ‘thicker’ or ‘heavier’ in that it is being compressed and weighted down by the mass of water that is above it. This creates a greater load working through the foot, especially when swimmers focusing on keeping the leg straighter. Vertical kicking can also be done anywhere that has a pool depth over 6 feet.
Combining fins and body resistance
When the opportunity to hold more water is combined with the challenging of kicking against a load, the opportunity for challenging force production. The simplest and most effective way to accomplish this is to add fins to resistance. Combinations such as fins and a parachute, fins and a cord, etc. work well.
All of the above strategies can and should be performed while kicking with a board or on the back in isolation. However, it’s JUST as critical to perform swimming sets that involve a great leg component. As we explored in Part III, swimmers can’t just over-kick to swim faster. However, we can use our resistance tool to overload the legs while swimming with full strokes.
Performing sets where swimmers are expected to swim with resisted feet can create a great overload on the legs while retaining full stroke mechanics and rhythm. Beyond that, coaches can use their creativity to develop training sets that combine both kicking in isolation and kicking overloads that are integrated into full stroke swimming. This is particularly effective for helping swimmers learn how to sustain their kicking and stroking rhythm and timing while experiencing significant lower-body fatigue.
All of the principles above can be applied to leg-loaded swimming sets.
For the most part, coaches have the training part down, with some room for improvement in the muscular side of development. However, one of the best methods for improving kicking is increasing mobility of the ankles. And very few coaches systematically address it.
Great kickers have great ankle mobility. This is known and accepted, yet it is rarely addressed in training. Changes in ankle mobility can be facilitated if addressed over time. However, caution must be used as the ankles are fragile joints. When working to improve ankle flexibility start with VERY low intensities and volumes, paying equal attention to the volume and intensity of kicking in the pool. Too much total load is going to cause problems.
As important as improving mobility of the ankle is, ensuring that strength is developed through the full range of motion is critical as well. This must be addressed on land as well. Strengthening the ankles through dorsiflexion and plantarflexion is critical. Fortunately, this requires little equipment to do so, and swimmers can also provide manual resistance to each other, which works very well for mobility as well. A simple internet search will give coaches practical information about manual resistance that can be used immediately.
Attention should be paid to strength and mobility through the lateral and transverse planes as well, although they are much less critical for swimming performance. All of the above considerations have been further addressed in the Going Dry series.
The legs need to be fit, and they need to be fit in a comprehensive manner. In the past, we’ve focused on cardiovascular and metabolic fitness, and rightfully so. That performance thread needs to continue to be developed. In addition, we need to begin to address the neuromuscular component, as well as address ankle flexibility. It is not about replacing one type of training with another, they need to be added. This will develop leg fitness that is most likely to result in fast swimming.
In part VI, we’ll look at kicking better.