An Ode to Kicking Part VII
In part VI, we looked at the nature of kicking skill. In this article, we’re going to learn how to put that kicking skill to use for faster swimming. As we saw in the part I, the timing of the kick plays many important, yet often underappreciated roles.
Great kicking timing allows the whole stroke to work together. Whether it's freestyle, backstroke, or butterfly, timing dictates whether swimmers are working with or against themselves. They key task is to get swimmers to FEEL the right timing, and then build off of that feeling. Once they feel it correctly, they’ll stick with it.
*A warning about timing. There is always a danger in making swimmers aware of skills and actions that they weren’t previously aware of. If swimmers are integrating the kick well into the stroke, it may be worth leaving well alone. However, sometimes we have to take a chance to take the next step. If you choose to intervene, focus more on including great tasks and minimize the use of verbal instruction. This will help to keep the learning process unconscious as much as possible. As a general rule, swimmers tend to figure out kick timing on their own in backstroke more often than freestyle. Freestyle can be problematic for many swimmers.*
Freestyle and Backstroke
Great timing is simply a matter of timing the kick with the arm recovery and hip rotation. Rather than continuous transitions from one side to the other, body rotation is often characterized by relatively rapid shifts from side to side. This whole process is best facilitated when the limbs are coordinated to facilitate the whole process at the same time.
The ‘shift’ tends to occur right around when the hand enters the water, with slight deviations amongst swimmers. The shift occurs with the hips and the shoulders, although the shoulders tend to rotate more than the hips, especially as velocity increases.
In freestyle, this shift can be optimized if swimmers kick down with the opposite leg when the hand enters. This pops the hip up to help shift to the other side. As an example, when the left hand enters, the right leg will kick down. The shifts the right hip and shoulder up, and the left hip and shoulder down. When timed right, it makes the transition much smooth.
In backstroke, a similar dynamic is occurring. Right when the swimmer begins to drive into their catch, the same side leg kicks up. By kicking up, the same side hip is driven down. If the swimmer enters and begins to catch with the left arm, the left leg kicks up to facilitate a shift to the left side. The timing helps to facilitate the shifting from side to side, which can aid in the function of the upper body in recovering the arms and creating propulsion.
You can see these dynamics in freestyle when watching underwater footage from the World Championships or Olympic Games on Youtube. The effect tends to be exaggerated in the longer events, and is always much easier to see it in slow motion.
*The more effectively swimmers are kicking with a straighter, whip-like action from the hip the more effective they will be in learning the timing. The longer, straighter lever is better able to provide the torque required to create a body shift. This is why working on kicking skill before or in conjunction with kicking timing is important*
If we simplify kick timing to facilitate the side to side shifting action, we can start down the path to integrating effective kicking into full stroke swimming.
1. Vertical kicking. Most swimmers are unaware that kicking actions can affect hip movement. The easiest way to help swimmers appreciate this is to get them vertical in the water where they can see and feel these actions. Once in the right environment, we can work on facilitating awareness.
Once vertical, have swimmers take big, smooth kicks, preferably with relatively straight knees. Then have them pay attention to when and how the hips move back and forth in conjunction with the kicking action. They should notice a subtle rocking action in conjunction with the kick.
Once they have an awareness of that sensation, then have them take more distinct, aggressive kicks with the intention of popping the hips back with every forward kick. They want to feel the hip shift that comes as a result of the kicking. They then want to establish a back and forth rhythm that is driven by the kick.
Once swimmers can feel that coordination, we can shift into horizontal positions. Ideally, you don’t have to spend much time here, and you don’t want to need to keep coming back to it. It is simply a quick trick to help swimmers appreciate a potentially novel concept. At this stage, it’s not about mastery, just exposure.
2. Switch drills. Now it’s time to get a feel for the kick timing in horizontal positions. We’ve all seen backstroke and freestyle drills where swimmers are kicking on their side for an extended period of time or numbers of kicks, and then recover the arm and switch sides. The focus here is on teaching swimmers to rotate more.
I like to co-opt this drill to help swimmers learn how to time the kick and the recovery to facilitate the shift. In most cases, swimmers will simply use their recovery arm to rotate over and they fail to use the kick.
In this situation, the swimmers should on minimizing their kicking while on their side. When they want to shift, they should really focus on snapping the kick to facilitate the shift. When the swimmers can hit the kick and the arm recovery at the same time, the shift should happen with greater speed and ease. To start, it’s valuable to have the swimmers take a large kick to facilitate the shift so that they can feel the impact.
Over time, this skill can be progressed by working towards making the kick much less dramatic, yet just as effective. At speed, they won’t have time to make a big kick. They can also work to reduce the time spent between shifts. Doing so will necessarily limit the amount of rotation. Swimming is not about the magnitude of rotation, but the timing.
This leads nicely into the next step, two-beat kicking.
3. 2-beat kick swimming. Once swimmers have a sense of how to time the arm recovery and the leg kick to transition from one side to the other on a one-off basis, it’s times to put those skills to the test and add some rhythm. Instead of shifting from side-to side with a pause, we’re going to start swimming freestyle.
To keep it simple, starting with a two-beat kick allows swimmers to progress to full-stroke swimming. When the right hand enters, the left leg kicks. When the left hand enters, the right leg kicks. Start with a low stroke rate, get a sense of the timing and once it clicks, slowly start building the tempo.
It can be useful to add some descending swims, or swims where the stroke rate builds across each repetition. Once it starts to click a bit, keep increasing the effort and the stroke rate. Making the kick tighter and faster can help with that process.
Once this rhythm starts to feel pretty good, we’re ready to get into it.
4. 6-Beat freestyle. Now, it’s time to go. When swimming at faster speeds and with a full 6-beat kick, the impact of the kick timing is going to be less obvious, yet still just as impactful. What swimmers will feel is not so much the impact of the kick, but they should feel a more dramatic shift that happens on the entry for each arm.
They’ll feel the legs behind them, and they feel an easier transition from side to side, driven by the arm entries. The kick simply drives the process along.
As with the 2-beat kicking, use descending and building efforts to challenge stroke rate intensity. Work up to the point where the connection is lost, and then take a step back. Repeat that process. Sooner than later, swimmers will be able to swim at race intensity with a full kick behind them that’s fully integrated into the stroke.
Kick timing in butterfly works to accomplish similar goals as backstroke and freestyle, although in a different context. As opposed to shifting the body from side to side, the kick can help to shift the body up and down. As with freestyle and backstroke, these actions serve to facilitate the recovery and propulsive actions of the arms.
As with freestyle and backstroke, improving kick timing in butterfly is going to be more effective when swimmers are more skilled at kicking butterfly. If they have more range of motion through the ankles and are able to snap and whip their kicks, the impact of effect timing will be magnified.
The timing of the kicks in butterfly is straightforward and conceptually simple. Swimmers need to kick once when their hands enter the water and once when their hands exit the water. That’s it. If swimmers can lock this down, they’ve accomplished 95% of the requirements of fly. The rest can be adjusted.
Why does it matter?
The kick in the front of stroke gets the hips up and the chest down. This serves to re-establish body alignment after breathing and the arm recovery. If swimmers fail to re-set the hips, they’re going to begin swimming with worse and worse horizontal alignment, and the stroke is going to fall apart from there.
The kick upon entry also serves to create leverage which the swimmer can use to create torque when the chest rises back up during the arm pull. The rising chest can help to accelerate the arm pull. This effect is similar to cocking the hammer of gun.
The second kick serves two purposes as well. The first purpose is to counteract the arm pull, which tends to cause the hips and legs to sink. If the kick doesn’t counteract this lower hip position, it will be infinitely more challenging to recover the arms, greatly reducing rhythm and increasing the cost of swimming.
The second purpose is to magnify the impact of the pull. By finishing the kick at the same time as the finish of the pull, the propulsion generated by the two actions is summated. This creates a surge in velocity which will be required to compensate for the loss of velocity that accompanies the arm recovery. This kick also ensures that hand speed is maintained or increased at the end of the pull, which can then be used to aid in the ballistic recovery of the arms. Again, this effect will greatly aid in a smooth and efficient recovery.
Because of the physical demands of the stroke, the challenge is placing swimmers in situations where they can swim with the rhythm of the full stroke while limiting the physical requirements of full stroke butterfly.
While the physical demands of butterfly can be demanding, it is effective timing the serves to reduce these demands, making the stroke sustainable. This creates a feed-forward cycle where the reduced physical demand makes it easier to sustain appropriate timing, which further reduces the physical demands.
1. Single-arm butterfly. Single-arm butterfly is a great way to reduce the physical demands of the stroke, while still retaining the rhythm of the entire stroke. It allows swimmers to feel the flow and learn how to use the kick to set and drive the rhythm. Simply have swimmers perform butterfly with one arm at a time, leaving the non-working arm by the side or out in front. Both can be useful and provide a slightly different feel.
When working specifically on kick timing, the only focus of this drill should be kicking when the hands enter and kicking when the hands exit. Once swimmers get a sense of the timing, they can start to feel what the kick does for the stroke. They can start to exaggerate how the kick upon entry sets the hips up, and they can play with how the kick upon exit facilitates both the finish of the stroke and the recovery of the arm.
2. Underwater recovery. The major challenge of butterfly is the overarm recovery and the physical demands it requires. There is also a strength demand on the pull itself, and if swimmers aren’t strong enough, it can be a challenge to create enough hand speed to facilitate a fluid recovery. When learning the timing of the stroke, this can present a problem. The solution is to just recover the arms underwater.
The drill is set up with the swimmer horizontal and the arms out in front. From that position, the swimmer kicks the hands forward as they would upon entry. Once they feel the hips rise up, they can take their pull and finish the pull with a strong second kick, finishing the kick at the same time as they finish the stroke.
This drill builds upon single arm freestyle in that it not only reinforces the timing of the kick, it reinforces the impact of the kick. You have to kick well to make sure the impact is positive. It teaches swimmers how to use the first kick to re-establish body alignment and prime the arm pull. It teaches swimmers how to add the 2nd kick to the finish of the stroke, as well as generate the hand speed necessary to recover the arms effectively.
If done well, the swimmer will feel a surge in the front after the first kick, and they’ll feel their hips pop up. After the second kick, they should feel like they’re shot of out a cannon, realizing a major increase in speed. Whereas the first drill helps swimmers learn the timing, underwater recovery helps swimmers learn the function of the kicks, making the entire stroke more effective.
*Underwater recovery and single-arm fly can be used concurrently, as they develop complimentary skills. One doesn’t necessarily have to be focused on first, unless it clicks faster for a given swimmers. Start with wherever you get better traction.*
3. Butterfly. Once swimmers have a feel for how to kick and when to kick, it’s time to start putting it all together. The idea is to simply focus on the kick timing and let that rhythm drive the stroke. The key to training the skill, and building the physical capacities to sustain the skills, is patience and progression.
If swimmers can hold the stroke for 2 cycles, start swimming with 2 cycles. To build fitness, you can have them swim 2 cycles and then switch to freestyle or switch to one of the drills. You can continue to repeat that process once swimmers have sufficiently recovered to return to full stroke butterfly.
It requires an attention to skill and patience to let swimmers develop the ability to sustain their skills. If swimmers are falling apart, perform fewer cycles, decrease the distances, or give them more rest. Over time, increase the distance, duration, volume, and speed, while reducing the rest intervals between efforts. With a commitment to skill, swimmers will build the capacity
The ability to effectively swim full stroke butterfly can be supported with continued work on the drills listed above. Timing comes first, then fitness and speed.
Timing matters. When swimmers kick is going to have a dramatic impact on how the whole stroke flows. This will directly impact both speed and sustainability. Importantly, these skills can be taught in a straightforward and simple manner, as long as we commit to creating change.
Helping swimmers understand that WHEN they kick is a critical component of their swimming can help them take their swimming performances to the next level. By presenting swimmers with simple concepts, then placing them in environments that are conducive to learning, we can create changes that make a difference, and we can create changes that stick. Importantly, it can be done in a context that simultaneously develops physical capacities.
A key consideration is finding the right tasks that make understanding and FEELING appropriate kicking timing easy, and then slowly building into full stroke swimming. Once the appropriate kick time is executed, it’s about conditioning those skills to hold up under greater fatigue and intensity. With the right tasks and patient progression, we can help swimmers transfer their kicking skills to fast swimming in a relatively short period of time. What’s required is patience and commitment.
In the final article of this series, we’ll zoom back out, and try to focus on what the big takeaways are about the contribution of the legs. To simplify our approach to helping swimmers improve, we need to decide what is really important, and what we need to do create change that results in fast swimming.