How to Kick Properly While Swimming Freestyle
Contrary to belief, the legs play a large role in many aspects of the swim stroke. People always tell you that swimming is a great full-body workout, and they are not kidding. The legs are two very large parts of your body that you shouldn't neglect.
We want to share with you why we believe it is so important, the errors we often see and the focus points you should always keep in mind to get you kicking properly and moving through the water efficiently.
The Importance of Kicking in Swimming
Most of us assume the legs play a small role in propulsion through the water, and in a way, this is true. Powerful swimming is much more dependent on the upper body for propulsion; however, the kick is very important for fast swimming for four reasons: propulsion, inertia, lift and stability.
Propulsion & Intertia: Although about 10-15% of propulsion is from the legs, your legs are made up of some large muscles, and you shouldn’t ignore them (not to mention your kick is also connected to both your hips and core). While practicing, you should always include a kick to take some of the burden off of your upper body; you don’t want to be dragging the bottom half of your body for thousands of yards. A steady kick will also do a lot to keep your body in a straight line and moving smoothly, minimizing “snaking:” a result of too much upper body movement left to right. This is where inertia comes in. A consistent kick can help sustain your speed closer to constant; swimming is all about keeping momentum going. Think of it this way, it is much less economical to drive in stop-and-go traffic, with the RPM’s going up and down. It is much better for gas mileage to maintain an average speed and stick to it at low RPMs.
Lift: If you’re not thinking about your legs, they are most likely pretty low in the water, creating a significant amount of drag. Incorporating a kick while keeping your body at equilibrium with the surface of the water will do a lot to reduce drag, save energy and ultimately increase your speed.
What can help with leg lift is pressing your upper body down a bit in the water. Your lungs are two very large bouys; if you are lifting your chin and chest, your legs drop, if you "press your bouy," your legs will come up. Don't go dunking your upper body into the water - that creates a lot of drag as well - we just want you to understand that concept.
Stability: The kick does a lot to support the body’s proper movement in the water. Since we should be rotating – pivoting from the hips – most kicking happens to the side rather than straight down. As a result this will cause a counter-rotation of the body with a more powerful kick, which happens at the end of each arm pull on the same side of that kick.
So these are the reasons why kicking is so important. We would now like to share how that all becomes irrelevant with three common kicking errors.
Kicking: The Wrong Way
We want to share with you all what we see in the water with our Youth swimmers, our Adult swimmers, and everyone else in between. Learning from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others is the fastest way to improve.
Kicking With Bent Knees
We see this far too often, whether it is during Freestyle or Backstroke, and we cringe at the sight of it. The reason we dislike it so much is because of the large amounts of drag it creates. When you start bending so much at the knee you just start pulling your legs along for the ride. Even worse, your legs will sink low in the water, adding even more dead weight for you to lug around. Think of your bent leg as the keel of a boat, but rotated 90 degrees; that’s not going to help in terms of moving forward.
Triathletes, this can be even more problematic for you. Due to the fact that cycling and running involve so much power coming from the knee, it is common for this habit to translate into the water.
Kicking With Rigid Ankles
This is another high-drag aspect of improper kicking, and it gets worse. Think of it this way, if a speed-boat all of a sudden deployed two steel panels off of the stern, that boat would probably lose its “speed” prefix. Why? Same reason your knee creates drag. Your forefoot is creating that same rotated-keel effect your knee does. But this is how it gets worse: your exposed forefoot is kicking water forwards, in the wrong direction. This creates negative propulsion! Don’t pull yourself backwards; you’re working hard enough already. If anything just buy a drag suit.
Letting the Legs Separate and Scissor
A scissor kick is when a swimmer creates a very large opening between the legs, usually in a sideways position, and it happens often when a swimmer takes a breath.
Why is this bad for your stroke? You guessed it: drag. Opening your legs up that much creates an immense amount of drag, and usually disrupts your body position and rhythm. When the scissor kick happens during a breath, that swimmer typically slows down, drops down a bit in the water and loses the momentum they had and the upper body has to work harder to get them going again; like we said, swimming is all about momentum.
Kicking: The Right Way
Your kick should be helping you move through the water more smoothly, not act as an anchor. We want to share with you a few focus points to keep in mind when thinking about your kick.
Focus on the Hips
Your kick should really start at the hips. While you are kicking you should be squeezing your glutes - don't pull a muscle now, just keep everything connected. Drive the kick from the hips and let it transfer to the thighs, then to the lower leg and finally to the feet; think of it as a whipping motion.
A lot of the swim stroke comes from the hips, not just the kick. The hips are also responsible for body rotation in the water. When the core is connected, they also rotate the shoulders at the same time. Your hips set up the whole stroke; when the hand enters the water, moves through the water and leaves the water during the follow through.
Legs Relatively Straight
What we mean by “relatively” straight is that your knee can slightly bend on the down stroke (naturally), but that bend should not be a conscious effort. Don’t think about bending your knee at all; as we mentioned above, think about kicking from your hips and the rest will happen naturally.
Point the Toes
We don’t want you taking this too literally and getting constant foot cramps as a result. We just want your foot to bend straight or beyond. You should keep your toes pointed because you’ll have a much lower profile in the water, reducing your drag.
We don’t usually think about the timing of our kick while swimming, most of us think of the arms and the legs as completely independent. However, there is a way: when the hand enters the water, the opposite leg should kick; when your hand is about to leave the water (during the follow through) the same leg should kick. You can have a 2, 4 or 6 beat kick per stroke cycle, but the important thing to remember is to get the timing right at the catch and the finish.
For a 2-beat kick, you should kick each time a hand enters the water. With a 4-beat kick, you take two kicks per stroke. With a 6-beat kick you take 3 kicks per stroke.
Triathletes and distance swimmers: it is probably best for you to practice a 2-beat kick. This is the most energy efficient after settling down from the start.
We recommend doing what feels right for you. For some the correct kick timing happens naturally so don’t think too hard about it. Also don’t go changing your kick and your rhythm if you haven’t gotten the other focus points down; those two aspects of the kick are much more important.
So there you have it folks: kicking 101. Next time you are in the pool, think about the wrongs of kicking and see whether you are hitting on any of them. At the same time keep the focus points for proper kicking in mind. The more often you keep these things in mind, the faster you will improve.
If you are still not sure about your kicking and if you would like to have a coach work with you, do not hesitate to Request a Free Aquatic Evaluation with us. We would love to get your legs moving the way they should be and your stroke as efficient as possible!