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Triathletes Don’t Need to Kick, Right?

Open Water Swim Triathlon Kick

I have heard it many times over ‘I need to save my legs for the bike’ or ‘there’s no point kicking, I wear a wetsuit anyway’ or ‘kicking is just a waste of energy’.  I even know of a triathlon club (which will remain nameless!) that does all its swim sessions with pull-buoys, such is the strength of feeling that freestyle kicking is unnecessary.  

However, all the major swim programmes in the world recognise the value of the freestyle kick, as do all the professional coaches I have met. And, purely on personal observation, those ‘top lane’ swimmers all have a great kick – they may appear not to use it much but that doesn’t mean it is not important.   

The Benefits of a Good Freestyle Kick

There are three main benefits to an effective kick: 

  1. Propulsion
  2. Body position (streamlining)
  3. Rotation, stroke timing, and balance (which I combine as they are all connected)  

Propulsion in Freestyle Kick

This is the most controversial area, as the science is not very conclusive.  A study in 1999 showed that sprint freestylers gained an extra 10% in speed from using their legs.  

But a 2010 study using dry land simulations attributed a relatively massive 37% of propulsion to the legs and 63% to the arms. 

Another researcher Swaine (2015) used some tethered swimmers to show a 31% contribution from the legs – with more from female swimmers than males (that figures, it is always ‘ladies first’ in my lane when we kick!).

It should be borne in mind that these studies tend to be based on sprinters, not long-distance swimmers, where the propulsive forces will be much lower. But, whatever the actual figure is,  it is that legs do make a significant contribution to your forward motion and certainly should not be ignored.

Body Position

There is far more agreement that a good leg kick helps with body position.  You don’t need a raft of people in white coats to tell you that.  When next in the pool just look across at the top lane swimmers.  You will see their legs and hips are noticeably high in the water and streamlined with the rest of their body. They will have their core muscles engaged which enables the swimmer to hold a great streamlined position throughout – like having a skewer through their body and rotating on it like a kebab.

In contrast, many slower swimmers will have sinky legs that create drag and raise the head and chest too high i.e. creating an incline from head to toe rather than a flat streamlined position. Not convinced? Try strapping your ankles together with a large rubber band and you will soon notice the effect!

Freestyle Rotation, Balance, and Stroke Timing

Kicking is an essential component of rotating your body. Without kicking you will tend to drive your body rotation from the shoulders, which requires more energy and ends up with you swimming ‘flatter’.  In contrast, an effective kick from the hip will make rotation feel almost effortless.

That’s not to say any old kick will do here, the timing is important too.  As the hand enters the water the opposite leg should kick down.  I find this timing comes naturally for most people over time, at least once they have developed an effective kick.  So I try not to coach it, unless there is a real problem there.  

The rhythmic kicking of the legs provides an important counterbalance to the arms, allowing you to rotate in a controlled manner.  Without an effective kick, the swimmer can easily become unbalanced in the water and may over-rotate and lose momentum each time they breathe.

open water swim triathlon triathlete kicking while breathing

What is a Good Freestyle Kick Technique?

There are several elements to a good front crawl (freestyle) kick technique. Firstly, the toes need to be pointed so the foot is in a streamlined position. 

Some triathletes, especially those from a strong running background,  really struggle with this and find their feet point down and act as brakes in the water. The toes should also point inwards and may lightly brush together or at least come close.  

It helps to visualize your feet as flippers, you want to maximize the surface area you can push down into the water.  Also, think of your shin as an extension of your foot providing an additional surface area to push the water with (in the same way that your forearm is an extension of your hand in the catch). 

The kick should come from the hips with the core engaged and a little flex in the knee. Again strong runners surfer here, often with far too much bend in the knee.  The feet should remain in a relatively small area, think about kicking in a large bucket, the further you go outside of the bucket the more drag you will create.

When it comes to timing it can be either 2, 4, or 6 beats to every stroke cycle. With 2 beat and 6 beat kicks being the most used.  There is no hard and fast rule here, in fact, many experienced swimmers will change their leg beat according to need. 

They may use a 2 beat stroke for long-distance swims and a 6 beat when sprinting. I tend to see what my swimmers adapt naturally (most commonly a 6 beat kick) and then work with that, rather than trying to force it.  

I have found on very long Open Water swims, especially in a triathlon wetsuit, I change to a 2 beat kick without even thinking about it.    

How to Improve Your Freestyle Kick – The Dreaded Kick Drills

Most triathletes hate kick drills – and I mean HATE!   Of late, I have been introducing more kicking into some sets, and when my athletes see the set I often get a hard Paddington stare right back at me! But I am persevering, little and often is the mantra here with a few lengths kick in each set

These are my top 3 drills to improve your freestyle kick:

1. Vertical Kick

It may sound odd but a kick that doesn’t go anywhere can really help. Get in the deep end and initially support yourself on the side.  Start with one leg and kick slowly with pointed toes from the hip – think ballet dancer!  Then when confident, let go of the side and kick with both legs to hold yourself up.  Start with 10 seconds and rest and gradually build up the time.  You can vary this drill with arms up out of the water and trying to get yourself higher. 

2. Torpedo Drill  

This is essentially kicking underwater in a streamlined position with the head down.  All swim programmes have one of these but they do vary: Swim Smooth, for example, have the arms out front, one on top of the other, Total Immersion Swimming prefer the arms in line with the shoulders, and Swimming Secrets prefers the arms by the side (oops..I may have let slip one of his secrets!). 

I tend to opt for the Swim Smooth version – I find it easier, but there is no harm in incorporating all of them in your sets.

Torpedo on back. I love this drill.  The reason is it immediately shows the good kickers from the bad.  If you kick from the knee you will instantly see your thighs and knees coming out of the water. It is also fairly easy to correct as the swimmer can see the effect instantly and then start kicking from the hip.  When you do that you can actually feel your core muscles working by putting your hand on your abdomen.

A favorite of mine is alternating lengths of front torpedo/back torpedo and then alternate with swimming.  This set of drills will start to embed the improved kick into the stroke. For example;

  • 4 x Alt Front Torpedo/Back
  • 4 x Alt Back Torpedo/FC Swim
  • 4 x Alt Front Torpedo/Swim   

3. Kicking with Swim Fins

Swim fins again tend to divide swim coaches.  Some love them, others never touch them. I tend to steer a middle course and use them sparingly.  I find they are particularly effective with swimmers that struggle to point the toes.  The fins force the ankle into a more pointed position and encourage kicking from the hip.  It is actually very difficult not to kick from the hip with fins on!  Again a few lengths per set is ideal, and gradually weaning yourself off them as your kick develops. 

But I Need My Legs for the Bike?

True!  You do. But firstly you will be using different muscles and secondly, you should not be putting a huge amount of effort into your kick.  Once you have worked on it and you are kicking effectively, you should be able to get into a gentle ‘tick over’ mode, providing all the benefits without a huge cost.  

I tell my athletes to work their legs at an effort of 8 out of 10 when doing drills and a 2 out of 10 when swimming. This level of effort can be sustained for a long time and will not tire the legs.  So put the hours in and then reap the rewards in that Ironman swim!

If you think your kick needs work, then I highly recommend some professional swimming video analysis.

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Triathlon Swim Coach Rich Parker FitVisual
Rich Parker
Swim Coach at FitVisual | Website

A competitive swimmer and triathlete in his own right, Rich Parker is a swim coach who specializes in Sprint and Olympic distance triathletes and open water swimmers. He's earned numerous podium placements at age group events and has taken part in distance races like the Fastest Mixed Team Channel Relay of 2021. Rich's coaching credentials include British Triathlon Level II, Swim England Open Water Level II, and British Cycling Level I. Learn more about Rich.