Bridging the Gap: Do we forget kick in land work?
Updated: Apr 8, 2020
For a while now coaches all over the world have spoken of how important it is for any swimmer to have a good leg kick. It helps maintain body position in the water as well as controlling pace when racing. In freestyle a solid leg kick is an essential ingredient in any swimmer's arsenal. As a coach I recognise that kick technique and to be able to kick fast is crucial. As a result I run a max/speed kick set for my squad every week. This is a set devoted to kicking fast over short, sharp distances, perhaps pushing it to a 50/100 to build some endurance every now and then. Every coach will know that when we run a kick set in training the normal lane order goes straight out the window. We all have swimmers who can kick super quick but swim slow, we certainly have swimmers who couldn't kick fast enough to escape a cat that has fallen into the water and perhaps most puzzling of all; swimmers who can kick fast with fins but revert to a snail's pace when removing them. In this post I want to share my experience on swimmers who struggle to kick fast and also throw out a possible solution as to how we can solve it. 1) I want to start by talking about effort. It is easy to assume that the reason certain swimmers don't kick fast is because they lack effort. In some cases this may be true that a swimmer hates kick and as a result slacks off during the set. However, I refuse to believe this is as common an occurrence as some may think. I have seen swimmers busting a gut during kick sets and still unable to move any water with their feet. So if a swimmer is putting in effort and still not being able to kick fast, one has to look at how the swimmer is actually kicking. Are they moving their body in a way that maximises the water they can move with their feet or do they move in a fashion that limits the volume of water they can move. I have been coaching a lad who had this exact problem. It was clear he was putting in effort when we did speed kick sets and while barefoot kicking he was behind the rest of the squad b with fins he was always ahead of the pack. Myself and a coaching colleague who I work with on a weekly basis asked ourselves, "What was different about his kick with and without fins. What did the fins give to him that he couldn't do with bare feet?" Everyone knows that a good freestyle kick comes from the hip. Hip flexion and extension causes the whole leg to move resulting in movement of the water to give propulsion. As a consequence when kicking fast you should be able to feel it in your hip flexors. Another key point for a good freestyle kick is that our feet should be acting as an extension of the leg, therefore our ankles should be plantar flexed (pointed feet) to increase the surface area available to move water. This will cause the tops of the feet to ache as well as the bridge between the ankle and the foot to ache too. So, back to the story... We asked the boy where he could feel an ache after kicking fast. Of course, he felt the staple hip flexor ache however he did not feel anything in his ankles. This prompted us to take a closer look at the position of his feet when he was kicking, both with and without fins. What we noticed was that he was incapable of pointing his feet correctly. When he was kicking his feet were pointing slightly downwards. This would have decreased the surface area available to kick the water and as a result made his kick slower. This was negated by the use of fins as the pressure of the water on the fin forces the ankle to flex and increases surface area. We had found that a restriction in the ankles was preventing a correct kick technique. To try to solve it we set about looking for some ankle flexibility exercises to help increase the range of movement available at the swimmer's ankle. British Swimming and Swim England have some great resources available for this. There are many exercises that work but the one that we chose to use was sitting on ankles. I have attached a picture below. We chose this one because it is an easy exercise for young swimmers and can be done pretty much anywhere; on poolside, in the gym, or in front of the TV. The aim of the exercise is the stretch the muscles and tendons on the front of the ankle and foot in order to lengthen them. This will increase flexibility and lead to the swimmer being capable of kicking correctly.
2) It is important to highlight here that the land work alone will not solve the issue. You should really prompt the swimmer to think about pointing their feet when kicking and because this will be a change in technique it may take some time to become permanent. After a week or two of ankle flexibility work at home and before pool sessions the swimmer I have been talking about dropped over 10 seconds on 100m kick (no fins). This really shows how important flexibility is for swimmers and just how vital a good, consistent land work program is even for young swimmers. As a lot of faults can fixed on land during pre-pool or land work sessions. I hope this post has been useful, feel free to comment with your thoughts below!