Give your Swim a Kick in the Pants

Give your Swim a Kick in the Pants

Oftentimes the kick is the last piece of technique the swimmer will think about.  The competitive swimmer will spend a majority of their practice time focusing on the kick because the coach knows how much a quality, supportive kick will add to the stroke.  On the other hand, most triathletes avoid working on the kick like it’s the plague thinking that if they use a strong kick it will detract from the rest of their event.  On the contrary, a proper kick will help support the stroke, decrease drag, contribute to the power, and help push you forward through the breath.  This post will focus on the freestyle kick.


The power from your kick should be drawn from the core, through the hips, travel down the leg, and all the way to the foot.  To generate power from the core and hips, the hips should lead the rotation of the stroke (not the shoulders).  The whole straight leg should be used for the kick with a soft knee so the leg looks like the swim of a dolphin.  Short swims can put all the power into the legs you can spare but distance swimmers should concentrate on the feet staying in the water, a strong kick on the switch, and balancing kicks in between the switches.  Think about the power being on the downward motion of the leg.  Your leg will automatically want to rise up.

Balancing Kicks

The most common number of balancing kicks are 2, 4, or 6, depending on your comfort level.  So, go for power from the hips and core on the switch, and then balancing kicks on the 2, 4, or 6 counts in between.  Make sure that the balance of the stroke stays with the core and the hips and does not transfer to the legs. Typically, triathletes with a strong background in biking and running tend to try to balance their stroke with their legs.  This mistake slows you down so you should keep the legs in your body line.

Staying in the Body Line

When we talked about “Eliminate Drag in your Freestyle Stroke” we discussed the legs staying in the body line to reduce drag.  If your legs go outside your body you are not only creating drag and slowing yourself down in the swim but you are not using your legs to the efficiency and power they can generate.  Athletes with a biking background will tend to kick out as if bicycling in the water and runners will tend to kick from the knee down. For more information on this topic, please see the post “Eliminate Drag in your Freestyle Stroke”.

Power Generating Drills

We covered some power generating drills when we talked about “Making Breathing Easier” but one we didn’t cover there was the Sailboat Drill.  For this drill, stop your recovery arm with the elbow up, hand and forearm down, like the sail of a boat; have your hip start to rotate the core and body, then have the arm and shoulder follow the hip.  When you “get” the drill correct, you should feel a surge forward from the power generated with the core and hip.

Kick Only Sets

When doing kick only sets in your workouts, swim teams will use kickboards to isolate the kick.  I always recommend triathletes go into the streamline position – stretch tall with your hands stacked one on top of another and your arms extended over your head.  When you need to breathe, you can roll to your side or you can take one freestyle stroke, breathe, and return to the streamline position.


 Fins are a great tool to use when doing kick only sets.  Not only will the fins make you faster, but they will allow you to feel what your legs are doing in the water, especially if you don’t have the use of mirrors or a video.  When you use the fins, pay attention to the proper form, described above, and really emphasize the downward motion of the legs.  Fins can be used with the full stroke also.  In this case, really pay attention to how your legs feel during your stroke.  Are you using all the power you can during your kick or just dragging your legs along?

A swim band used around the ankles is a great way to feel when your legs want to leave your body line.  You should still kick when using the swim band but engage your core and glutes to help keep your legs up.  The more your legs are sinking, the more you are likely using your legs to balance your stroke.  Many open water swimmers rely on the wetsuit to help keep their legs up and then cause drag on all the swims that don’t use the wetsuit.  The swim band will help you get that feel for the water with a tight kick that engages the glutes and core.

As with any tool, you should use the tool and then put it to the side and see if you can make your regular stroke feel as good as it did with the tool.

Race Situations

For most distance athletes, their kick will be minimal during most of the swim but I do suggest doing some active kicking at strategic points on the open water course:

  • After you settle into your race pace to keep the blood flowing,
  • When you want to pass someone,
  • When you want to get around the buoys,
  • At the half way point of the race to wake up the legs, and
  • The most supportive kick you have at the end of the swim to really get the blood flowing and the legs woken up to stand up, get to transition, and hop on the bike (if you’re a triathlete)

Developing a good, strong, supportive kick will help to push you forward in the water, keep you moving through the breath, and help your legs be ready for the next challenge.  If I can do anything to help you in this area or with any part of your swim, please email me at