Kick tempo for open water swimmers

by Claire Richardson, Head Coach @ Surf Swim School

There is often much discussion around kicking tempo and for the novice open water swimmer it can be incredibly confusing. Kick is vital for our success in distance races but how can we use it effectively over middle and long distance events?

First, let’s remind ourselves of why we need to kick. Is it for propulsion or stability? The answer is both! Although the amount of propulsion we will gain from our kick is low, between 5-10% with the rest of the propulsive phase being generated by the arms. However, before throw away your kick board and buy a bigger set of paddles, it’s worth remembering that your kick is a vital component of your swimming stroke. The real value of an effective kick is in stabilising the body. Without an effective kick your legs and hips will drop to a suboptimal position, causing more drag and resistance, which means you’ll have to work harder!

What is the difference between kicking tempos and when to use them?

Kicking tempo refers to the number of kicks per arm stroke, known as beats. In a two-beat kick there is one leg kick for each arm stroke where the downbeat coincides with the start of the propulsive phase of the arm stroke on the same side. A two-beat kick is often used by open water swimmers for the majority of the race as it conserves energy for the upper body and the slower tempo fits with the natural rhythm of a distance stroke.

A four-beat kick means there are two leg kicks for each arm stroke. The first occurs on entry/set-up of the stroke and the second is at the start of the propulsive phase. A four-beat kick is often used by open water swimmers when the pace picks up, or if you naturally have a faster arm tempo as a four-beat kick is a more natural cadence.

During the very first part of the race, or for the very last sprint a strong six-beat kick is common. This is where there are three leg kicks for each arm stroke. The additional kick beat occurs during the recovery phase of the stroke.

Common kicking mistakes

Bending the knee too much – this often causes a ‘bicycle kick’ which visually resembles the action used when cycling! When you bend your knee too much the back of your lower leg (calf) will move forwards rather than upwards. This will push water forwards rather than down which interferes with your stroke, disrupts your alignment and diminishes the propulsion.

A large kick can also increase drag. Your kick will be most effective if it neither breaks the surface of the water nor moves below the line the body.

How to improve your kick?

Incorporate some kicking drills into your pool training sets. Practice the different kicking beats and don’t forget to try slowing everything down! When we are going at our slowest our ability/inability to balance ourselves in water will be highlighted. Over 8 x 25m of kick you can vary your kick tempo per 25m and try to become body-aware in the water. Feel when your legs start to drop, if your kick is too large, or if your feet are breaking through the surface of the water on the upbeat.

It’s definitely worth the effort to practice!

click to read more about the biomechanics of competitive swimming stokes

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