~By Nate McBride
While we are on the topic of unpopular things to do, (see my last post on butterfly), I have been doing a lot of thinking about kicking in the last few months. I have always been as much as an avid fan of kicking as my swimmers have been unhappy with doing it. With previous clubs I have worked at, I tried to incorporate it into the program but found that there are two kinds of resistance: those that are not good at it and so refuse to do it and therefore do not get better at it, and those who don't like to do it because it cuts into their yardage total. The ones who did want to do it knowing it would make them better, did not get it enough.
I think it is a dilemma many coaches face. Similar to balancing the needs of swimmers who require different stroke training, balancing the needs of drill vs, work vs. kick can be a daunting task, especially at the Masters level. I have read a significant number of articles in recent years about coaches who use words like "squeeze in" and "plan carefully" when it comes to talking about kick sets in relation to the season. It is clear that time and time again, kick proves to be the deciding factor in races. Grant Hackett set another world record this past week but I would wager his famous 8 beat kick was there. No one has been trying to emulate Janet Evans' windmill stroke for her world record swims, but it was her kick that made those records stick for so long. Anyone pay attention to Weber-Gale at Trials? I tried to count but I think it was almost a 12 beat kick! And so on and so on.
In March, the NY Times had an article on Ryan Lochte - find it here - Lochte, the other American household name for Men's swimming, spoke out about the importance of kicking. Coach Chris Davis, from Swim Atlanta, gave an awesome talk at the 2007 ASCA World Clinic in which he discussed the training methods of Amanda Weir. Specifically he discussed how critical it was to develop Amanda's kick and how much time they spent on developing her kick. One thing he mentioned was shoe training which is something my swimmer's have been doing for years. For some it is twice a year for a few weeks and for others it is much longer (we have 5 swimmers now who are in the final week of a 6 week shoe period - they wear shoes every day for full workout). Swimming with shoes makes such a dramatic difference in kicking right away. That along with an average of 40% pure kicking each week, and we are seeing PR's smashed left and right. There are so many other articles in the last few years - all with the same underlying message - kicking works.
Kicking properly is important and we teach the "subtlety" of kicking at my club. The primary rule of kicking: Legs should never look as dramatic as the feet. That image helps the swimmers tremendously. I also give them another of my favorite images which is imagining your foot is hanging on to your leg by one single tendon. That is how floppy and loose you want it to be. Coaches - find creative ways to get more kick in, Swimmers - demand more kick and if you don't get it from your program, take 10 minutes at the end of each workout to do 5 x 100 kick on 2:00 or something similar. Every little bit WILL help.
Here is a recent set we did (with shoes) - Workout ID: 1266
Note: Nate McBride had been a competitive swimmer for over 29 years and has been coaching for 16. He is currently the Head Coach of West Side Swim Club in Sudbury, Massachusetts.
I would tend to agree with almost all of this. KIcking is a large part of speed but how much is critical and also there is a technique to kicking as Coach Nate points out. There are also certain genetic advantages some folks have that others do not. Ryan for example (known him since he was in HS as I coach a a rival HS) has a pretty pronounced hyperextension of his legs and size 13 feet. I heard a stat once from another coach so I cannot vouch completely for the veracity of this but I was told that somewhere in the neighborhood of 80% of the world class athletes have this same trait (hyperextended knees). Gary Hall for example and several others that I know from this area (Flordia) that are trials qualifiers are the same way. Can everyone benefit from kicking at practice regularly? Absolutely! I have always had a weak kick but I have been working on it and can feel the difference! The degree to which a coach or athlete commits time to a particular thing just depends on the athlete though. Some would benefit more from more drills and stroke work first in conjuction with a more moderate amount of kicking. Unfortunately most of us have limited training time (work, family, messing around on the computer) and must prioritize what aspects of swimming we work on in what sequence. Kicking is up there for me at the moment but I used to hate it. Slowly but surely, I am making progress.
I am going to try and dig up an old article I have on the hyper-extension theory as I have also read that. I have found and also discussed at length with PT's that people who run regularly, or more than regularly, are at a disadvantage because the tendons on the top of the feet tend to get tighter the more you run. It is both a defensive mechanism for the body and a way to ensure strong running. The problem is, you can pick out the runners right away in a workout during a kick set as their feet/ankle/calf are locked. Pretty much frozen up so they end up kicking water up and down as opposed to away. We spend a lot of time just trying to get those suckers to loosen up. My sacrifice to these swimmers is the drill. We try to incorporate more of it into warmup swims and in larger stroke workouts so that we can get the kick in. I am absolutely convinced that that extra kick time will help. Gotta keep the balance though...
As a side note, there was an article about Natalie Coughlin in the New Yorker back in 2004, (reprint is here - http://projects.seas.gwu.edu/~fsagmae/Swim%20Pages/NewYorker.htm)
There is one particular section about when she went to swim with Teri McKeever during her shoulder injury at Cal. I have always loved this section of that article:
"But there is also, famously, the Natalie Coughlin kick. Coughlin's miserable injury year, as it turned out, delivered her to Cal with the most aggressively practiced kick in American swimming. She has tremendous lung capacity-when she was nine, and ill with bronchitis, her X-rays showed such oversized lungs that technicians initially told her mother that there must have been a mixup in the files-and McKeever began working with her on the best way to develop the kick and her breath control to maximum effect, especially during the strategically crucial underwater segment permitted at the start of each lap."
Good to all of that. I have looked at a lot of video from different training sessions of elite and not so elite swimmers and I believe that extra little bit of hyperextension when used properly provides a distinct advantage.
The biggest problem I see with runners and kicking is ankle flexibility as well. With my more willing athletes, we work a lot on that flexibility. That flexibility also benefits cyclists (more watts can be generated with a dynamic range of motion) and triathletes although with the latter there needs to be a more comprehensive stretching routine for that area after running and track workouts.
The only other issue that I personally run into that has made my kicking progress so slow is that after 50 or more miles on the bike in the morning, the last thing I want to do is a rigorous kick set (cramps, fatigue, swearing). Nonetheless, the work still needs to be done.
Thanks, Coach Nate for another interesting article. Kicking with shoes. Very interesting. I may try that.
I also found the information about runners interesting as well. I’ve been beating myself up over the fact that I can’t run well. I get shin splints regardless of whether I stretch or ice afterwards. I thought that running would improve my swimming. I just took it for granted that runners have stronger legs, which equates to a stronger kick. Not necessarily so. I’ll stop beating myself up over the fact that running just isn’t my thing and put more emphasis on my kick sets. Thanks again. I enjoy your articles.
Thanks Judi. Swimming and running both complement each other very well for just a vast number of reasons. However, there is no correlation between running fast and kicking fast. Point of fact, I have several elite runners on my team who can barely kick a 100 under 2m. They just try to muscle their way through it as opposed to the more subtle finesse motion of undulation and snapping of the ankle. Shoes help tremendously with that motion and with making those ankles more flexible. We also do a TON of vertical flutter and fly kick. Every practice starts with ~5 min of Vertical kick. We teach very high frequency kick with the lowest amplitude this way. Then I have them throw snorkels on so they can watch their legs while they do it. Works very well!
The warm feeling I get when someone is thoughtful enough to say thank you for having been helped far outweighs the empty one I get when there's no feedback at all.