Choose the kick rate that works best with your experience level and style, says Paul Newsome.
This may come as a surprise, but as a triathlete you’re not looking to get much or any propulsion from your leg kick. Elite freestyle swimmers with world-class kicks only get a small fraction of their propulsion from their legs (about 10-15%). With their limited flexibility and lower levels of fitness, most amateur swimmers and triathletes get next to no propulsion from their kick. So, should you ignore your kick? No, far from it. It is still important to focus on your kick technique to give you a good high body position in the water with minimum energy expenditure.
Use a six-beat kick
A six-beat kick is six kicks per full arm stroke cycle. This is a traditional flutter kick technique that most swimmers use. If you simply think about lightly fluttering your feet behind you, the action will lift your body high in the water. The power in the kick can be varied dramatically: you can use a very light kick to swim long distances economically, or increase the power dramatically in a sprint.
…Or a two-beat kick
A two-beat kick is much slower, where you kick twice for every arm stroke cycle – so for every two arm strokes there are two kicks. When performed well, the legs don’t pulse kick like a six beat kick but switch between the upper and lower positions. A two beat kick doesn’t generate much propulsion, but it does help drive your body rotation, which in turn drives the arm stroke.
A two-beat kick only suits swimmers with good body position in the water who already have a well developed catch technique and a strong stroke rhythm. Stick with a light six-beat flutter kick unless these areas of your stroke are already well developed, or you will decelerate between strokes and become slower and less efficient overall.
…Or use a four-beat kick
The four-beat kick is really a six-beat kick where the swimmer drops out two of the kicks to reduce the kicking effort slightly. This tends to happen naturally with some swimmers. The exact timing of the kick varies from individual swimmer to individual swimmer, and is normally used by those swimmers with a powerful arm stroke who pulse the kick as they rotate their body from one side to the other.
Decide which is right for you
For novices and most intermediates we suggest you stick with a light six-beat flutter kick, which is just strong enough to bring your legs higher in the water. Despite some of your energy going into the kick, this will reduce your overall effort level as the higher position reduces the drag of your body dramatically. The important thing is to make sure you are kicking efficiently, which means kicking from the hip with pointed toes turned in slightly (pigeon-toed). To assist with this, focus on the big toes lightly brushing each other as they pass with a regular tap-tap-tap feeling. Make sure you are not bending significantly through the knee as you kick – this creates a lot of drag.
Advanced swimmers can experiment with different timing to see what works best. The key to two-beat kick timing is to ensure that as your hand enters the water at the front of the stroke, the opposite leg kicks down. So as your left arm enters, the right leg kicks and vice versa. This takes some coordination and getting used to.
Paul Newsome is founder and head coach of Swim Smooth.
Team Talk: Starting Out
“Before you can even start to worry about kick timing, you need to make sure your kick isn’t actually slowing you down; you need to be horizontal in the water. If your legs sink, think about pushing your chest down rather than kicking your legs higher – the latter will tend to result in bent knees and drag.”
Liz Hufton, Triathlon Plus Editor