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Stroke Technique / Triathlon

Triathletes: Save Your Legs

How to swim smarter to conserve energy for the bike and run

Erica Smith | June 19, 2014

Swimming faster must necessarily begin with swimming smarter. As with most endeavors—physical or otherwise—there's a limit to progress that can be made without continual improvement in technique. When it comes to triathlon, poor technique in swimming has the added consequence of negatively affecting the latter two portions of the race, either or both of which may be the actual specialty of the triathlete. The negative consequence is not only added time, but also poor technique that can cause excessive fatigue, particularly in the legs.

The amount of effort expended in kicking during the swim will impact the level of fatigue the athlete feels, not only the legs, but also the hip flexor muscles. Fatigue in the hip flexors can make for a slow start on the bike. Therefore, the goal should be to minimize the amount of kicking you engage in during the swim by adapting your technique.

It may seem counterintuitive to those with cycling and running backgrounds, but kicking in swimming over a long distance does not add much to overall forward propulsion, particularly if you’re one of the majority of triathletes who experience limited ankle flexibility. A wide-sweep kick to compensate for this will create drag rather than reduce it while significantly contributing to hip flexor fatigue.

So why kick at all?

Kicking in long distance open water swimming serves two purposes: promoting balance and facilitating rotation. These two aims are key to maintaining a steady, consistent freestyle. A narrow small-sweep kick, with feet close together, helps to keep the feet at the surface and maintain balance. This can be achieved with as little as a two-beat kick per stroke cycle, especially while benefitting from the buoyancy of a wetsuit. On the other hand, kicking too wide, outside of a short vertical and horizontal plane, has the same effect as taking a wide step to catch your balance while walking, and again puts unnecessary strain on hip flexors.

The narrow kick also keeps the body in alignment and makes symmetrical rotation possible because torque is generated from the shoulder rotation through the hip. This body position allows for longer strokes, which translates into more distance per stroke and fewer strokes required to cover the swim’s distance. These are the keys to forward propulsion in a long distance open water swim, and less fatigue in the legs.

Toward the end of the swim, it’s a good idea to “wake up" the legs in anticipation for the run out of the water and to the first transition area. Again, this does not mean reverting to a wide-sweep kick, but simply increasing kick cadence, perhaps to a six-beat kick or more for the final 100 to 200 meters of the swim. Even when increasing the kick cadence, be sure that your foot is not fully breaking the surface and that you’re maintaining body balance and rotation. As always, it’s a good idea to practice all new swimming techniques in the pool before attempting in open water. 

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About the Author—Erica Smith

Erica Smith is an open water swimmer and former NCAA All-American swimmer. She's currently an assistant coach for the men's and women's swim teams at Eastern Michigan University, where she's working toward a masters degree in exercise physiology. Erica owns and operates BuoyantSwim, a triathlon swim clinic series in southeast Michigan.

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