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Technique and Training

Kick Timing 101

Discover untapped power in an often-overlooked aspect of freestyle

Stuart McDougal | January 16, 2015

Kick timing is an important but often-overlooked aspect of freestyle. But when your swimmers find the right kick pattern, they can tap into previously unavailable core power to push themselves forward.

I usually describe kick timing to swimmers by comparing it to the more familiar, upright, terra firma counterparts of walking, jogging, or running. When you’re walking or running, as your left leg swings forward your right arm swings forward as counterbalance. The same is true for the opposite side: when the right leg swings forward, the left arm also swings forward. We’ve acquired this instinctive diagonal timing since taking our first steps as infants.

But put a human in a horizontal position in an aquatic environment and the instinctive diagonal left-right/right-left sync is fleeting or disappears altogether. Worse, swimmers isolating their legs only by using a kickboard or arms only when using a pull-buoy further disengage the core and coordination of their arm strokes with leg kicks. Legs and arms are not mutually exclusive departments and must be trained to work together, not independently. Engaging the core’s large muscle groups requires syncing the arms and legs—no sync, no core, and none of the power that comes with that synchronicity.

Often, I see swimmers kicking on the wrong leg, which inhibits the momentum that is generated from the body’s rotation. It’s as if the swimmer has separate departments: arms-only or legs-only. I characterize swimmers with an untimed or out-of-time kick as zombie or camel swimmers. They’re easy to spot with their busy, kicking legs and splashing arms, flat swimming, and unstable body position. More often than not, this swimmer is kicking down on the same side as the forward spearing arm, much like a camel lunges forward from side to side as it moves across the Sahara.

When working with your swimmers to improve their kick timing, you may want to use the strategies below for describing two- four- and six-beat kick patterns. And remember, count the kick as it snaps down, not up, as you would if you were running and counting foot strikes—the foot strike happens immediately after the leg swings forward, not when it swings back on recovery.

Counting Two-, Four, and Six-Beat Kicking Patterns

Regardless of whether your swimmer prefers to use a two-, four-, or six-beat kick, one downward kick should always be timed with the recovery of the opposite arm as it slices in to forward extension. This will aid both rotation and help the swimmer drive his momentum forward.

  • Six-beat kick: You can think of this common kick pattern as being similar to the timing of a waltz: Count “One-two-three—one-two-three” or “Right-two-three—left-two-three” and so on. In short, your swimmer should complete six kicks per stroke cycle or three kicks per single arm stroke. The first kick is down, timed with the opposite recovery arm spearing to forward extension. So, in this pattern, the right leg kicks down (one) and rotates the torso to the left skating edge, which is followed by a downward kick on the left side (two). The third beat comes with the right leg kicking down (three), then the left leg kicks down (one). Next, the torso rotates to the right skating edge, which is followed by another downward right kick (two) and finally a downward left kick (three). That’s one complete six-beat kick cycle.
  • Four-beat kick: The four-beat kick pattern has the same timing as the six-beat kick but uses two fewer kicks. But unlike its six-beat counterpart, the four-beat kick is asymmetrical, with three kicks on one side and one kick on the other side making a total of four kicks per stroke cycle. This pattern would sound like, “One-two-three-one—One-two-three-one.” The first kick aids rotation. As the right leg kicks downward (one), the torso rotates to the left skating edge, which is then followed by a left kick downward (two) and another right kick down (three). Finally, the cycle completes when the swimmer kicks the left leg downward again on the count one, rotates torso to the right skating edge. That’s one complete four-beat kick cycle.
  • Two-beat kick: The two-beat kick also mimics the timing of the six-beat kick pattern, just with four fewer kicks. As with the six-beat kick pattern, the two-beat kick is symmetrical, but the swimmer takes only a single kick per arm stroke or two kicks per stroke cycle. This is the most economical kick and it’s most similar to walking or running on land. However, this kick pattern requires the most balance of the three patterns since there are no stabilizing kicks between rotational kicks.

The two-beat kick is often used for long distance events. The four- and six-beat kick can be used for virtually any distance. Elite swimmers sometimes change up their kick patterns, depending on the event they’re swimming; Lindsay Benko uses a two-beat kick in the freestyle segment of her 400-meter freestyle. Michael Phelps and Sun Yang use mostly a four-beat kick in their events. Sun Yang also changes his pattern depending on his breathing pattern; he mixes in a two-beat kick when he’s breathing on threes, a four-beat kick when breathing on twos, and finishes the last 100 meters of his 1500-meter freestyle with a six-beat kick.

The choice of which kick to use is personal and swimmers may stick with one pattern or prefer come combination. The key is finding what works best for each individual swimmer and what is sustainable for whatever distance they’re swimming.

Most importantly, the kick is timed with the opposite arm, which aids body rotation and engages the large muscle groups of the core. If you want to swim from your core and get the most power, start by refining your kick timing first.

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About the Author—Stuart McDougal

Stuart McDougal is a USMS Level 3 Coach and a Total Immersion Certified Professional. He is head coach of SoCal Tri Masters in Los Angeles and cofounder of Mind Body and Swim. He got hooked on triathlons with his first open water swim in 2003. Although he still loves triathlon, he now really enjoys long distance swims in San Francisco Bay.

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