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by Richard Garza

September 24, 2018

The secret to elite-level triathlon performance

If you’re a triathlete, you might think the title of this article is silly. “Oh, brother, another swim coach who wants to convince me, a triathlete, to kick during the swim. What do they know about triathlons?”

Is kicking harder than an easy two-beat kick during the swim leg of a tri a terrible idea? Yes, it’s a terrible idea. About 3 percent of the distance covered in an Olympic-distance triathlon is in the water. You need to save your legs for the other 97 percent of the race.

But does that mean you shouldn’t learn how to kick?

No. This is where the elite separate themselves from everyone else. Not only is learning how to kick vital to your swimming performance, it’s one of the key ingredients in helping you improve your whole triathlon.

Although only about 10 to 15 percent of your entire triathlon is spent in the water, kicking is one of the things that can make time in the pool worth it. The benefits of swimming and learning to kick properly are not isolated to the swim—the improvements cross over to the bike and run as well.

The goal of this article is to teach you that you must learn how to kick, so you know how not to.

Why You Should Learn to Kick

As a triathlete, you might be tempted to resort to your strength when learning to swim—your strong and powerful legs. However, if you overuse your legs—keeping them engaged and stiff as you try to overpower the kick—they’ll end up slowing you down.

Swimming isn’t a skill that improves by going harder and stronger—it’s exactly the opposite. The main goal should be to learn how to swim along the surface with style and economy of motion. Once this is achieved, the swim can become a warm-up for the rest of the race, instead of something that makes you feel like you’re about to enter an anxiety-inducing washing machine.

Working on your kick is going to teach you how to relax your leg muscles and how to activate them only at the most productive moments of your stroke, making sure there’s zero energy wasted. Kicking is also something you can do every day without the wear and tear that comes with land exercise.

The goal of this training is for your body to respond to the higher levels of stress you experience by swimming and kicking harder than the two-beat kick you use during a tri. This means your base level of fitness will increase more than it would with only bike and run training, and your legs will be more powerful and more efficient at using oxygen.

How to Kick Properly

Your legs shouldn’t always be engaged. There are points during the kick cycle that some muscles are engaged, but the rest are completely relaxed. If all your leg muscles are tight, you’re doing it wrong. Here’s how to kick properly:

  • Start your kick with a straight leg, with the knee of the kicking leg higher (closer to the surface of the water) than the shoulder-to-hip line.
  • Your knee should be relaxed. Start driving your knee forward (toward the bottom of the pool) by engaging your hip flexor. This is the only point in the kick where it’s OK to bend your knee.
  • Once your knee is slightly below the shoulder-to-hip line (closer to the bottom of the pool), your knee needs to stay put. This is when you engage your quadriceps and straighten out your leg. It’s important that your knee stays in the same place relative to your hips and torso while your leg straightens. This action will place pressure on the front of your ankle and foot, and that’s what propels you forward. If your knee snaps back while you’re straightening out your leg, your quads are weak, and the distance your foot has traveled will be minimal. You won’t have much propulsion.
  • Now that you’ve followed through straightening out your leg, engage your glutes and upper thigh muscles to recover the leg back to the starting position at the surface.

That’s what your legs should do during the kick cycle. But it’s also important to point out what your legs should not do:

  • Your legs shouldn’t move in a circular motion as they would in running or cycling. It’s more whip-like, and the movement starts in the hips.
  • The bend in your knee comes from driving your knee forward, not from the back of the thigh. At this point, the back of your leg is relaxed.
  • As your leg straightens out and pressure is applied to the front of your ankle and foot, your ankle is completely relaxed. Your foot will be pointed from the water pressure alone, not from you actively pointing your foot. If you’re doing this correctly, you’ll feel some stretching and slight soreness on the top of your ankle.
  • Once your leg is straight, it starts to recover to the starting position, and your knee and quads are relaxed. The leg will stay straight because of the water pressure against the back of your calf muscle. Don’t bend the knee during the recovery and don’t bring your heel toward your glutes. Remember, this is kicking, not running.
  • During the entire kick cycle, your calf muscles should never be engaged, and your ankle is always floppy and relaxed. If you’re actively pointing your foot, you’re overusing your legs.

During the kick cycle, the front and back of your thighs take turns being engaged and relaxed. Those are the only muscles needed for a productive kick. Below the knee, everything should be relaxed. Getting to the point where your legs are relaxed and productive during the swim is only possible after you’ve learned how to kick. Be patient and put in the time and technique work. This is something you cannot skip; only conscious practice and consistent work will create the result you’re looking for.

Knowing You Have a Proper Kick

After putting in the time and work on your kick, you’ll discover that swimming has become a lot easier for you. You’ll discover that when you’re relaxed, you swim faster and it’s easier to keep your hips and legs up at the surface. You’ll also start to get a better feel for the water. Your legs won’t burn anymore, and you’ll notice some changes in your biking and running sessions. You’ll be able to keep up with people you couldn’t keep up with before and go for longer training sessions.

On race day, everything you do is a perfect reflection of what you’ve done in training. This isn’t a day for anxiety and lucky charms; this is a day to celebrate all your hard work and sacrifice. Practice is for the mental work, the tough work, the grind. Race day is for turning your brain off and enjoying.


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