What Kind of Kick Should I Use?

Last week we posted an article by distance swimmer Don Walsh, and I’ve received a few e-mail questions about Don’s kick. How does he go so far without kicking? And why doesn’t he kick more? The answer for Don is simple. He doesn’t kick much because… 1) he’s so balanced he doesn’t need to, and 2) he can conserve huge amounts of energy by minimizing his kick. How else would it be possible to do the 30-mile swims he enjoys?

One reader asked about variations in the flutter kick, i.e., what’s the difference between a 2-beat, a 4-beat, and a 6-beat kick, and when should use each of them. Here’s an overview…
Don Walsh uses a 2-beat kick, which means each leg kicks once during each stroke cycle. You’ll see a demo of this at the start of the video clip. Our swimmer gives a fairly strong kick on each side, and he uses the kick to help initiate the rotation of his body and to add a little propulsion. Each kick can be as big or as small as you want to make it, which makes it an ideal kick for open-water swimmers, triathletes, and distance freestylers – anyone who needs to conserve energy for a long swim. You need to have a well-balanced bodyline for this kick to be effective.
The next kick on the video, is a very short clip of a cross-over kick, in which the feet simply follow the rotation of the body rather than initiate the rotation. This is an effective kick for swimmers who don’t depend much on the kick. There are a few variations on the cross-over kick, some looking like the two beat kick above, and others mixing in an extra kick in between the cross-over. You’ll see a lot of middle-distance freestylers using this technique because, if it’s done right, there is a good mix of propulsion and relaxation involved. It also allows you to continue with a good rotation of the body. You may see a lot of breaststrokers applying this kick when they swim freestyle, since they don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the flutter kick, and because the cross-over kick allows for a flowing, natural movement of the body.
The 4-beat kick is typically used by middle-distance and distance freestylers, depending on their conditioning. It offers both power and rhythm. If the body is balanced, this kick is usually still relaxed enough to allow for really nice hip rotation as you’ll see in the video. If this kick is forced a bit too much, it starts to lock up the hips and inhibits rotation, so be careful not to overkick. As you start to make your kick more consistent, be careful not to kick too far outside your body. If the kick is too big, it creates more resistance than propulsion.
Finally (for this article, anyway) is the Big Daddy of Flutter: the 6-beat kick. Basically, it means there are six kicks in each stroke cycle. For many people, this means kicking as fast as humanly possible. This is the kick most frequently used by sprinters and middle-distance swimmers who are REALLY fit! One of the drawbacks to a 6-beat kick is that it tends to isolate the hips and limit the rotation of the body. You’ll notice on the video that the body doesn’t rotate quite so far, using this kick, as it did with the others.

Each kick has advantages and disadvantages, based on the situation. Using the wrong kick in the wrong situation can lead to poor performance, or to a ton of lactic-acid pain. Imagine trying to finish the swim leg of a triathlon using a 6-beat kick. You may have a fast swim time, but your race could potentially be over. On the other hand, if your try to sprint using the 2-beat kick, you’ll get destroyed by people using an effective 6-beat kick. The BEST solution is to know how to do many different kinds of kicks, and to practice them frequently. Don’t get locked into one mode, just as you wouldn’t want to drive from Maryland to Texas — through the mountains of Pennsylvania and West Virginia — in a car with one gear, you wouldn’t want to swim with only one kick in your arsenal. Experiment and vary your repertoire