I coach a lot of triathletes, Runner and Bicyclists are often culprits of a poor kick. Truth is we do what we are used to doing, and have the built muscle for, the bikers are still trying to ride a bike, but this motion cuts propulsion through drag and a reduction of length. The runners are still trying to work in heal toe without flexion in their ankles.
People make the mistake of thinking that kicking is about the legs, when it’s really about your core, hips, and feet. It’s also about keeping the kick inside of the shoulder line to maintain efficiency through the water. This means keeping it high, and tight. Working with fins is the number one mistake I see practicing swimmers make. Swimming efficiently is about maintaining two planes of axis. Head to toe, and side to side. The lower your head, and higher your feet, the better. Swimming with a good side to side axis allows you to knife through the water cutting drag. Swimming with fins on, takes away both planes as fins create squared shoulders due to the oscillating resistance, and work best lower in the water. As this is the case the head comes up, and regardless of the intent to strengthen your legs and kick in the process, you’ll be a weaker swimmer for the effort. You will have a weaker overall kick, core, and foot position. Now, I will stipulate, that if you have perfect form, are kicking from the core, and hip, and not creating drag outside of your body line, they may assist in strengthening your lower abs, glutes, and related hip muscles. For the thousands of swimmers I’ve seen use fins, I can count these individuals on one hand, so be honest with yourself,
What’s the question?
When I get a chance to coach the kiddo’s I’ll always ask: Have you ever seen a fish with knees? They will smile at the thought because they know better. When you ask an adult the same question, in place of a smile, you receive a grimace that is followed with a blank stare, and a look away upon the realization that they need to work on it.
Consider this: look at all of the “swimming” aquatic animals. None of them have knees, so I’m going to side with evolution on this one. Furthermore, we are the only Ape species that even tries, and to be honest, we are poorly designed for the task. The only way we make that better is by trying to use what we have, to move like aquatic animals move. This is all derived from core strength, and the following argument will break down why fins don’t build the core as well as swimming without them, and they put swimmers in poor position to create the necessary strength. The same thing goes for a pull buoy.
Here’s how that all breaks down:
The kick is the number one flaw in most swimmers, it’s neglected, and in some cases non-existent. So why is it that swimmers with little, no, or terrible kick patterns love to work with fins? The primary reason that I see is locked ankles. I’ve had many students, primarily lifelong runners, knees are now hurting, and they come in for swim coaching. When you give them a kick board they move backwards. This is usually because they have worked in heal/toe for so long that their ankles have lost flexibility. When they kick without fins, in place of a flipper motion, they create a pick ax motion in the water and this pulls them backwards. Ideally, ankles are flexible, and allow full flexion of the foot providing length to the swimmer, “ballerina toes”. There are multiple stretches for this, I’ve seen people sit on their feet, I also recommend the old physical therapy regiment of spelling out the capital ABC’s with your ankles twice nightly prior to bed. Without assistance, and additional effort most people in this situation grab a pair of fins, and voila, they can kick. This is great until their big day comes along (triathlon, masters meet), and they can’t use fins. In other words, they’ve got no kick, and in extreme cases have to work against additional self-created resistance (pick ax) due to the effort provided.
The second reason I see often and be summarized by something a scuba dive instructor once told me, “No one has ever successfully ridden a bicycle under water”. Again, people will try to kick harder through mass flexion in their knees “over kicking”. I primarily see this in the bicyclist crowd, and this movement does not achieve propulsion, that outweighs the resistance created by the motion. You’re thighs are acting as an anchor in the water, they are the heaviest, and most dense muscle in the human body. Having them low and flexing creates drag. You may move forward, but are far from streamlined. But hey, if you put on a pair of fins, you can move forward, at least a little more, until the big day that is.
The remainder of my students, if not in a six beat kick, are in a three beat kick that swings outside of their shoulder line. I call this the “pretty”, as may be referenced in prior article (Your Stroke Flaw has Purpose). This is generally due to a lack of core strength on the weak side of their stroke pattern. Again this beckons to kicking being more about the core, than the legs, and fins are not a solution for core weakness, poor flexibility, or poor body position.
So how can this be fixed?
1) Put the fins on the shelf, and let the collect dust unless you are a scuba diver, then they have value, but should still be used appropriately (no one has ever successfully ridden a bicycle under water). 2) Begin to pay attention to your ankle flexibility, and if this is a problem begin to actively flex your ankles. 3) Every time you get in the pool, think: have I ever seen a fish with knees? 4) Grab a kick board and begin to work with it submerged in the water so that you engage your core, and raise your feet. My base board drill is called Wedge: Put the board in-between your hands vertically, like it’s obstructing you clapping your hands, squeeze the board together with your pectoral muscles. Place it out in front of you, about six inches under water (keep it in this position), and begin to kick behind the board. Repeat until you have desired results or need something harder. This is the easiest board drill I prescribe so if you reach out, be ready.
This post also beckons back to a prior post of mine concerning cramps (Cramps, yep prevention is the way to go!). The swim genius posts are beginning to overlay in a tapestry of sorts. Feel free to read past articles as topics overlap, I’ll try to point this out when it happens.
Much love, and happy swimming,
The Swim Genius
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