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Why a Strong Freestyle Kick Really Matters

By Gary Hall Sr. | Sept. 13, 2016, 6 a.m. (ET)

swim school

Go back to school! Erase the smelly, crowded hallways of your high school from your mind and imagine yourself under the Islamorada sun in a clear pool ready to absorb knowledge that will enable you to swim faster. Swim School from Gary Hall Sr. of The Race Club is about lifelong enjoyment of the sport. It’s always more fun to swim to your potential.

There is more to a strong kick than flexibility.

For the down kick, the quadriceps, hip flexors and core muscles have to be incredibly strong in order to create a quick snap of the foot backward. Since the kicking motion occurs over and over again at a very high rate, the leg muscles also need to be incredibly fit. With a freestyle stroke rate of 100 (50 right arms, 50 left arms per minute), a six beat kick produces a kicking stroke rate of 600 kicks per minute. To sustain that for very long, the legs had better be fit.

So what about the up kick?

The 600 kicks per minute would also include 300 up kicks. How important are those? It turns out, they are very important. Working the legs and feet on the up kick, using the gastrocnemius (calf) muscles, hamstrings and lower back, produces a nice vortex of current (a wake) following the path of the foot. Add this to the wake of the body moving forward in the water and one has a nice stream of water to push against on the down kick. In other words, a good up kick leads to a more powerful subsequent down kick. It gives the foot more to push against than still water. It also leads to a faster kick cycle, meaning a higher kicking stroke rate.

There is no recovery time for the kick.

One of the biggest differences between the pull and kick is that there really is no recovery time for the kick. Granted, no one can sustain a really hard six beat kick for 800 meters or longer, but for any race of elite swimmers shorter than that, the legs never stop working. Furthermore, the kicking speed really determines the baseline speed of the swim. If you want to elevate your game in freestyle, improving and sustaining your kicking speed is a good place to start.

Read about the importance of the up kick here.

Yours in swimming,
Gary Hall Sr.

gary hall srGary Hall Sr., M.D. is a three-time Olympic swimmer (‘68, ‘72, ‘76) who earned a medal in each of the three Olympic Games. At one time he held 10 world records in all strokes except breaststroke and was the World Swimmer of the year in 1969 and 1970.

Gary Sr. serves as president and technical director of The Race Club Inc. based in Islamorada, Florida. He is the current president of the United States Olympians and Paralympians Association and co-founder of World Fit, a non-profit organization promoting childhood exercise and sports. He has six children, the oldest of whom, Gary Jr., also swam in three Olympic Games (‘96, ‘00, ‘04) and earned 10 Olympic medals. Two other children, Richard and Amy, and his wife, Mary, work with Gary Sr. at The Race Club. In 2006, Gary Sr. retired from ophthalmology to dedicate his remaining professional career to teaching advanced swimming techniques for competitive swimmers and triathletes. 

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.