Kicks are the same for a competitive swimmer as for a recreational swimmer. However, a competitor’s fast stroke depends on a quicker rhythm and effort from the kick to generate speed. The late David Painter of Beaufort, national Masters sprint champion, once told me, “My first 1,000 yards of every workout is kicking.”
My humble response to that was, “My first 1,000 yards are my last 1,000 yards.” Although I do compete, I accept whatever my fitness workouts (3 x 1,000/week) get me. But that does not change the relative importance of effective kicking.
For those swimmers who are non-competitive and those who train for distance or triathlons, kicking is less important for power than for balance. Balance is essential along both the body’s long (side-to-side) axis and its short (front-to-back) axis.
To minimize the water’s resistance, a swimmer’s body needs to be stretched out long on the surface. This is easier for females because their subcutaneous adipose tissue (i.e. fat) is spread throughout the body, including the legs, which helps them float more horizontal than men. Thus they need to kick less for short-axis balance than for side-to-side rotation and for propulsion. Men need to make a little more effort to keep their hips on the surface.
My point can be illustrated by the men’s distance races at the recent Tokyo Olympics pool. German Florian Wellbrock (who later won the Open Water 10,000 meter “marathon”) set the pace with his beautifully balanced and efficient stroke. All that, only to lose to American Bobby Finke, who was able to generate a huge kick off the final wall and sprint the final length to victory.
Efficient breaststroke kicking also creates a balance that results in a beautiful, long stroke. Again, though, the fastest Olympic sprinters (Adam Peaty and Lilly King) are the ones with the quickest and most powerful kicks.
To sum up, the primary purpose of kicking – whether flutter kick, dolphin kick, or whip kick – is to keep the swimmer’s hips at water level to minimize the body’s resistance. Any additional kicking effort toward increased propulsion is useless and only wastes energy unless this long and efficient body position is maintained.
Dr. Bob Colyer of Bluffton is an actively retired college professor, coach and author of “Swim Better: A Guide to Greater Efficiency for Swimmers & Instructors,” directed primarily to non-competitors. email@example.com