One of the most common problems that I (and probably every other swim coach on this planet) see when I’m on deck is a tendency to focus on and over-emphasize the pull, and pretty much forget the existence of the swimmer’s legs.
Spinning the arms, flailing around, thrashing about like a wounded octopus…we’ve all seen it, and were probably guilty of it at some point in our swimming careers.
Naturally, this is extremely slow and inefficient, and also a common cause of injury, as improper technique compounded over thousands and thousands of strokes is one of the best ways to mess up the shoulders.
One of my go-to principles, when confronted with most technical problems in our sport, is to simply focus on and strengthen the kick. As legendary hockey coach Herb Brooks famously stated, “Legs feed the wolf.” This rings true all across the fitness and sporting world.
So, how does a swimmer, by focusing on their flutter kick, improve their stroke?
I begin by isolating the side breathing position. It is a weak, off-balance position, but a necessary one if you wish to breathe…unless you choose to lift your head, but we won’t go there. One of the many common errors that lead to hurt shoulders is a tendency to drop the bottom arm and flare out the legs while taking a breath, in order to stabilize the body on top of the water while turning the head to the side. This not only creates great resistance (as the dropped arm acts as a brake), but shortens the propulsive phase of the stroke, resulting in greatly reduced efficiency and the resultant need to take even more lousy strokes.
Here is a simple progression for correcting this issue:
- “Blade Runner” (AKA side-glide kick)
Begin by pushing off of the wall in a tight streamline, turn onto either side, keeping the bottom arm extended in front and the top arm tight to your side. Your head and neck should be neutral – having one goggle lens in the water and one out is an excellent indicator that you’re in the correct position.
Flutter kick for as long as desired – but be sure to practice on both sides!
If you struggle with this, you’re not alone, but that is a big indicator that you should be spending more time and putting more effort into your flutter kick! I know it’s not an easy answer to hear, as kicking can be a pain to train for many, but my job as a coach is to tell people what they NEED to hear, not what they want to hear!
(Fins are certainly an option, but don’t overuse them and turn them into a crutch!)
- Blade Runner w/side breathing
In your blade runner position, perform 6-10 flutter kicks, then turn your nose to the bottom of the pool and do 6-10 more. Turn the head back to the original position, and repeat until you finish a length, and as before, practice on both sides.
- 6-10 kick/2 pull Blade Runner
Perform drill #2, but after completing the 6-10 kicks with the nose turned to the bottom, execute 2 freestyle strokes. The head remains still until the second stroke fully extends, at which point turn the head back into the starting position.
KEEP THE LEGS KICKING WHILE TAKING YOUR STROKES!!!
Make sure to press the hands all the way back before they exit the water. Still, try not to focus too much on the arms and let them simply practice the full range of motion. The core idea of this progression is to build a reliance on the kick and let it be your driving force.
- 6-10 kick/3 pull Blade Runner
This is the same drill as #3, but with a third stroke added. When a cycle is finished, you will be kicking on the opposite side. As with #3, keep the head still during the strokes.
I have used this progression to great effect for swimmers of all ages. It’s simply a matter of practice, and I will end on the following note:
Practice does NOT make perfect…PERFECT practice makes perfect!
At the end of the day, you get out of your training what you put into your training. Building habits takes time and patience and a willingness to sometimes work on some boring details and grindy work, but you will be rewarded with a safer, more efficient stroke!