Help me move forward - from the shallow end.
September 26, 2013 7:40 PM   Subscribe

I recently started swimming laps about four days a week. I do breaststrokes, backstrokes, and forward crawls. Unfortunately, those latter two are harder than they ought to be, because my kick does no work. When I try to swim forward using only a kickboard and my legs, I don't go anywhere. Sometimes, I even start going backwards. Maybe my legs are too weak and my body too heavy, but I suspect it's a fault in my form. I'll talk with a teacher soon, and I'll probably take lessons again at the next available session, because this feels like a basic problem. (Personal) instruction aside, what online resources - videos and whatnot - are there to help me with this? How do you swim a length on a kickboard?

When I took lessons last season, my teacher kept telling me to point my feet as sharply as possible down the length of the pool. He likened the pose to a ballerina's. I tried to do this tonight, as every night, but still got nowhere. I also kept my legs straight, trying to kick from the hips. Sometimes my teacher told me to relax, which suggests that I'm not supposed to keep my legs as straight as that. It didn't matter how quickly I tried to kick, or how far I kicked, or how I held the kickboard. After the initial push off the wall, nothing.

When I wore flippers, I went much faster, and it felt much better. Though I could reach farther out, my teacher said that my forward stroke was good. He couldn't say the same for my kick.
posted by Rustic Etruscan to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Pointing your toes is important, but even more important is kicking from the hip. Small fast kicks are better that big slow kicks.
posted by jschu at 7:44 PM on September 26, 2013

I'm not sure how to fix your issues with the kickboard - I think the in-person teacher will be more help there -- but using a pull-buoy might help you enjoy the arms portion of the strokes. (You can enjoy the propulsion of your arms with some support for your legs, until you get some help with them...and even after -- I love pulls!) And just having your legs float could help you get a better feel for how to position your body overall (like, where the legs should go in relation to your front) in order to keep your legs from holding you back.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:45 PM on September 26, 2013

I have noticed that I get farther actually by not keeping my legs entirely straight but keeping my knees slightly bent as I kick fwiw but this all might be bad form... This works better for me with forward crawl and backstroke
posted by ditto75 at 7:48 PM on September 26, 2013

You actually need to kick from your core. Imagine your belly button as the fulcrum for your kick, and don't worry quite so much about pointy toes and straight legs. Watch the legs of other swimmers using kickboards and imitate them. It tKes time, biput you'll gt there.
posted by dbmcd at 7:52 PM on September 26, 2013

As for videos and online instruction, when I am trying ot nail something down with swimming, I just go to youtube and search the term. "Kickboard" there will get you a wide variety of instructional videos and swimmers you can watch for technique.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:55 PM on September 26, 2013

The biggest mistake that I see beginners/amateurs make is getting their kick out of the water. Are you making big splashes when you're kicking? If so, work on keeping your kick in the water.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:56 PM on September 26, 2013

You may find this page helpful.
posted by moira at 7:56 PM on September 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

You might check out some of the "total immersion" stuff. It's sort of non-conventional. Here's a freestyle video. It focuses a lot on the arms, but the underwater shots show the legs. It is a far less energy intensive way of swimming, meant for distance folks, but may be useful.
posted by HermitDog at 8:23 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Forget pointy toes and straight legs. That's not really right, in my opinion. You want to keep your feet under control – not floppy but not super rigid either. I think focusing on your core is a good idea but for the kick, I think of it as more of a whip. From your hip, whip your leg through the water. My knees are gently bent, and my feet are in control and I just think about my leg motion as more fluid than stick-like. And, yes, as someone else said, you shouldn't really be churning and splashing at the top of the water. When you're using a kickboard, the only way I can see you going backward is if you're really raising the front part of your body out of the water. Stretch out with it. Watch videos for more tips.
posted by amanda at 8:47 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I learned to swim properly recently, and had a huge problem with the front crawl because I was getting exhausted from kicking too much. Things improved for me a lot once I dramatically reduced how much I kick, and focussed instead on my arm stroke (catch).

I found the Swim Smooth website (already mentioned by moira) really helpful. Here is information on catch and kick.
posted by loop at 9:56 PM on September 26, 2013

The racing crawl, with flutter kick, is taught in many swim classes as "the" crawl. But the flutter kick, by itself, only really works for people who can easily hyper-extend their knees, and also have a good balance of fast twitch muscle fibers, to non-fast twitch fibers. It's nearly useless as a practical stroke, in long distance or open water situations, due to the high energy demand it places on large muscle groups.

The Trudgen stroke, or, in modified form, the Trudgen crawl (or, for the more advanced, the double trudgen), however, which couples the powerful scissors kick with the effective overarm catch of the standard crawl or freestyle stroke, is both a powerful and an efficient stroke for almost any swimmer, which gets its great efficiency due to the "glide" element of the stroke's scissor kick(s), coming on alternate beats of the scissor kick rhythm. Many swimmers adapt the scissors kick to the idea of the trudgen, without as much body rotation, or back leg extension, as might be called for in a standard side stroke style scissors kick, thereby decreasing the amount of rotational "thrashing" of some Trudgen stroke swimmers, with only minor loss of scissor kick power.
posted by paulsc at 11:09 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

You say that when you use the flutter kick with a kickboard, sometimes you go backwards, which sounds an awful lot to me like it's your ankle/foot flexibility. Think of your legs in the water - they should trail behind you smoothly, so the water just slides right along. That's why your coach wanted you to point your toes - to have a nice streamline and reduce the drag. If your ankle flexibility is not great, your feet are going to stick out and catch the water, and when you kick, your foot digs in and, at best, does nothing (and at worst, like reversible fan blades, can do exactly the wrong thing). If this is the case, you are not alone! Loads of people have this problem, especially if you didn't swim as a kid. Check out #2 and #3 on this page.

As the other folks say, there can be a lot of things that go wrong with a kick - not kicking from the hip, bad/no rotation, timing issues, kicking too forcefully... but this sounds like an ankle issue to me.

The good news is, kicking is not a huge part of your forward propulsion. An effective stroke and good form do nearly all the work. The bad news, though, is that what the flutter kick *does* do is stabilize your body in the water and keep your legs afloat. Men, with lower body fat, tend to sink much more than women (it's actually a thing -- finally, an athletic advantage for the ladies!). So you should work on improving your kick anyways, even though it will never really make you whoosh down the lane, because of how it makes your body position in the water higher, thus reducing drag and making you able to do more with the same stroke. So, work on swimming a length with a kickboard, but don't worry about doing it fast. In the water, you have so much drag that reducing that can help you way more than a bad but powerful kick.

Here are some resources for improving your ankle flexibility: Tennis ball mobility exercise, dryland ankle flexibility exercises for a productive kick, Ask the Dryland Coach: Improving Ankle Strength and Mobility (USA Swimming's site's being a little annoying with that link for me - if you get an error, try googling that exact title).

Ankle stretches are always a part of my warm-up routine. Do some rotations -- 10 circles in each direction, front and backwards, for each foot. Then I sit down with legs out in front and alternate between leaning forward and flexing the foot, grabbing my toes and holding for a couple of beats, then leaning backwards on my arms and pointing the toes out. Static stretches are passé these days and I couldn't find an example for that online, but even just switching between flex-point-flex-point is good. And you can do that anywhere. Sitting at work? Flex-point-flex-point under your desk. Reading a book on the bus? Cross your legs, space-permitting, and flex-point-flex-point. Easy peasy, and it really will help.

And flippers are the best. I always feel like a superhero when I'm working with flippers -- six strokes and BAM! end of the lane. I am the Flash! (NB: I am not the Flash.) Keep in mind that that power works both ways though -- you go faster in the water, but the added resistance from the fins puts more stress on your ankles and lower legs. So choose your fins carefully. Like working with weights, start small. A friend of mine had great success improving her kick -- she basically couldn't point her toes more than just past 90° and was having serious trouble -- by working with the Finis Positive Drive fins. They are rounded off and shaped aymmetrically, not fish-tailed like traditional flippers, which makes them work for multiple kicks and also for ankle issues. Here's something on fin selection.

Last -- I know you are looking for online resources, but if you decide to branch out, check out your local Masters swim club, or a triathlete club. The Masters club is likely to be populated with lifelong swimmers with ridiculous ballerina ankles, but the coaching should be pretty comprehensive. USA Swimming is another good resource for coaching. I recommend the tri clubs because triathletes are actually known for being bad swimmers, so an experienced tri swim coach should be exposed to lots of stuff exactly like this (lifelong runners totally have zero ankle flexibility) and have experience rehabbing people's form.
posted by sldownard at 12:59 AM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

"... The good news is, kicking is not a huge part of your forward propulsion. "
posted by sldownard at 3:59 AM on September 27

Eh, not to argue pointlessly, but whether or not swim strokes that feature the flutter kick are effective or not, the muscles used to produce them are a huge part of human physiology. If you're not, as a swimmer, getting 40%, or more, of your propulsion, from more than 40% of your body's muscle mass, are you really swimming efficiently? If you're not, kicking the flutter kick, just to "stabilize your body in the water and keep your legs afloat" is a huge waste of energy, and worse, for a new swimmer, of concentration and practice time.

A good scissors kick, without any arm movement, can, by itself, propel a swimmer from one end of a pool, to the other, and back, and back, ad infinitum, as long as they keep scissoring. And, in open water, it can even bring them, and a carried buddy, to safety.
posted by paulsc at 1:11 AM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just want to second HermitDog's suggestion of "total immersion." I struggled with swimming for years, and after reading a bit about this method and seeing some videos, I saw such a ridiculous improvement in my swimming. Seriously, the first time I tried to apply the technique, I more than doubled the number of laps I could do. More than that, I felt like for once my entire body was coordinated. It was like turning on a switch.

Now if only there was a switch that actually got me to the pool these days....
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 4:18 AM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are you literally trying to kick the water? That would make you move backwards! If while standing you hold your arms directly in front, palms facing the floor, then alternately move them up and down while keeping them straight but a little loose - that's much how your kick should be.

*Waits for renowned triathlete to offer a correction.*
posted by inkypinky at 7:26 AM on September 27, 2013

Watch a swimming frog. It spreads its legs and then kicks back.
posted by KRS at 3:30 PM on September 27, 2013

Well, paulsc, I disagree that reducing drag is a waste of energy, pretty much by definition -- but perhaps the OP will try both of our suggestions and come away with two fine kicks for the price of one AskMe. If it makes you feel any better, I'm intrigued enough to try it your way next week sometime.

Meanwhile - here are some more resources I dug up on improving ankle flexibility:
My feet even had a nickname: the Aquabrakes. When I dove in, people would make screeching sounds to imitate my immediate slowdown when my feet hit the water.
And last, if all else fails and you can't seem to get anywhere with flutter kick... that is when you say 'fuck it' and move on to something else. Great breaststrokers can have fantastic kicks with very little ankle or foot flexion, and frankly, good breaststrokers can kick some serious butt. I have fantastic ankle and foot flexibility and my flutter and dolphin kicks are great, but I cannot make whip kick work for love or money. It is *my* Aquabrake. So maybe whip kick is where you shine, and you'll totally own both breaststroke and elementary back, or invent some hybrid you like best. Either way, I hope this helps!
posted by sldownard at 3:37 PM on September 27, 2013

So, I did a little experiment this morning in the pool with my kick board and found that, yes, just a little bend to the foot and it slowed me waaaay down. A bend to the knees as well while kicking just about had me dead in the water. So, all those above suggesting that your ankle flexion is likely a problem here are probably right on.

I often see people making very tight, rigid flutter-kicks in an effort to keep those toes pointed and those folks need to loosen up a bit and work the whip. However, if your coaches are harping on about pointing your toes they are perhaps over-correcting you and you really do need to figure out a way to get more flexibility in that ankle.

Remember to stretch out when you have the kick board. Your arms should be straight out in front of you and your head low. I generally kick with my chin and mouth in the water... think alligator. :) And the tops of your feet and toes should be parallel to the pool floor. If you can get stretched out and pointy and work with that awhile then you can add the whip.
posted by amanda at 11:48 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

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