Friday, April 7, 2017

Kicking and the Clunk Foot

I know I've written about the subject, but my swim kick is the closest thing to dismal as it gets. It's never really been an asset - I've been told it's a liability - but I was always ok with that in the past. I dismissed criticism with a million-and-one excuses for why I didn't kick in the water and why I didn't need to:

  • I'm a distance swimmer!
  • I DO kick, it's just a two-beat kick. (Is that even a swimming term anymore?)
  • I started swimming at 14 and never developed a good flutter kick.
  • I'm a breaststroker, not a sprinter.
  • I have to save my legs for the bike and the run!
  • The more I use my legs in the pool, the more it will screw up my running muscles. (This was a high school myth, I think.)
  • and the list goes on...
Now that swimming is my primary sport, my whole attitude toward kicking has changed. These days, we don't distinguish kicking styles - even distance swimmers need a strong kick. Here's a great article from The Race Club about the importance of kick to overall speed. A good kick supplies 10 to 15 percent of overall propulsive force. My kick, however, did nothing for me. In fact, I'm not sure you could even call what I did "kicking." It was just a vague reference to kicking. My kick had one purpose: to float my legs. When I made a conscious effort to kick, it became a hindrance. It made my stroke choppy and added drag... it literally slowed me down. Have you ever looked out the airplane window and watched the air-brakes pop up on the wings when you land? Well that's what my feet look like in the water.

But where to start? I already knew (from video and other swimmers) my kick was wide and un-symmetrical, and it pretty much stalls every time I take a breath. I noticed in longer swims, I have a bizarre tendency to drag my right leg so it's even stiff when I get out of the water. Come to think of it, I do this while I'm running too - it's my right foot that trips me up on uneven sidewalks. Here's a good shot of my crazy-wide kick. (I'm smack in the middle of the photo.) Nice high elbow though.


I was determined to educate myself on how to fix my kick to make it better and faster even if it meant taking a step backward in training.

The first lesson? Have flexible feet. Well.. my first thought was: I'm screwed. I considered throwing in the towel immediately. The very thing that made me a good runner was the thing that was going to sink (literally) my swim kick. I have what's called the "clunk [or rigid] foot" - a term taken from Timothy Noakes' Lore of Running. I spent my running career coddling my feet.. giving them love in the form of high-tech running shoes with lots of cushioning. They were never expected (or asked) to yield or be flexible. No siree! My feet were getting the last laugh. And unless I did something to change them, they would do nothing for my swimming.

Flexible feet can be developed, and I've been researching how to do it. It involves stretching and stretching and more stretching. Some say to sit on your feet with your knees off the ground. I found out the hard way I can't get my knees up for more than a split-second. Yep, this may take a while. The photos below are what my foot looks like fully extended (seriously, that's as good as I can do) - before (top) and after a few days of stretching. I've convinced myself they show (an oh-so-miniscule amount of) progress. I'm determined to get my toes to touch the ground if it's the last thing I ever do.


The second lesson on kicking? Kick from the hip, not from the knees. While watching others kick, the difference is instantly obvious. I've noticed when runners learn to swim, their legs take on the appearance of running in the water - they employ an enormous amount of knee-bending creating a massive amount of drag. And training with a kick-board tends to accentuate and reinforce this type of kicking because of its upright body position in the water. Thus, to work on kicking from my hip, I've mostly ditched the kick-board during kick drills to focus on streamlining my body in the water. I'm using fins to develop strength and better technique, and I'm doing more backstroke to further develop the hip-kicking motion.

The third lesson? Kick more narrow. This is one of the hardest things because my foot position is (literally) the furthest thing from my brain while I'm swimming. But forcing myself to kick narrow decreases drag and makes me use my feet more. Think about it: if my legs are taking up a space wider than my shoulders (the widest part of my body (hopefully)), then I'm creating drag. One suggestion was to put a rubber band around my knees forcing me to kick with my feet in a very narrow space. One of my swimmer friends told me he's been "trying to create a propeller motion" with his feet based on what he's noticed in the kicking motion of great swimmers. Cool! But in my current state, with my big dumb inflexible feet, I'll be happy with just a narrower kick.

So my focus over the past few months has been two-fold: swimming longer for arm strength and endurance and developing a kick that actually works. The most useful drill seems to be streamline kicking without fins with a swimmer's snorkel. This allows me to keep my head down without worrying about breathing - I can just attend to what my feet are doing. When I do hard 50s after this drill, I can actually "feel" propulsion coming from my kick. The biggest issue will be translating that kick to my longer swim sets. Kicking hard while sprinting is one thing - adding it to distance swimming is something entirely different. But I have to start somewhere or I'll be going nowhere in the water.

The bottom line is that a streamlined kick is a just like everything else we do in swimming - it's not so much about strength as it is about perfecting a specific skill. As my favorite coach, John Klarman, used to say: "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." Kicking skill is much more important than I previously wanted to believe - certainly orders of magnitude more important than most triathletes believe. And as a recovering triathlete that still loves to run, I also must stop worrying that a strong swim kick will destroy my running. (It won't.) But that's an entirely different issue - or, more likely, rant - for a future post.

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