It’s all about the kick

Underwater freestyle kicking

I ask myself the question constantly: “What do I know about triathlons and endurance events?” I’ve been doing them for close to 20 years and before that, I ran at an elite level.

In multisport I’ve competed as an elite in 10 world champs, numerous points race, and in total close to 40 major international races around the globe.

Yet, I ask myself the question above repeatedly.

I see so many triathletes training in the pool. I observe them follow their programmes like bibles.

If you would, humour me for a while, and read this – perhaps it’ll make sense. Perhaps not…. after all, I’ve only been doing this for nearly 20 years.

Anyway, my one suggestion – not to get in the way of some new technology or the latest thinking of the newest “in coach” – is:

Swimming paddles underwaterImprove your kicking.

So many triathletes don’t kick well enough. Consequently, their bodies drag more in the water. Furthermore, the arms and shoulders work more than they need to.

Yet, without fail, I see the majority of triathletes using hand paddles and pull bouys so much. Not only that, they use these apparatus for long periods of time in their sessions.

For sure, I see many triathletes using the paddles for over a 1000m and similar with a pull bouy. This has never made much sense to me. I’ve always figured I must have gotten really old fashioned and fallen behind with technological advancements.

I coach kids swimming mainly, and I place much emphasis on kicking and stroke enhancement. Yet, I seldom see triathletes do stroke drills or kicking. But pull bouy and paddles seem to be their staple diet.

I’ve had in depth discussions with top level swim-only coaches on this subject about using paddles and pull bouys – I ask them because perhaps I’m missing the point?

I’ve even attended swim conferences presented by respected international swim coaches. I’ve asked the same questions to them too.

For me, using paddles frequently makes the shoulders tight and tired. Thus, to be used (sparingly) either in the middle of the session or at the end for a bit of endurance.

Way back in the 1970s the then East Germans swimmers would actually warm up with a pull bouy for 1km. It was thought to make them stronger. To my knowledge, the thinking on that practice has shifted somewhat.

Personally, I’ve always found paddles make my shoulders heavy and tired and less responsive to speed work. Yet, I’ve read articles by triathletes suggesting that triathletes use paddles and pull buoys frequently.

I even hear myths and fables in that famous book of Tales of Triathlon authored by I.Know Everything, where the moral of the story is: “Kick less in triathlon in order to save your legs for the bike and run.”

I’m so sorry, but I for one cannot subscribe to that notion at all.

I usually recommend the pull bouy to encourage the “rock n roll” motion of our shoulders in the water. I also don’t usually do it for more than 300-800m, depending on the background and fitness of the athlete. Furthermore I don’t recommend it every session either.

Ironically, I was approached by two triathletes recently asking me for advice. I turned my head around to see if there was someone behind me whom perhaps the question was meant for. “You want to ask ME something?” I asked astonished.
(Why me, I asked myself when there is all this amazing advice on the internet… there’s gotta be way more advanced folk than me on the ‘net!).

Nonetheless, the triathletes nodded, it was me they were looking for advice from. They both informed me they had strained shoulder ligaments from the paddles. (Did I looked surprised?…er, that would be a big NO)

Michael Phelps swim freestyleIt is hardly co incidental that when I increase the volume of the kicking component in my own training or my kids, the tempo, rhythm and times improve. Without fail it happens. It corresponds – more kicking makes you faster and more streamlined in the water.

But don’t believe me, see for yourself. What’s more, I kick every session.

Go on…. I dare you to try it.

Each time you swim, add in some kicking. Reduce your time with the paddles and pull bouy and replace them with kicking.


I’m not saying you must never ever use the other apparatus. I am saying use them sparingly and focus on the dynamics and basics of swimming.

How often?

I advice kicking each swim session. I prefer kicking in shorter intervals and do it more frequently in a session. For example, a warm up, 200-300m kick drill, swim, then kick again 200-300m. Obviously, its also fine to kick 400-500m at once.

Note on kicking technique.

If your swimming doesn’t improve with additional kicking sessions, the issue is likely to be in your technique.

So, in conclusion,I am hinting that if you are looking to improve your swimming efficiency, it’s about the KKK: Kicking, kicking, kicking.




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About Glenn Macnamara

Glenn is an elite triathlete who also loves running trails. He competes internationally and he has numerous top five finishes to his name. He coaches kids and adults. His love of writing is inspired by the sports he competes in.

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