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Kicking It into Gear

The following is an email exchange I had a while back with a friend who as a professional consistently has placed in the top 10 at Xterra Worlds for the last several years. Its in reference to a video of Grant Hackett I had sent him in the winter of 2006. I disclose this information for readers to place the exchange in context.

Matt,
I was just looking at that video again and focused on the catch and high elbows. I know I don't look like that, but I was thinking that my upper body probably looks a lot more his than my lower body. What do you think about his kick?


Great question.

I'm going to give you a vague answer. I'm admitting that up front. For Hackett, he's swimming for 14 minutes and some change whenever he hops into the water to swim a fully rested and shaved 1500. He doesn't have to plan for another 2+ hours of using his legs for the bike or for the run like in Xterra. That said, he doesn't need to be as economical with his kick as he would need to be if he were going from the swim to the bike and ultimately the run.

So that being said, I'm not necessarily condoning a "no kick" or "little kick" policy in a tri swim. Here's where I get vague: I think you kick as much as your body can economically allow you to be successful for the two legs that take up 85% or more of the competition. For me personally, whether in a 2 hour race vs. 10 hour race, I tend to be "heavier" with my leg kick on the bookends of the swim: the first and last couple of minutes on each end of the distance. The first bit of the race I'll be heavier on my legs to either get out in front or make sure that I'm out with a group of swimmers off of whom I can draft. The last portion of the race, I'll throw in more focus on the kick to get some blood flowing to my legs and get them "awake" for the bike. Also, I'll throw in extra kick in the middle of the swim leg if I find I'm in "No Man's Land" and need to bridge to a forward pack. I ended up doing that in Kona this year when I realized after about 1500m that I was swimming on my own. That little energy expenditure was worth the costs, as I saved more swimming off of the back of the front group than swimming on my own.

In summary, know what you can handle out of your kick and what it will cost you to allow the focus of your energy allocation to be devoted to the two areas of the race that will require the greatest amount of energy. More simply put, determine what you can handle economically from a kick perspective to optimally set-up your bike and run. Have a loose framework because as you know, each race is different and you need to be able to play in a range of what your body can handle and what the race and your competition is providing you. I believe for all competitors - pros and AGs - the swim sets the race up for the bike and run. I do believe you can win a race in the swim (e.g., Normann [Stadler] this year in Kona), but you can win it only by having the swim optimally set up your bike and run. Conversely, an athlete is more likely to lose a race in the swim because he/she didn't get out of the water in the right group (particularly ITU) and/or the swim cost them way too much.

As for the mechanics of the kick itself, keep it narrow (not too much up and down) with a decent (not hyper-fast) cadence; not too much knee bend therefore starting the kick from the hips. See in the video how the Hackett really begins each kick with his hips. On a side note, I don't know what this film is from which also makes Hackett's kick in this video a bit up for debate. Hackett is also a world-class 200 and 400 meter freestyler. He's not winning medals in the 200 but he's still one of the top 16 people in the world in the event. In the 400, he's one of the top 5 in the world. This video is taken at the 1:30+ mark of an event. If he's swimming the 200 in this video, he's in the last 10+ seconds of his race and could be really heavy on his legs, sprinting towards the finish. If he's in the 400, he's a swimming a "short" 3:40+ race so can afford to be heavy on the legs.

About the author, Matthew Rose:
Matthew has coached American & World Record holders as a swimming coach at Stanford and Arizona State. He operates EnduRight, an online endurance sports coaching company. Please contact him at matthew@enduright.com to learn more about EnduRight or to reprint this article.