These days everybody knows about that underwater kicking is a fast and necessary aspect of swimming. And we all know that the fastest swimmers generally have incredible underwater kick speeds and distances. But what surprises me over and over is the general lack of numbers involved with this knowledge.
How fast is it? How long can top underwater speeds be maintained. What’s the optimal breakout point? What’s the speed difference between underwater kicking and swimming.
I’ve done some tests on my own swimmers, viewed a ridiculous number of videos, and have done some research to try to come up with some of these answers. So far, just for backstroke.
The key to underwater kicking is that the swimmer is not generating speed, but merely trying to maintain speed. This is an important distinction, as it affects how the body should move. (For more on this, see the second half of my post, More Than You Want to Know About Underwater Kicking).
There are two other things to keep in mind with underwater kicking:
- underwater kicking at its fastest is slightly faster than freestyle swimming
- underwater kicking speed cannot be maintained for long
Put these two things together and we can start to understand the underwater strategy of elite swimmers. Ideally, you want to breakout of the underwater phase when the underwater kick speed slows down to swimming speed, or 15 metres, whichever comes first. There is no advantage in staying under if you’re kicking slower than you can swim. However, speed, fatigue and a need for oxygen all pay a role in the underwater phase. We’ll try to find out how much of a role they play.
First, how fast is underwater kicking?
Here are the results for average speed to 15m for the fastest underwater swimmers in the first length of the 100 backstroke at the
I still remember this phrase from my university coach in my freshman year. It’s such an appealing idea. The Lazy Way to Get Faster. Who could argue with that?
I have to admit that I distrusted the idea at first. Swimming is known for fast freshmen, and of course being teenagers we already knew everything. So being casually told that we could get faster by being lazy was beyond my suspension of disbelief.
However, I can honestly say it works. As long as your definition of lazy is a bit loose.
The idea is that by the time you get to university, any increases in actual swimming speed will take a very hard work. Months and months of very hard work. However, the non-swimming part of races was a different matter. My coach confidently predicted that we could drastically improve our times just by getting better at starts and turns. (These days I’d add underwater kicking but my swim career predated that invention.)
He was right, of course. We spent a lot of time improving our starts and turns, and gained significant time reductions in the process. Far bigger time reductions than we could possibly eke out of the swim portions of our races. So while lazy may not be the correct term, it was infinitely easier to get faster through improvements to starts and turns than through swimming. Unfortunately, all of our competitors worked on this as well, but at least we were all a lot faster while we raced each other.
This all came home to me at our meet this weekend. One of our boys had broken his wrist 2 months ago (see my post on this here), and the cast only came off a couple of weeks ago. He spent the time training surprisingly hard on his kicking and
Like many clubs, we have a rule. “No water bottle, no swimming.”
We still allow the ones without water bottles to do dryland for the whole practice (it’s hard!), with trips to the drinking fountain every 15 minutes. But they aren’t getting in the water to swim without a bottle of water or a protein/dextrose solution (8% solution or less to ensure a hydrating benefit).
But last week at practice, something was different. The majority of swimmers were fine, but during warmup my assistant coach and I immediately started to see clear signs of dehydration in a disturbing number of younger swimmers. We soon had some complaining of headaches and leg cramps. We were, of course, telling them to drink. But, I swear that some of them seem to think of drinking as a form of medieval punishment. We ended up going to the swimmers and getting them to drink while we watched.
It was when one of the swimmers complained of a bad headache that we finally found out that there was a school track meet that day, and many of our swimmers were there. It was sunny and fairly hot (for Ontario), and it seems that in all that excitement they drank little all day long. And of course, after getting back from the track meet, they didn’t drink and headed straight to the pool.
Sometimes that’s all it takes. A change in their schedule and they forget to drink. The big problem is that as the weather gets warmer, they’ll get dehydrated more easily. When it gets really hot and humid, even a long walk home from school can create problems. And it’s not just the young, inexperienced swimmers either. One of our top senior swimmers regularly has days in which he slows drastically after about an hour and complains
I know this is going to sound like new-age jargon, but I can’t emphasize enough the importance of coaching with simple concepts.
This was really brought home to me this year with my volunteer coaching of a very special group of kids. They only train 2 consecutive days a week, 1 hour per day. And only for about 4 months of the year. I had noticed in previous years that specific stroke / body position corrections weren’t being carried over from one week to the next. And that makes sense. 5 straight days of no swimming will do that to anyone.
So this year I tried something completely different. Instead of using specific stroke concepts I boiled the essence of swimming down to a few key ingredients. Flow. Narrow. Quiet. And we would typically only deal with one of those concepts per week.
The idea here is that swimming should feel like natural, like a fish moving through the water. It should involve simple movements that help the swimmer move forward. Anything jerky, or lateral, or rushed should be eliminated. Efficiencies can always be added later, once a basic and simple movement pattern is established.
While this one sounds self-explanatory, it’s often defeated by the swimmer’s body awareness. Their swimming may look like a football lineman rushing the quarterback (or here in Canada I refer to it as a hockey player on a breakaway), their body awareness has them thinking that they’re narrow. This is where video is handy. Just showing them what they look like is often enough to get them swimming more and more narrow.
This is the concept I love the most. Quiet doesn’t refer to not making any external noise. Quiet refers to keeping the stroke simple and quiet in