Swimming Faster Part II: The trick is in the kick

Lara Southard, PhD
5 min readDec 21, 2020


This post is a branch of my previous post Becoming a better lap swimmer where I cover some distinctions between triathletes and swim team swimmers.

Why become a better kicker?

  • Body position
  • Efficiency/reduced energy
  • Better rotation
  • Stronger core
  • Speed

In short, if you are a strong kicker, everything else about swimming will become easier. You will have good body position in the water (see my previous post) and therefore, you will move efficiently in the water so you won’t spend as much useless energy clawing through the water. Part of being a good kicker is how you rotate your body in the water. You’ll need to drive your rotation with your hips so you can spend more time on your side (as this is a more efficient way to travel through the water). To do this, you’ll need a strong core which is a general benefit. Overall, these requirements for becoming a better kicker will make it easier for you to move in the water, thereby making you a faster swimmer.

How should you kick?

Pointed toes, but relax through the ankle.

This means that my legs are straight: My knees and ankle are as straight as possible without being locked and my toes are pointed. If you tend to bend at the knee or ankle, you can do some 50’s kick sets where you do the first half with entirely locked legs to help you get used to the form and then come back with unlocked legs and best kick form.

A big splash does NOT mean good kick

In fact, it probably means the opposite. Your legs should be coming to the surface of the water and perhaps just breaking it, but there should be no slapping. A good way to train your hip flexors and gain a powerful kick is to do sets where your legs never break the water. Be warned, you will be sore for a few days after a set like that. This should be used as a strengthening exercise, only. One example of a set I do:

  • 6×50’s flutter kick with board on :55- 1:00 (25yd pool) keep legs completely submerged

Keep it tight

Building off the previous paragraph, small kicks where your big toes maybe sometimes graze each other is optimal form. You can do a drill called an “overkick" for strengthening. In this drill, you exaggerate all aspects of your kick (which will likely result in a big splash). A good workout is to do 25’s with half of the 25 as overkick. This helps build power but is not sustainable. If you’re doing the drill correctly you should be tired by the time you hit the wall.

How do I strengthen my kick?

Always warm up your kick.

When I converted to club swimmer I became a Mid-Distance and sprint freestyler (any every < 200) and being a former Ironman Triathlete, I really benefit from a long warm-up and cool down. All of my warm-ups include a long freestyle swim where I usually mix in other strokes to help stretch out my shoulders and hips, kicking with the board, and pulling with paddles, a snorkel, and a pull buoy. My warm ups typically look like this:

  • 600 swim, 600 kick, 600 pull (I’ll amend this to 500’s or less depending on my workout)
  • 5×300 or 5×200 S.K.I.P.S (that’s swim, kick, IM, pull, swim. If I need to reduce my warm-up, I’ll take out the second swim.)

If I feel like my body position is out of whack, I will conclude this warm-up and then do a small speed kick set to wake my legs up.

Do focused kick sets to build strength.

This is key. I learned this from a friend who barely missed the Olympic trial cut off in the 50 yd men’s freestyle. This guy was hitting low 20’s and 21’s when we did 50’s repeats from a wall push like it was nothing. He said that he was fast because he did a focused kick set every time he got in the water. Here are some of the sets we did. I’ll put out intervals on here and explain how much rest we were getting so you can amend them as needed.

  • 2 rounds of 4:25’s on :30, cycle 4’s. That’s 1/2 slow, 1/2 fast for the first 25. 1/2 fast, 1/2 slow for the second 25. Slow for the third, then fast for the last 25. I usually get ~7 seconds rest.
  • 6x50’s fast kick on :55 Here, I usually get 7-10 sec rest. This is my go-to workout when I need to wake up my legs because I can change it however I want. Odds fast, evens easy. 1/2 fast, 1/2 slow 50’s or just 50’s all out, etc. I do this one often so it has become a good benchmark for how tired I am. If I get in the water and realize that I need to loosen my interval here, I know what I need to do to adjust my workout or expectations. Alternatively, if I start doing these and I’m going really fast, I may tighten the intervals on my main set.
  • 5x100’s odds: all-out (I try to get my 100 completed in <1:30) on 2:00 evens: active recovery on 3:00. This is the best/worse set in the world. I did this workout for months at the end of every swim and I dropped seconds in my 100 free. To set your goal time for the fast 100’s, do a 50 all-out kick. I can do mine in ~39-40 seconds. I added 5 seconds to that then doubled it. For the recovery, I give myself an extra minute from my fast interval.
  • 500 kick with fins, last 25 of each 100 all out. Continous, no interval. I like this one as a warm-up or cool-down or for easier days. When you wear fins, do not slack. There is a tendency to have bad form with fins because you’re still getting propelled forward without having to work hard — making it all the more important to focus on form here. When you kick fast with fins, keep your kick tight. Big kicks are not efficient or faster.

Keep your hip flexors and back loose.

Invest in a foam roller, do yoga, and stretch your back before you hop in the pool cold. I usually, at minimum, do 20 push-ups slowly on the deck before getting in. Then, I stretch out my arms and back with warmed up muscles. I do the same for my legs.

A powerful kick is key.

When I swam club, I could swim a 100 in :55, but I couldn’t out pull a single person on our team. My flip turns weren’t even that great and I breathed constantly. It was all my kick. The reason was because my kick kept my body on top of the water, so I could take the path of least resistance wall to wall. A good kick will allow you to glide on the water like sharp scissors and wrapping paper. You can only achieve that with the right body position.



Lara Southard, PhD

trained neuroscientist | professional research scientist | lifelong feminist