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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Using Legs In The Open Water

Courtesy of Pam Lazzarotto.

It is true that most open water swimmers don’t use their legs much. It makes sense because not using your legs burns less energy. When it comes down to shorter open water races or just training in the open water, you’ll be happy if you have strong legs to ‘kick it in’ and give you that extra oomph.

Over my open water swimming career, here are a few instances when I needed more leg power:

• Boston Harbor Swim Across America: an extra hard kick needed to push through the current and in order to maintain correct body position in the waves/chop.
• Waikiki Roughsater Swim: past the last turn buoy, there is a channel current going against you because the reef has been dug away for boat traffic and the waves are crashing on the reef creating turbulence.

• Naples Island Swim: picking up the pace during the last 800m of the 3-mile swim.
• To speed away from swimmers drafting off me.
• To drop the pack at the beginning or end of a race.
• To get through the surf on a start with big waves.
• On training days when my arms are tired or while swimming butterfly, individual medley or stroke sets.
• If the water is really cold, more kicking increases core body temperature.

Years ago, if I sprinted during a master’s workout, I would gasp for air. Normally, I would just ‘cruise’ through workouts with a two-beat freestyle kick never really using my legs. Basically, I just used my legs for balance and hip rotation. But, now I have a new training goal…kicking while swimming.

In the mid-1990’s when I started swimming open water races, I intensified my training. I didn’t spend much time sprinting or kick more than a two-beat kick, so I included more butterfly and individual medley sets in my workouts. I found this upped my aerobic threshold. This type of training - using leg (i.e., bigger) muscles helped me get more conditioned by increasing my heart rate and building strength. In other words, I wasn’t breathing so hard in workouts because my body was getting used to high(er) intensity sets.

For fitness, cardio, and base training, I used to run long and slow. With age, my knees and lower back can’t tolerate running, so I’ve turned to cycling and indoor cycling. The advantages of cycling is that it is low-impact, high-intensity work in additional to providing cross training that makes working out more interesting.

One positive side effect from cycling and increased leg training is fewer shoulder ailments. With stronger legs, I can increase my kicking and save my arms in workouts. This is definitely a bonus for open water swimmers who put in more training miles.

Many pool and open water swimmers swim and kick sets with fins. This enhances training by including high(er) intensity sets into their training which improves efficiency and performance. Fins especially help beginner swimmers by improving body position, increasing leg strength, and allowing less fit swimmers to swim longer periods of time.

Many open water swimmers only use a two-beat kick; so, they can benefit from more leg cross training and kicking sets. It is beneficial to have stronger legs for the finish of a long distance set, a challenging race or stroke set.

A sample kick set like this can be done at the end of a pool workout: 5 x 100 on an interval that should not get much rest at all. Kick 75 butterfly kick on your back with flip turns with the last 25 being a sprint freestyle.


Photo shows Lexie Kelly (left) and Pam Lazzarotto (right) before a 3-mile kicking workout around Naples Island in Long Beach, California.

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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