Swimming Stroke Length, Stroke Rate and a Swimmer's Training

What should a swimmer work on?

Boy Swimming at Swim Meet
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If you think back to your days at school, and in particular during your Physics and Maths classes, your grumpy old professors (mine were anyway!) would have talked to you about POWER, and more importantly the equation for this:


    If you think of the FORCE element as your swimming STROKE LENGTH, i.e. increasing the amount of force you apply to the water (so long as it is directed in the right direction), will increase your stroke length which is manifested as fewer strokes per length of the pool. Simple. Most swimmers will, at one time or another, count how many strokes they take per length and aim to reduce the number of strokes by focusing on such elements as catch, pull through, and body rotation. This is an excellent way to improve your economy and efficiency through the water. Most people will see improvements in performance with this method if their stroke is rather inefficient, to begin with.
    Consider the other side of the equation, SPEED. Speed in this scenario we can take to mean STROKE RATE and is represented as the number of strokes you take per minute as opposed to the number of strokes per length. I would normally recommend asking a friend or coach to help you assess this, and ask them to count the number of strokes you take in 15 seconds (for a 25m pool) or 30 seconds (for a 50m pool) and multiply the result by 4 or 2. This should be done preferably during a continuous swim of maybe 400m and you will notice, just like stroke length, that the rate will be slightly variable during the set distance. It shouldn't be if you're economical, but it will tend to be initially and we'll come back to how to correct that in just a mo'. Just like cadence on the bike and stride rate on the run, we should really count this as the number of complete arm cycles (i.e. number of times the right arm completes a full stroke). However, as the numbers we are typically dealing with are much lower for swimming than cycling and running, for ease and accuracy (especially when the length of the pool requires you to restrict your assessment time to 15 seconds due to turning), I would recommend you count left-arm as 1, right-arm as 2, left-arm as 3 etc. Once you have ascertained a base rate, we know where we can move from and to.

Stroke Length Related to Stroke Rate

In response to stroke length increasing (i.e. FORCE), stroke rate will typically drop off (sometimes considerably) and vice versa - for someone working on developing their stroke rate (SPEED), their stroke length will typically drop off (leading to the feeling that you are losing your stroke and feel for the water). Obviously, the ideal scenario would be for one of these factors to stay constant whilst the other increases. But which should we work on...?

The biggest single difference between the biomechanics of an elite pool swimmer and an elite open water swimmer is in the balance between their stroke rate and stroke length. A typical age-group triathlete may have a stroke length that allows them to complete 50m in about 38 - 52 strokes, and a stroke rate of 54 - 64spm (strokes per minute). Compare this to your stereotypical picture of elite mid-distance swimming perfection Ian Thorpe who would typically swim with a stroke count of 27 - 32 strokes per 50m and a stroke rate of 72 to 76spm, and it's easy to see how a swimmer like this moves faster through the water than you or me. However, while we all probably know that his stroke length is much greater than ours, his stroke rate may seem quite high for someone who seems so relaxed.

During the London Triathlon this year, I was analyzing the stroke rates of the elite men (particularly the swim leader Richard Stannard) and you may be surprised to know that these guys were comfortably sat at around 88 to 92 pm for 1500m, which is huge. If you put that into context these guys are really flying through the water and whilst they might not appear as smooth as your Ian Thorpe in the pool and certainly not holding a stroke length of nearly 2.0m per stroke like Thorpey would do, the thing is that this is the specific adaptation that these guys are able to make to their strokes for open water swimming. Plus, they do a lot of training at these higher stroke rates.

I have been very lucky to have met and discussed open water swimming technique in Australia with a lady by the name of Shelley Taylor-Smith, and for those of you who don't know her, she has won the World Marathon Swimming Championships 7 times in a row and was even ranked world number one for women and men at the same time. A truly amazing open water swimmer whose stroke was versatile and adaptable to the conditions she was facing, she is renowned for completing the 70km Sydney - Wollongong Open Water swim (inside a huge shark cage it has to be added!) with an average stroke rate of 88spm. That's nearly 20 hours of continuous swimming at a hugely high stroke rate. To get to these levels, and more importantly be able to sustain them, takes a lot of training and adaptation.

Should we do away with Stroke Length training altogether in favor of Stroke Rate training, and if so how should we work accurately on this elevated stroke rate?

My advice would be that in the off-season begin your work on the efficiency of your stroke and increased stroke length, minimizing the number of strokes you take per length. Then, just as you would do with cycling and running, develop the specificity of your training closer towards the season - work on a higher stroke rate while trying to maintain your stroke length as much as possible. With a good 5-6 months of base behind them, most swimmers should be able to lift their stroke rate 5-6spm over the course of a season without their form slipping. If it does slip, then go back to developing stroke length, and thus forth.

There are several tools you can use to help with stroke rate development or swim tempo training. One is the Finis Tempo Trainer. The Tempo Trainer fits under a swim cap or goggle strap and beeps at intervals you set. It is adjustable in 100th's of second units. Along with the time adjustment buttons, the unit has a small time display. Another stroke rate development tool is the Wetronome (named after its concept, a waterproof metronome). It is similar to the Tempo Trainer but may be easier to use because of its simplicity. It has two parts, the "beeper" and a magnet used to set the beeps. You "wand" close to the beeper the same number of times as the desired stroke rate, and it is set. For example, one-two-three, pause, one-two and it are set for a rate of 32 beeps/minute. It uses other beep tones to tell you it is on, set, reset, etc. The Wetronome can be clipped under your goggle strap or under a swim cap and is easy to re-program in the middle of a workout without removing it from the swimmer.

Well, I hope this has helped. To summarize, work to develop your stroke length in the early part of the off-season using catch and pull through drills and body rotation exercises, then come the late off-season and early season aim to be more specific with your approach and look to lift your stroke rate.