Stroke Rate, Distance Per Stroke, and Why You're Probably Doing It Wrong

I've heard many a coach tell their athletes that targeting a low stroke rate in their swim is one of the benchmarks of improvement and efficiency. Yes, a swim stroke with a low stroke rate looks smooth and efficient, but you can't talk about stroke rate without looking at pace, and distance per stroke as well. Why do we need to look at all of these metrics?

A low stroke rate is usually indicative of a long glide phase in the front-quadrant of the stroke.  Having a low stroke rate and a long glide phase isn't always beneficial, especially in the sport of triathlon, when you're in the open water.

Before I continue further, let's define - simply - distance per stroke, and stroke rate:
  • Distance Per Stroke:  How far you go, or have gone, every time your hand enters the water.
  • Stroke Rate:  How fast you turn your arms over and have a hand enter the water.
So, this isn't to say that having a front-quadrant focused swim means you're going to be slow. You can be a very fast swimmer with a lower stroke rate and a front quadrant based stroke.  You'll just have shoulders as wide as Sun Yang - and you'll have to carry that extra muscle weight on the bike, and more importantly, on the run.  (As an aside, it's worth the time to watch the 1,500 meter finals from the 2012 Olympics if you didn't see it live.  It's an amazing swim, and you'll see what I mean by front-quadrant, glide phase, and wide shoulders.)

I recently participated in a course for USA Swimming coaches, and there was a section where coach Jonty Skinner discussed distance per stroke and stroke rate (which moving forward I'll refer to as DPS, and SR).  Mr. Skinner is a wealth of information, and he really summed up how you need to look at the relationship between DPS and SR. So how can we look at these two factors in an easy to understand context?
  • In regards to SR:  A .03 second increase, per stroke cycle, over 50 meters and you can potentially see up to a .4 second improvement.  Over 200 meters this could yield up to 1.5 seconds depending on your number of strokes.
  • In regards to DPS:  A 1 inch improvement (one more inch in your DPS) and you can expect almost the same relative impact.   That is to say, potentially, up to a .4 second gain per 50 meters or up to 1.5 seconds over 200 meters depending on how many strokes you're taking.
Another way to look at DPS and SR:  A really fast SR - where the swimmer is just thrashing their way though the water - almost always yields a minimal DPS.  And, a really slow SR almost always yields a slow swim.

There's a huge potential of time savings waiting to be tapped here.  And on paper this looks to be a very simple, and easy, improvement to make.  But these changes don't come easily.  Muscle memory, cardio load, form and mechanics - they all come into play here.

To that point, I am fortunate to be friends with an athlete here in Colorado Springs who, now retired, was a pro triathlete and a resident at the Olympic Training Center as a member of the national team.  He and I were chatting the other day and this topic came up (in a round-about way) as he was telling me about his arrival at the OTC and his jump to being a professional triathlete.  He was a great swimmer in high school, and was leading most sets in the pool, and was easily one of the fastest swimmers at the OTC. However, he'd get to an ITU triathlon event and he would be in the back-half of the swimmers coming out of the water.  He became so frustrated - and didn't understand how he could be swimming so poorly - that he was soon seeing the team Psychologist thinking it was a mental block.

What was going on?  He had a long glide phase, and in the open water the early part of his stroke was caught up in air bubbles and cavitation in the water from the swimmers ahead of him.  By shortening the glide phase of his stroke, and increasing his stroke rate, he was catching water - the anchor phase the stroke - much quicker, and his open water swim improved.  This didn't happen overnight.  It took time, and a lot of work.

A great example of a high stroke rate being a key factor in open water triathlon swimming success is Sara Haskins.  She has one of the highest SR's around in regards to pro women triathletes.  She might not be the fastest in a pool, but she's dangerous, and very quick, in the open water.

So how does one look at, and measure stroke rates, with an athlete?  The easiest way is to time it.  Time 10 stroke cycles, starting the stopwatch on the first right arm entry.  Count 10 strokes and stop timing.  Do that for every lap in a longer set.  Now you have your baseline stroke rate for your athlete, and you can take that information and measure it for comparison over time to gauge improvements. Additionally, so long as the data is readily available, you can also measure that data against other athletes.

Looking at distance per stroke isn't difficult either, but it takes a bit more time.  Video of your athlete swimming is the best way to gather this data.  Using your favorite video tool, Silicon Coach for example, you can mark the hand entry point of the left or right hand on the screen.  Then, as the video progresses, you can mark the next entry point of that same hand.  By using the measuring tool in your software to identify the width of each float on the lane line, you can then measure and determine the distance traveled during each full stroke cycle.  

How does this equate with the targeted swimming goals and individual metrics of your athlete?  You can look at it as simply as targeting a 50 meter swim at “X” stroke rate with “Y” distance per stroke.  Working on technique and efficiency is critical to improvements here.  Over time, by working on form and mechanics, a similar stroke rate can then yield a larger distance per stroke.  Then, by working on turnover, mechanics, and reducing the glide phase, you can increase stroke rate - thus finding improvements all around.

I'll be presenting a webinar on this topic on Thursday the 30th of January.  Announcements, and links to sign up for the webinar, will be coming soon from Vanguard Endurance.  This webinar will carry USA Triathlon CEU credit for all you coaches out there.  I'll be covering, in-depth, topics on stroke rate, distance per stroke, and the importance of form and stroke mechanics.

By the way - here's a link to the Mens 1,500 meter final from the 2012 Olympics.  You'll have to click the link to watch it on YouTube (content from the IOC and all) Enjoy!