Speed is a skill!
Competitive stroke rates for swimmers and triathletes

Alan Couzens, M.S. (Sports Science)

August 9th, 2016

In my last post, I looked at some target swim 'benchmarks' across the distance spectrum for swimmers and triathletes. A key component of being able to hit these benchmarks (& moving away from the dreaded 'one speed swimmer' status) is developing the ability to change pace by lifting and varying your stroke rate.

Stroke rate is the Rodney Dangerfield of swimming technique - it 'don't get no respect'. While we marvel at the stroke counts of the elite & their ability to 'hold water', there is a widely held perception that 'anyone can move their arms fast'. Can you? That is what this post is about.

Of course, the real magic of the elite swimmer is the ability to do both of these concurrently, i.e. hold water while moving their arms fast. However, there is an assumption in some of the technique development methodologies that once a swimmer has the technique to hold stroke length that the rate will just naturally come with fitness. This may not be the case. In my mind, rate is a skill, every bit as important as stroke length and it should be given equal attention in a swimmer's development.

In fact, a one-eyed focus on length without rate often lulls swimmers into a false sense of technical security. It's very easy to 'game' stroke length. Add a little bit of a pause up front with maybe a little extra kick at that point and your stroke counts can quickly come down but the question is, and the question you should always come back to.. is this improvement in stroke length transferring to an improvement in real world swimming speed?

No, the truly fast, the truly elite swimmers are masters of both. Though, often the rate aspect is deceiving. These athletes become so relaxed at speed that their arms look as though they are moving much slower than they actually are.

Below are some stroke length & rate norms from previous Olympic games put out by the Australian Institute of Sport's Biomechanics department

EventStroke Rate (cpm)Stroke Length (m/cycle)
50m FS (Male)56-671.90-2.10
50m FS (Female)60-651.8-1.96
200m FS (Male)43-512.26-2.42
200m FS (Female)48-522.10-2.20
1500m FS (Male)39-432.26-2.52
800m FS (Female)44-521.76-2.10

Elite triathlon numbers are similar, with the lead men in the 2012 Olympics rating at 42-48 cpm (1.82-2.10 m/cycle) and the lead women at 38-44cpm (1.9-2.1 m/cycle). For the 2015 Ironman World Championships, both the lead females and the lead males were in the 42-45 cpm range (at 1.68-2.2 m/cycle for the males & 1.54-1.84m for the females)

Putting these numbers in a little more relatable (pool) context, for the Ironman swimmers, assuming a 5m push off, we're looking at ~ 18-24 strokes per 25 meter length for the guys and 22-26 spl for the ladies. For most folks who've done any stroke count work, these are pretty achievable numbers BUT they are holding these numbers while holding sub 19s per 25m (male) and sub 22s per 25m (female) at a manageable effort, without a whole lot coming from the kick. In other words, their arms are rating!

To give you some perspective of just how fast their arms are rating and an idea of how your stroke rate stacks up, I've provided a stroke rate calculator below

Pool length 25m 50m
Streamline (length) m
Streamline time (s)s
Stroke Count
Stroke length (m/cycle)
Stroke rate (cycles/min)

To use, simply plug in your split time for 1 length of either a 25m or 50m pool along with your stroke count (each arm stroke) for the length (the calculator assumes a 5m push off but you can change as needed). The calculator will go to work, calculating your stroke rate (in cycles/min) and your stroke length (meters/cycle). I included a 50m pool option for you lucky enough to have access to a long course pool and just in case you might want to have a bit of number-crunching fun while watching the Olympics this week :-)

Some watches like the Garmin Swim and Garmin 920XT also offer the awesome feature of giving you real time feedback on your stroke rate/length while swimming so you can compare to the numbers above.

Which one is closer to elite numbers - your length or rate? Many folks are surprised just how far their rate is off the elite despite how it looks and feels. "But they look so smooth & I feel like my arms can't move any faster!" That's because they practice being smooth at speed!

This 'being relaxed at speed' is especially important for distance swimmers and triathletes. I know that personally speaking, coming from a pool background, when I try and rate at elite tri/distance swimmer numbers of 40+ cpm, it naturally turns into a hard 6 beat kick effort. Something that's definitely not sustainable for competitive distances in distance swimming and tri! The ability to stay relaxed and dial down the legs while the arms are moving at such a high rate is a unique skill. Unique to triathlon and distance swimmers. This specific skill of relaxation under speed doesn't come naturally. It is something that must be deliberately developed. It is a skill that must be practiced.

A lasting memory from spending some time with the Aussie national distance team was the amount of 'race practice' work that they did. Every day would have some work at 29-30s/50m for the guys and 31-32s/50m for the girls, i.e. in and around world record paces at that time. Most of the work was 'comfortable', i.e. short reps off moderate to long rest with a focus on 'practice' more than 'training'. Applying the same to tri, the importance of regularly practicing 'relaxed speed' at 36-38s/50m for the guys and 40-42s/50m for the ladies can't be overstated

You might be tempted to say that this is a fitness limited metric. If so, I'd encourage you to try to hit these target rates but with some assistance, e.g. fins or a towline, or decreased resistance e.g. with fists closed. You'll see even when taking the resistance out of it (& taking the overall power demand down), rating the arms that fast while staying relaxed is most definitely a skill! A skill akin to the souplesse in the pedal stroke of a seasoned cyclist, a skill worth improving!

It's high time that the ability of elite swimmers to be relaxed while holding crazy fast rates is given equal praise (& training attention!) as their ability to hold water & cover a lot of ground per stroke. In the real world, both are equally instrumental to swimming fast

Train smart,



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