6 minutes reading time (1295 words)

Stroke Rate – The Final Puzzle Piece

This is the final post in a three part series on 'training like you race'.  We are going to examine Stroke Rate, the final component of the swim performance equation from Swim Speed Secrets1:

Time = Number of Strokes * Stroke Rate

Stroke rate is often the least well understood component of the equation.  We are going to explore what stroke rate is, how you can find your optimal stroke rate, and how increasing your stroke rate can make you a faster swimmer.

What is Stroke Rate?

Stroke rate as defined in our trusty swim equation is a measure of the time it takes to complete a stroke cycle.  Remember for free and backstroke a stroke cycle is the time for both arms – e.g. right hand entry to right hand entry.  In an intuitive sense, stroke rate is a measure of how fast you are "turning over".  Stroke rate is analogous in some respects to miles per hour (mph).  If you increase your rate (i.e. mph), you will get to your destination faster.  To do that you have to make your wheels turn faster.  

Note that stroke rate can also be measured in stroke cycles per minute or even in strokes per minute.  Some swimmers and coaches find these measures more intuitive.  All are valid, just make sure you watch your units and determine in the swim equation whether to multiply if you're using seconds/cycle or divide if you're using cycles/minute.

Measuring your stroke rate can be a challenge and usually requires a coach or friend to help out.  The person measuring you should time one full arm cycle (e.g. right hand entry to right hand entry).  Alternatively they can time several stroke cycles and divide by the number of strokes to get an average in order to minimize reaction time error.  Some stop watches have a stroke rate feature that will do the math for you.

Why is Stroke Rate Important?

The book Swimming Fastest2 has chart showing stroke rate data for each event based on swimmers at the 1996 Olympics and 1998 World Championships:

One conclusion we can draw from this is that in order to swim at the elite level you need to be able to swim with a stroke rate somewhere in the range shown for your event.  If your stroke rate is too low, or if you don't have the training necessary to hold that stroke rate for the entire race, you won't be able to achieve those times. 

Once you are able to consistently swim at or near your target stroke count regardless of speed, the way you are going to get faster is by increasing your stroke rate.  

What does it mean to the rest of us mortals who will never be an Olympic swimmer?  The concept is pretty much the same, although your target rate will likely be lower.  Once you are able to consistently swim at or near your target stroke count regardless of speed, the way you are going to get faster is by increasing your stroke rate.

Note that it is important that you maintain your stroke count when you change your rate, at least within the range of a couple of strokes as we talked about last time.  If you increase your rate and also dramatically increase the number of strokes you are taking (i.e. "spin your wheels"), your time will increase.  Swimming Fastest has a chart that shows this effect: 

This chart shows us that you can increase your stroke rate and even decrease your stroke length (i.e. take more strokes) and up until a certain point you will go faster (i.e. your time will decrease).  After you reach the tipping point at the top of the curve, you will start getting slower.  The trick is to find the right balance.  

Training Like You Race – Stroke Rate  

So how do you figure out what stroke rate you should use and how do you train for it?  An article from Swim Speed3 recommends that you swim a series of 100's at your goal pace and have someone measure your stroke rate.  The rate that you settle into is likely the one that is best for you.  Alternatively, the guys at Swim Smooth have a nice test4 that they have devised to help you chart out your optimal stroke rate.  The ideas is to find the ideal rate where you are efficient (i.e. time and perceived effort level out or drop).

Improving your stroke rate is challenging but is definitely possible.  One element is simply awareness.  Be aware of where in a set or a repeat your stroke rate starts to fall off and make an extra effort to maintain your rate.  Olivier Poirier-Leroy suggests5 doing some sets with a band around your ankles to increase your power and improve your catch both of which can subsequently increase your stroke rate.  Of course, a tempo trainer that you set to beep at a particular rate can help remind you to turn over faster as well.

Firebelly Gives You SmartFeedbackTM

The Firebelly swim performance monitor takes the work out of measuring stroke rate and enables you to get your actual stroke rate without requiring someone on deck to measure it.  Firebelly can be configured to announce your stroke rate after each length.

By hearing your actual stroke rate you can get a sense of what different rates feel like when you change gears.  You can also make sure you are hitting your race target stroke rates in practice.  Again if you are trying to hit a particular time goal, being able to achieve the stroke rate to go that time is required.  And if you don't do it in practice – why would you expect to be able to do it in a race?

With Firebelly's data tracking, you can see your stroke rate for each length when you view your workout data on the Firebelly App.  This is great for getting a sense of your typical stroke rate and for seeing how it varies as you swim different distances or try to go faster.

Additionally, Firebelly has a Smart Cadence feature that can beep at different stroke rates similar to a traditional tempo trainer.  However unlike a traditional trainer, it stops beeping when you stop swimming so you can listen to your coach or friends during your rest intervals rather than beeping.  You can optionally set the Smart Cadence to only beep on alternate lengths so you get a sense of swimming with the guidance and then doing it on your own which can build muscle memory faster.

Pairing Smart Cadence with stroke rate feedback gives you the best of both worlds.  By hearing your actual measured rate at each length, you know if you are on target or how much you are off by rather than just "feeling" like you are synced to the beeps.

Remember the key to making any desired change is having data and feedback to learn from and to let you know if you're on target.  With Firebelly you can get accurate stroke rate feedback consistently during your workouts and train like you race. 


We've covered the entire swim speed equation at this point.  Hopefully you have a better understanding of the levers you have to work with to improve your swimming.  It's hard to overstate the importance of feedback in the learning process.  Firebelly can help give you feedback on the 3 key performance measures: time, stroke count, and stroke rate.  Getting audio feedback on these performance measures while you swim helps keep you on track and lets you know if you need to step it up a notch.

Drop a note in the comments of this post or on our Facebook page and let us know how your training is going.  We would love to hear how Firebelly helps your training.

1. Taormina, Sheila. Swim Speed Secrets. Velo Press, 2012.
2. Maglischo, Ernest. Swimming Fastest. Human Kinetics, 2003.
3. Distance per Stroke vs. Swim Stroke Rate: How to Find Your Swimming Cadence
4. The Stroke Rate Ramp Test: Find Your Efficiency Sweet Spot(s)
5. How to Increase Your Freestyle Stroke Rate

Finish Your Race Strong
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