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So, You Want to Swim Faster? You May Be Doing It All Wrong

By Dave Burgess | May 30, 2017, 2:14 p.m. (ET)

How understanding distance per stroke rate, stroke rate, pace, form and mechanics can help you swim smarter and more efficiently

swimming in pool

I've heard numerous triathlon coaches tell their athletes that reducing the stroke rate in their swim is the telltale benchmark of swimming improvement. It's just not that simple.

All too often I've witnessed coaches and athletes focus so much on reducing the number of strokes taken per length in training that they neglect to consider their distance per stroke, pace and the overall impact of a low stroke rate in an open water setting.

To reiterate: You can't talk about stroke rate without looking at distance per stroke as well as ensuring that overall pace is maintained. It’s a package deal. You can’t focus on one aspect alone. Taking fewer strokes per length is great. But if you’re going slower in the process, that’s counterproductive.

For example, a very fast stroke rate (where the swimmer is just thrashing their way through the water) almost always yields a minimal distance per stroke and a slow swim. And a very slow stroke rate can also yield a slow swim.

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

Remember, in an open water setting a swimmer deals with cavitation of water in front of them from other swimmers. This water is moving “faster” than water that is located a little deeper. The goal to a good catch in swimming is to “find” water that isn't moving (or isn't moving as quickly as you are). This is more difficult in open water due to, amongst other things, other swimmers, current, chop and other external factors around the athlete.

Let’s define distance per stroke and stroke rate as simply as possible:

  • 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.

Stroke rate can be taken a step further and we can look at stroke cycle. Stroke cycle is defined as the time from your right (or left) hand entering the water, pulling, recovering and re-entering the water. Basically, right hand enters, left hand enters, right hand enters. This is what most coaches look at in regard to measuring cadence in the water.

These factors combined with proper mechanics and an efficient pull help determine ones’ pace in the water.

Let’s sum up how to look at distance per stroke and stroke rate (assuming long course meters) in an easy to understand relationship. (borrowed from swim coach Jonty Skinner):

  • In regard to stroke rate: 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 the number of strokes taken and assuming the distance per stroke does not decrease.
  • In regard to distance per stroke: A 1-inch improvement 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, again, on the number of strokes taken and assuming the stroke rate stays consistent.

As you can see, there are numerous dependencies interacting with one another. They all must be taken into consideration.

As we circle back to the original misconception — a reduction in the number of strokes a swimmer takes being the way to gauge improvement — and armed with the information we’ve covered, let’s revisit how we can accurately determine improvements based on work that is being done in the pool.

If an athlete can cover a 25-yard length of the pool in 20 seconds taking 16 strokes, that’s a good benchmark. But, finding a way to reduce that stroke count to 15, while holding the pace the same, would be an improvement.

Ideally, we would not only reduce the number of strokes by one or two, but also have an improvement in pace. Perhaps getting that stroke count to 14 or 15 and the time per length down to 18 seconds.

That combination of factors would be indicative of improved efficiency, distance per stroke and an overall improvement in the athlete’s ability.

There's a huge potential for time savings here, and on paper it looks to be a very simple improvement to make. But these changes don't come easily. It's a combination of distance per stroke, stroke rate/cycle, cardio load, form and mechanics — they all come into play. It's up to your coach to take everything into consideration, find limiters, provide the tools for remediation, and increase the performance of the athlete.

Dave Burgess is a USA Triathlon Level II Certified Coach, U.S. Masters Swimming Coach and ASCA Level 3 Coach, and he holds a certificate in sports and performance nutrition. As the founder and head coach of Podium Training Systems, Dave works with athletes of all levels, from first-time competitors to elite-level athletes, competing in all race distances. Learn more at

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.