75 Reasons Ian Thorpe Is A Great Swimmer

Listen to each of these three beeps in turn and decide which is the stroke rate of Ian Thorpe winning his five Olympic golds:
A: B: C:
(Imagine the beeps corresponding to his hands entering into the water, so it's "beep" = left hand enters, "beep" = right hand enters etc.)

Which do you think?

Ian Thorpe was considered by many coaches to have a
"perfect" freestyle stroke.

The correct answer is C, the fastest of the three. This is 75 strokes per minute (SPM) and if you own a Tempo Trainer Pro and have tried to swim at this rhythm yourself then you'll know it's a very fast stroke rate. Far too quick for there to be any pause-and-glide in his stroke.

Many swimmers remember Thorpie as having a long slow technique but this is an illusion brought about by the length of his stroke and his silky smooth movements. In fact he has a long and fast stroke, which is why he is so devastatingly quick of course!

(For reference, the other two audio tracks are at 55 and 65 SPM)

A Brilliant Stroke

Here's a fascinating quote from Thorpe's autobiography This Is Me, where he talks about counting his strokes per lap in a 50m pool:

I've got it down to 24 per lap, which is about as low as I want it to get. I could reduce it by another four strokes but the danger is that I'd get to the point where I'm gliding rather than swimming efficiently.

Ian's talking about deliberately taking fewer strokes per lap during a technique set but the interesting point here is that when swimming in a race he actually took 30-32 strokes per 50m. A full 10-12 strokes more than he could if he wanted to.

Further, by studying slow motion video of Ian swimming we can see that any perceived glide in his stroke is an illusion. The gap between one of his strokes finishing at the rear and the next starting at the front is just 0.15 to 0.2 of a second - less than the blink of an eye!

This highlights the fact that while Ian developed a brilliantly efficient freestyle stroke, he didn't do so by making his stroke as long as he possibly could. Instead, he found the right trade off between the stroke length and stroke rate given his height, build, flexibility and fitness level. And you should do the same.

(Hint: unless you're 6'5" with size 17 feet and have swum all your life, expect to end up at more than 32 strokes per lap!)

Losing The Pause And Glide

Many swimmers have been taught to add a deliberate pause-and-glide in their strokes but this is something we fundamentally disagree with here at Swim Smooth, even for novice swimmers. As Ian said, by trying to artificially elongate your stroke you'll experience a big drop-off in your efficiency and once ingrained the pause-and-glide habit is a very hard one to break.

The classic Overglider strokes very slowly indeed, in the region of 45 SPM (listen to that here). If you visualise swimming at that stroke rate you can appreciate how you would start to sink low in the water and lose any sense of rhythm.

If you're an Overglider yourself and have tried to lift your stroke rate then you might have found it hard to do. What's normally happening here is that you're keeping the deadspot in place and trying to increase the speed of every other movement! Instead, lift your stroke rate by removing the pause. Keep things smooth and continuous at the front of your stroke, either extending forwards, catching the water or pressing backwards, never pausing.

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

Brilliant article I am such an overglider and have had massive improvemnet trying to sort it but still a way to go.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

Appreciate overgliding..but you don't say what race distance this beat was from... Are you suggesting that Thorpies stroke rate is the same for all distances?
That is like saying that Usain Bolt could run the same speed over 100m or 42KM ..It just ain't so...
Thorpies threshold at that speed was 400M ... wouldn't even get him off the beach on the way to Rotto...
I would be keen to know what stroke rate he would use on a longer swim like that?

Anonymous said...

75 Reasons Ian Thorpe Is A Great Swimmer

Vasily said...

Hi Paul!

Recently I did a 1km time trial in 17min (about 1:42/100m) with average stroke rate about 68.5 strokes per 50m. But while trying to eliminate glide pause before next catch (as you advice in your book) my length per stroke went embarrassingly short - 29 cycles per 50m (58 strokes with both arms), which I see as way too much.

Does that mean that I have to pay more attention to power of stroke trying to improve my stroke length (doing more gym and pulling work) or is it not that horrible and my priority still should be improving body position and catch? What would you recommend?

Adam Young said...

Hi Peter,

Well we don't know what Thorpie would do with his stroke rate over longer distances but it wouldn't vary too much at least in the pool. He would kick less hard and might stroke 2-3 SPM slower but still fast! He would also have the option of increasing it, especially in open water (see below)

The interesting point here is that most of the great open water distance swimmers actually stroke very quickly. Someone like Shelley Taylor Smith would hold 90+SPM for 12 hours (!!) and Mel Benson (who's won rotto solo overall, beating all the men!) 90SPM for the whole 20km. Most of the elite men are in the 80-90SPM range too.

The thing is not to equate stroke rate to speed, just equate it to the rhythm you require for the distance and conditions you are racing in. By getting into your catch a little quicker you can lift stroke rate with very little if any increase in effort or loss of efficiency (for overgliders it will increase speed and efficiency).

Quite right anonymous, apologies to Ian, he's still is a great swimmer of course!

Hi Vasily, how tall are you? No shame in a higher stroke count, many great swimmer took over 50 strokes per lap!


Anonymous said...

"Quite right anonymous..."

No problem. I figure that he could still beat over 99% of us.


Barry said...

Hey guys, appreciate all of your pointers!

Question - Is there an ideal number of strokes it should take someone to go the length of a 25 yard pool? I'm 5' 8" with an arm span (fingertips to fingertips) of maybe a half an inch longer. And what would be the corresponding SPM?

Continued thanks!


Adam Young said...

Hi Barry,

In a word no! :)

Height, arm length, size of your hands, ankle flexibility, personal style (swinger vs. smooth) and also the environment in which you’re swimming in (good open water always involves a punchier stroke) all have a big impact so it's not possible to put a 'correct' figure on SPL.

My best advice is to actually forget stroke length and focus on doing all the right things in your stroke such as improving your body position, breathing technique, alignment, catch, getting a good rhythm and then see how the stroke count comes out. Good swimmers could be using anywhere between 12 and 25 strokes per length in a 25yd pool so chasing a specific number is clearly the wrong thing to do.


TriCoachMartin said...

Interesting that 80-90SPM is considered ideal for swimming as it is a frequency around that which is often referred to in both cycling and running as an ideal candence. I wonder if there's something fundamental to the human physiology about 90 beats per minute.

Adam Young said...

Hi Martin,

Interesting theory but unfortunately in cycling and running we count cycles but in swimming we count each arm. So 90 SPM in swimming is only 45 RPM in cycling and running...

Sorry about that!


pjst0rer said...

Hi Paul

Love your work. I would like to come to your classes, but living in adelaide makes it hard.

I've been doing some garmin 910xt data analysis and I can't understand what is going on: At the pool (50m) recently i did a set of 6 by 200m intervals, after a warmup. The data from these intervals shows that I averaged for each set about 52 strokes per lap at the start and 54 spl at the end (ie. 51.5, 52, 52, 53.5, 54, 54.5). The average seconds per lap were 58, 57, 58.6, 59.2, 59.5, 60.5. Looks like I slowed down as I got tired.

From all this I calculated my avg strokes per minute as 49.8 up to 55 at the end. Looks like I speed up my stroke rate as I get tired - loosing efficiency too. Within each set the pattern is the same: the fastest laps are the first and last, with the fastest laps having the lowest stroke rate.

After a short rest at the end of this session I swam one last lap at 95% effort: 49.6 secs for the lap, needing 'only' 46 strokes, and I am puffing hard.

Note that my height is 163cm, BMI = 21 (56kg=> 21) and ape index is +1, breathing bilateral in a 3,2,3,2 pattern.

I figure I already have a low stroke rate, but it decreases as I go faster.

So yesterday in open water I swam first with a low stroke rate, and then with higher (at least 10 spm higher) and no 'extra' kicking. My speed was basically the same ... so whatever I gained in stroke rate i lost in efficiency...

Do you have any comments on this data? I can't figure out why I get so puffed at a lower stroke rate that pulls me faster through the water...

Adam Young said...

Hi Peter,

A couple of quick comments from me:

Try not to equate efficiency to stroke length - it's really not the case. In a 50m pool, Olympic champions take between 28 and 60 strokes per lap and they're all clearly very efficient swimmers. It's the most popular misconception in swimming and can easily lead you down the wrong path with your stroke.

> I can't figure out why I get so puffed at a lower stroke rate that pulls me faster through the water...

So you're swimming the same speed and you're getting puffed at lower stroke rates? It sounds like you're overly lengthening your stroke and losing efficiency as a result - strongly suggesting it isn't suiting you to do that.

Hope that helps!


Rory O'Donoghue said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
nanoRat said...

Last summer I got involved with a coach that stressed nothing but distance per stroke. The result was that even though I was doubling my workout yardage, my race time for the 1500m actually slowed down. The Tempo Trainer and help from "feelforthewater" website reversed this. I actually bought 2 Tempo Trainers. One for tempo and one for pace.

Adam Young said...

Hi nanoRat,

We hear that story time and time again! Did you see this blog post from a couple of weeks ago:




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