Friday, March 27, 2015

Should You Be Trying To Increase Your Stroke Rate?

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One of the most common questions we get asked by swimmers is whether you should be trying to lift your stroke rate when you swim. The answer depends a little on your individual swimming.

Your stroke rate is how many strokes you take per minute (not how many you take per length) which is a similar idea to your cadence on the bike. At Swim Smooth we normally count both arms for stroke rate, so if you swim at a stroke rate of 60 strokes per minute (SPM) you will have taken 30 strokes with your left arm and 30 with your right every minute.

Generally speaking swimming with a higher stroke is good for open water swimming as the extra rhythm in the stroke helps you punch through waves, chop and disturbed water. For that reason, although you might take more strokes to swim a given distance, you will be more efficient doing so. This is a bit like spinning a smaller gear on the bike - each stroke takes less effort but you take more of them.

Of course like anything it's possible to over do this and end up fighting the water (see The Arnie below) but most elite open water swimmers and triathletes swim very effectively in the range of 75-90 strokes per minute and are very smooth and economical whilst doing so. For examples see Rhys Mainstone, Richard Varga and Tim Don in the Swim Smooth Coaching System.

So should you be trying to turn your arms over faster? Let's look at three classic types of swimmer and discuss:

The Arnie is the classic swimmer who has a tendency to fight with the water. Naturally athletic people, they try to use their strength and power to muscle through their stroke:

(See more Arnies here:

Most Arnies naturally sit at around 65-75 strokes per minutes which is a little too fast for them at this point in their development. If you are an Arnie, using a beeper* to slow your stroke rate down to 55-60SPM gives you the chance to straighten and lengthen out your stroke. Things will instantly feel more relaxed and controlled when you do so.

One word of warning - don't over-do this and add a big pause into the stroke timing at the front as you'll turn into an Overglider (see below). Hit that half-way house: smooth but still rhythmical.

The Bambino is also relatively new to swimming (like the Arnie) and can look deceptively like them at first glance. However, Bambinos nearly always lack a sense of rhythm and purpose in the stroke, with their stroke rates sitting around 50SPM or sometimes even slower:

(See more Bambinos here:

If you feel your are a Bambino then experiment with lifting your stroke rate up using a beeper* - you'll love the sense of rhythm it gives you. Aiming for around 5 SPM higher than normal is a good start, although in the long run you'll probably be able to take it up more than that.

You might also be surprised to find that speeding things up doesn't necessarily make things harder as you might expect because it gives you a greater attachment with the water during the catch at the front of the stroke and lifts your body up higher up.

The Overglider is the classic swimmer who has tried to lengthen out their stroke and added a deadspot or pause in their timing. Unfortunately this nearly always causes them to drop the elbow and wrist, and push against the water at the front of the stroke:

(See more Overgliders here:

Overgliders have low stroke rates (typically in the range 45-53 SPM) and if you fit this type then you should be looking to lift your rate upwards. But (and it is a big but) first you need to correct the dropped wrist position. Lifting stroke rate whilst pushing forwards against the water like this won't be sustainable!

Correct the dropped wrist position at the front of your stroke and you will find your stroke rate naturally elevates without any conscious focus on it. A good target for you is around 57-65SPM, depending on your height and arm reach. See our full correction process here:

Controlling Your Stroke Rate

* You might be wondering how to make adjustments to your stroke rate. It turns out this is pretty easy to do these days with a gadget such as the Finis Tempo Trainer Pro. Set it to any given stroke rate and it beeps the timing to you. Slip it under your swim cap and simply time your strokes to the beep (normally as your hand enters the water) - instant control!

For a bit of fun, try programming in these stroke rates of famous swimmers and try them out for size:

Ian Thorpe: 75 SPM

Alistair Brownlee: 90 SPM

Laure Manadou: 110 SPM

Swim Smooth!


Christopher Doyle said...

Hi Swim Smooth,
I am definitely one interested in raising my stroke rate but I AM worried about having the stroke shorten in an attempt or while trying to achieve this. What do you think?

Annie Oberlin-Harris said...

Hi Christopher,

Have you tried a ramp test and had a look at what the numbers say as to which stroke rate is more efficient for you? You might be surprised!

Phil Parr-Burman said...

Hi Swim Smooth. OK, Elite's might use a high stroke rate, but they are swimming much faster so shouldn't someone slower, with the same stroke efficiency, have a proportionally slower stroke rate? Take Alistair Brownlee at 90 SPM and swimming at 16 mins for a 1500. If I'm swimming at 24 mins for a 1500, I'm the same size and if (?) I'm just as efficient shouldn't I be stroking at more like 60 SPM? Or is there something I'm missing?

Anonymous said...

hello Swim smooth,

by rising the stroke rate, are you not getting tired more quickly?

Unknown said...

Thanks as always! Some physics: So if I raise my stroke rate and am not working as hard then some part of my pull must be less... i.e. I am reaching less or not pulling back as far or moving my arm slower through the water. So my question is, when I increase rate, what part of the work is sacrificed. For me it feels like my reach diminishes and so does my finish. Is this what you expect? Thanks again!!!

Steve Dellow said...

This is a great post but I have the same query as the other guys. When I increase my stroke rate it feels like I am sprinting. Do you need to shorten the stroke length? Something has to give otherwise it's just not sustainable.

Annie Oberlin-Harris said...

Hi Phil- Swimming comparatively slower in stroke rate and speed surely means your efficiency is in theory also less? Interestingly look at the negative correlation between your time and stroke rate and his (50% different).

Hi Anonymous: Our previous post on rising stroke rate and oxygen uptake can be found here:
The science (and observations of elites such as Shelley Taylor Smith etc) unequivocally suggests otherwise.

Hi Unknown: See above link and also, if you're less tired after raising your stroke rate than your efficiency has in fact increased- you are more effective at pushing the water backwards. It's not necessarily what part of your stroke 'work' you're losing, but the gains associated with a faster rate. If it was more efficient to be slower, then you'd see Olympians with slower stroke rates than they have.

Steve: It could perhaps be that as your stroke rate increases so does your kicking rate, which in itself is energy sapping. Perhaps try with a pull buoy or minimising the leg kick propulsion and see if that is the case? Of course turning your arms over faster will feel initially harder but you'll soon get the training effect.

Patricia said...

Hi! I use the Finis and set it for 36 which coincides to my right hand going in the water. Is that a 72 stroke count? or a 36?

Anonymous said...

Great message this week. I recognise the Arnie. I always thought I was a Bambino and am surprised to see I am classified as an Arnie. After reading the Arnie portion I have a new set to work on. Thanks. Kiwi Neil

Paul said...

Hi Patricia, yes that would be "72" in Swim Smooth language...have a go setting to 72 and timing each hand entry - this will help you with your symmetry and timing which at 36 wouldn't be quite so effective.

Annie Oberlin-Harris said...

You're welcome Neil! Enjoy!

Phil Parr-Burman said...

Thanks for the reply Anne. Maybe my numbers got mixed up. The comparison I'm making is that Alistair B swims at 90 SPM and swims the 1500 in say 16 mins - that's 1.07 mins/100. I swim it at 60 SPM in 24 mins, that's 1.6 mins/100. So he swims 50% quicker with a 50% higher stroke rate, which means our efficiencies, in terms of "lost motion per stroke" are similar. Clearly his engine can put out more output than mine!
So have I missed something in this argument?

Annie Oberlin-Harris said...

Hi Phil, I think this might help you:


Annie Oberlin-Harris said...

Hi Phil, I think this might help you: