As You Change Speed What Should Happen To Your Stroke Rate And Stroke Length?

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Here's a great question from Guru swimmer Andrew Boccio:

If I'm running, my cadence stays the same (about 180) regardless of how fast I go. The only difference would be how much I push off the ground, thereby lengthening my stride length. That extra effort of pushing off the ground harder to get a bigger stride, is ultimately what gains speed, not the cadence increase. As I'm sure you know this already, I only point it out because I'm confused as to how this is analogous in swimming.

It seems as though the way you describe stroke rate is that it should be the same for you as a swimmer once you find your optimal rate. And that rate matters so much in terms of the actual mechanics of your swimming (overgliding if it's too slow and chopping hard if it's too fast). But how is it possible to ever change speeds then?? If I slow my stroke rate, I mess up my form, and same if I increase it too much. So then do I have to shorten or lengthen my stroke length (which doesn't seem possible really). Or, the only thing I can come up with is pushing less water or using less effort on the catch so that your "push off the ground" (so to speak), does not require as much effort and you will therefore go slower. 

The short answer to Andrew's question is that as you change speed, both your stroke rate and stroke length change. Swimming faster normally means both a slightly longer stroke and a slightly faster turnover.

Before we expand on that, here's a couple of quick definitions:

- Your stroke length is how far you travel on each stroke. One way of measuring this is to count your strokes over a length of the pool - the fewer strokes you take the longer your stroke length.

- Your stroke rate is how fast you are turning your arms over - i.e. your cadence. We normally quote this is strokes per minute. You can measure this with a specialist stop watch and control it using a stroke rate beeper such as a Finis Tempo Trainer Pro.

Note that in the early 1990s it became popular to count strokes per length driven by the belief that a longer stroke always meant a more efficient stroke. We now understand that this is not the case and there are distinct dangers with trying to reduce your stroke count too far. Instead you need to find a balance between the length and rate of your stroke for you as an individual.

So how do you find this sweet spot and swim "optimally" at different effort levels?

First Fine Tune Your Catch Technique

Right at the front of the stroke you extend forwards underwater and get a hold of the water before pressing it backwards. This initial engagement with the water is called your "catch" and your catch technique can have a dramatic effect on your stroke rate.

Generally speaking, swimmers with a better catch swim at a higher stroke rate without fighting the water. This is one of the secrets to swimming fast and efficiently.

Pressing down on the water, pressing wide or even pressing forwards (Overgliding) can dramatically reduce your stroke rate. Trying to optimise your stroke rate with any of these flaws in place will prove a frustrating experience. So before you go ahead and run a ramp test (described below) do some work on fine tuning your catch.

Pressing down during the catch gives you
less propulsion and slows your stroke rate

Our "go-to" product for improving your catch is the Swim Smooth Catch Masterclass - available in the Guru here:

Or on DVD here:

Watch the Catch Masterclass trailer here:

The Swim Smooth Stroke Rate Ramp Test

OK, so you're confident your catch is half-decent, what now? You need to conduct a experiment on your swimming that we call a "Ramp Test".

We've conducted ramp tests on thousands of swimmers over many years at Swim Smooth and use a standard test format you can find here:

The test involves you swimming a series of 50 meters or 50 yards starting at a low stroke rate and progressively increasing the rate each 50. You control your stroke rate with a Tempo Trainer Pro beeping the rhythm to you and record your time per 50, your strokes per length and how it felt in terms of effort.

Ideally you run this blind without knowing the stroke rate you are at and have a friend time you, count your strokes per 50 and record everything on the stroke rate sheet.

As you increase stroke rate you'll go progressively quicker up to a certain point where you really start to fight things and can't continue. Stop there!

When you look at the results you should find at least one "sweet spot" where your stroke "clicks into place" and works nicely. There might be a noticeable drop in effort at this point and/or an increase in speed too.

Better swimmers will often find more than one sweet spot over their speed range. One around steady effort level and another around CSS pace:

Of course once you have found these sweet spots you can target them in training over longer swims and key training sets. As you develop that sense of rhythm at which you best perform you can use it in races for best performance.

Developing More Versatility

But what if you want to swim at a pace faster or slower than your sweet spot? Perhaps you want to smoothly change your pace during a race for tactical reasons.

To develop this versatility in your stroke, try the following set where you are varying force application during the catch to change the length of your stroke. This will adjust your pace whilst still swimming at an "ideal" rhythm for you:

Swim 4x 200m/yds with a Finis Tempo Trainer Pro set to a stroke rate you might naturally use for steady paced swimming. If you don't have a Tempo Trainer, aim to maintain a similar stroke cadence throughout. all the 200s.

Progressively increase the firmness of the catch for each 200 to lengthen your stroke and increase the pace you are swimming. Don't add a glide, just increase the pressure during the catch and maintain the stroke rhythm:

First 200: Light catch - "Granny Gear"
Second 200: "Apply a sense of firmness"
Third 200: "Catch treacle"
Fourth 200: "Big gear"

Think of it like changing the gears on your bike but maintaining the same cadence through the range. As you adapt to doing this you should effectively broaden the speed range you can swim within your sweet-spot stroke-rate.

Try this set and let us know how you get on! You can see the Perth squad board here for the entire session:

Swim Smooth!


David Kaufman said...

That is a fantastic question! Great post! Thanks

Andrew Boccio said...

Great answer, so knowledgeable! I appreciate the in-depth answer.

A meryl said...

Hi,a great and well described process.
I personally raised my speed thanks to the the guru, and that's exactly what happened. A stronger catch, a slight increase of the rate, and a fine tune of my stroke length.
Works well, thanks, swimsmooth.

Adam Young said...

Glad you enjoyed the post guys!


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