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 rate change. Swimming faster normally means both a slightly longer stroke and a slightly faster turnover. That's the short answer, on which we're going to expand below.
First 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 given distance (e.g. a length of your pool).
- 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 90s 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.
But 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 and get a hold of the water before pressing it backwards. This initial engagement with the water is called your catch technique and it can have a dramatic effect on your stroke rate.
Generally speaking, swimmers with a better catch can swim at a higher stroke rate without fighting the water. Which 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 run a ramp test, do some work on fine tuning your catch.
Our go-to product for improving your catch is the Swim Smooth Catch Masterclass - available in the Guru here: www.swimsmooth.guru/subsection/fw/catch-masterclass/
Or on DVD here: www.swimsmooth.com/catchmasterclass.html
You can also watch the trailer here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Q3Tsp_u02c
The Swim Smooth Stroke Rate Ramp Test
OK, so you're confident your catch is half-decent, what now? You need to conduct 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 50s (meters or yards depending on your pool) starting at a low stroke rate and progressively increasing it each 50. You control your stroke rate with a Tempo Trainer Pro beeping the rhythm to you and record your time per 50m, 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 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. But within the range of the test you might
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:
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 similar cadence through the range.
Try this set and let us know how you get on! You can see the Perth squad board here for the entire session: