Stroke rate: What’s it all about?

Part 1 of 2

A swimmer recently asked my opinion on what his freestyle stroke rate should be, and I did not have an immediate answer.

One reason: most of my athletes don’t have an extensive swimming background, so improving technique for efficiency takes top priority. We work mainly to decrease strokes per length. We rarely, if ever, discuss tempo.

But it’s an important question and one I hadn’t thought about in a while.

Let’s dive into my video archives. We’ll use the footage as a jumping off point to explore the underlying principles at work.

First, watch two videos of our Macedonian friend Marko Blazevski.

Last summer, the Olympian visited our master’s group at Fairmeadows Swim Club in Charlotte. Here, he shows how his superior technique allows him to easily swim one length in just 8 strokes.

For our purposes, though, I needed to know his stroke rate. So I timed one stroke cycle at 2.8 seconds. (A stroke cycle is a full stroke with the right arm and left arm).

U.S. Masters Swimming says conventional wisdom and research has found that a cycle between .99 and 1.5 seconds is the accepted range for fast swimming for adults.

That makes sense. Marko is swimming slowly, so it takes much longer for a cycle. He’s also only focused on one part of the equation that defines speed. Our speed, or velocity, is the product of stroke rate and distance traveled with each stroke cycle. He’s only working on distance traveled.

Now, let’s check out this cool footage of Marko as a teenager in 2011. His coach filmed a pretty epic practice session in which Marko swam 3,000 yards in just under 30 minutes.

Here, I estimated his stroke cycle at 1.5 seconds. That falls within the range cited by USMS. It translates to 40 cycles per minute, consistent with stroke rates of many male 1500-meter Olympic swimmers.

Next, we’re going to see even more of a shift from distance per stroke to stroke rate with two sprinters. That can be a good trade-off in short bursts. The increase in rate more than offsets the shorter distance per stroke. The result is that velocity increases.

Here, Madison Kennedy swims the 50-meter freestyle last year in Charlotte.

Her stroke cycle is 1 second, or 60 cycles per minute. That turnover is at the fastest end of what USMS recommends for typical adults, but not uncommon for top females.

Watch closely, though, and see that Madison’s turnover is slower than the rest of the field. We all have our own sweet spot in the balance between distance per stroke and rate. She makes a calculated decision to more than make up for a slower rate with added power from a longer stroke.

She won the race.

Finally, let’s examine the extreme end of the stroke rate spectrum.

Watch Queens University’s Dmytro Sydorchenko blaze through a 19.99 50-yard freestyle at conference championships in Charlotte.

Each stroke cycle takes .8 seconds. That’s 75 cycles per minute.

Could the rest of us move our arms in freestyle at a rate as fast as Madison or Dmytro?

Even if we could, would we move as quickly as them? Almost certainly not. That’s because even if we matched the rate, very few of us could generate the power to match their distance per stroke and hold that turnover.

Many of us can swim one length of the pool in 12 strokes, as Marko did in the 3,000-yard swim. Yet we fall short of his feat because we can’t execute a stroke cycle of 1.5 seconds for 30 minutes.

Next time: What’s your ideal stroke rate?

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