The folks at Swim Smooth have a great write up (click here) on why stroke rate is such an important aspect of your swimming. Stroke rate is different than stroke length. There has been a lot of emphasis in the past with stroke length (I’m sure you’ve heard the term “distance per stroke”) but a better tool for improving your speed is to know your stroke rate. Stroke rate applies to all four strokes, but for the purposes of the Swim Smooth article, they are concentrating on freestyle.
Stroke length is how far you travel with each stroke. A longer stroke length means less strokes to the end of the lap. Stroke length does have a place in our swimming strategy, especially for newbies and beginner-intermediates, but stroke length can also work against you. If you have too much glide in your stroke it can leave you with some significant pauses where your forward momentum begins to stall out. That can create drag and a loss of balance for you as well as an increased use of energy needed to come back from the stall. It can look smooth and pretty but may not give you the efficiency or speed you desire in your swim.
Stroke rate is how many strokes you take, otherwise known as turnover. In a very simplified way of thinking about stroke rate, the longer the swim, the lower your stroke rate. The shorter the swim (think 50 free and its wild splash-and-dash approach) the higher the stroke rate. Stroke rate is measured in strokes per minute (SPM). In the Swim Smooth article they even have a tool you can use to establish your strokes per minute and see how that rate equates to reaching your goal in something like a 100m freestyle race.
There are a few ways to measure Stroke Rate. If you use a Finis Tempo Trainer Pro (the yellow one with the replaceable batter) you can go into Mode 3 and play with a range anywhere from 60-110. 60 is a slow, easy turnover. 110 is frenzied. Try several swims from slow, easy and comfortable to fast and furious. Where do you fall? What can you sustain for a 25? A 50? A 400? Use that knowledge and plan some sets around it.
If you don’t have a Tempo Trainer – well heck ya big goof, go get one – then you can have someone simply time you for 10 strokes. They would start the stopwatch with the first hand entry and each subsequent hand entry is a count, stopping the watch on your 10th hand entry. Have them do this for a few 10-second stretches so you get an accurate look at your stroke rate. You can also get video taped and then conduct your own stopwatch assessment in the same fashion.
Along with the Swim Smooth write up, I found a YouTube video (below) that shows how they took a swimmer, analyzed his stroke (which was too slow with too much glide) and improved his stroke rate so that he would be faster and more efficient. It is a long video (26 minutes) but worth watching. There are some good tips in there on how you can improve your own stroke rate in freestyle.
Again, knowing and working with your stroke rate encompasses all your strokes. Using the Finis Tempo Trainer Pro is one of the best tools you have at your disposal. Keep a log of your stroke rate and set some goals on how to improve it. Remember, you still have to have efficiency in your stroke so don’t sacrifice good stroke mechanics simply to flail yourself down to the other end of the pool. After all, it is about image, right? We want to swim pretty, right?