Ask any committed triathlete her running cadence or cycling cadence, and she’ll quote you the exact, most recent number. And she might have some Garmin/Polar/Suunto data to back it up.
But ask any triathlete his swimming cadence, and he’ll probably think you’re talking about how many strokes it takes to cross the pool.
Swimming cadence or stroke rate is the time it takes your arm to make one full cycle from hand entry through the underwater pull to recovery and back to hand entry.
And you need to know it. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’re leaving speed in the water.
Swimming is the most technical sport in triathlon because the medium of water is very dense. Little differences in swimming technique have big consequences. If your stroke rate is too slow, you’re gliding. If your stroke rate is too fast, your underwater pull is inefficient. Stroke rate is half of equation that determines your swim speed. For an introduction to stroke rate, take a look at this post The Swimming Equation.
Then get to a pool and time your stroke rate!
How to Find Your Stroke Rate
- Get a friend, a stopwatch, a clipboard, paper, pencil, and head to the pool.
- Warm up.
- Swim a series of 100s at your goal race pace.
- During these, your friend should time one full arm cycle. That is, start the stopwatch as soon as your leading arm hits the water and then stop it when that same arm hits the water surface in front of you again. (It doesn’t matter which arm.)
- Your friendly assistant should time your stroke several times during each 100. She should also occasionally time two full cycles (right arm then left arm) and divide that time by two to minimize error from reaction time.
Now that you have some data, review the stroke rates your friend wrote down. Look for the number that shows up most often. This is your stroke rate. Check out this post on what your stroke rate means to your swimming.
For a complete discussion of freestyle stroke count and stroke rate, take a look at Swim Speed Secrets.
Turning TV Time into Tube Time
Reader Beth, who has been writing about her progress with the Swim Speed Workouts program through comments on the Test Team reports, makes an excellent suggestion for comparing your stroke rate to the pros: Watch them race on TV or via online video and move your arms along. If their stroke rate feels fast, you probably need to speed up your arm cycles. You can also turn tube time into Tube Time: get your swim tubing and do a tubing set that matches the cadence of the pros on screen.
If you own Swim Speed Workouts, the green toolkit cards include an introduction to stroke rate. Many of the workouts include drills and fast turnover sets that improve stroke rate. Workout 5-1 includes drills on arm extension designed to help you find the best arm extension for you.
Sheila Taormina’s Swim Speed Series reveals the world’s fastest way to swim.