The Swimming Equation: Examples of Stroke Count and Stroke Rate

Swim Speed Secrets by Sheila Taormina

This is the second part of a chapter from Swim Speed Secrets, 2nd Ed. that introduces the relationship between swimming stroke count and stroke rate. For a full understanding of the relationship, don’t miss the first part of the chapter here: The Relationship Between Stroke Count and Stroke Rate.


In the second chapter of my new, expanded edition of Swim Speed Secrets, we introduced the big picture of swimming: stroke count and stroke rate. Understanding that both sides of this swimming equation determine your swimming times is key to becoming a faster swimmer, so if you missed that post, go take a look before you read on!

Next, let’s look at the equation more closely and take note of how the two factors work in a real-life situation.

To reduce our time in swimming, the two factors must be lowered. We can either lower one or the other, or lower both. The tricky part is that sometimes we get excited that we reduced one, but we forget to check how the other was affected.

The two factors are not always independent of each other. Sometimes the steps we take to reduce one factor end up increasing the other. The best way to explain this is to give two examples. (Note: The numbers I am using in these examples are chosen for the sake of simplicity. Chapter 8 examines the actual stroke counts and rate numbers we see in the top swimmers.)


A weekend swimming clinic is coming to town. It is marketed as holding the key to unleashing your swimming potential. Before the clinic, let’s say the swimmers averaged 10 strokes to cross the pool at 1 second per stroke. Using simple math, we’d know one lap for these swimmers would take 10 seconds:

10 strokes × 1 second/stroke = 10 seconds

During the clinic, swimmers are told that taking fewer strokes is better. The focus is entirely on reducing the number of strokes to get across the pool. From our equation, we know this is a good thing. However, at this clinic, the swimmers are not told about the other half of the equation. All weekend, the participants are in the water—reaching, extending, and gliding out front. They look beautiful and smooth.

The athletes get excited about having reduced their number of strokes from 10 down to 8. They probably raised their hands to tell the coach the good news, and the coach probably high-fived them. But, here is the problem: The coach never told them about rate. No one timed their turnover. Now, instead of taking 1 second per stroke, the swimmers are taking 1.5 seconds per stroke, because they are gliding out front so long on every stroke.

By the end of the clinic, their equation looks like this:

8 strokes x 1.5 seconds/stroke = 12 seconds

Yikes! They became slower. They left the clinic thinking they had become faster, but the opposite was true. And the reason they got slower was that they were taught only half the equation and led to believe they could improve their swimming by focusing only on reducing their number of strokes.

They may not realize this for a while. In fact, many of them may never quite understand, instead always wondering what they did wrong. I hope this book gets into the hands of everyone who has experienced that disappointment, because I want to tell them that they did nothing wrong. The problem was that they were never given the full picture. They were only given half the equation and thought that was all they needed to be on their way to swimming stardom. The bottom line is that you cannot improve your swimming by focusing only on the number-of-strokes side of the equation through gliding out front. That is not what competitive swimmers do to improve their swim times. That said, gliding does serve one particular group of swimmers quite well. It serves the swimmer who would like to enjoy the sport simply for exercise or is learning to swim just to survive through a triathlon or, as a friend of mine once put it, in case your boat sinks. In other words, anyone who is not focused on time and who merely wants the enjoyment of being able to swim (or is a survivalist) will benefit wonderfully from stretching out his or her stroke. It is less taxing, is simple to do, and provides a healthy, low-impact way to exercise. However, if you are a swimmer who wants to be competitive, then you have to stay with me for a while longer to find out how to reduce the number of strokes you take without adversely affecting your rate.


For this example, let’s imagine a completely different scenario. You are at an age-group swim meet, and the adorable 8 and unders are on the blocks for the 25-yard freestyle. Their goggles are on crooked, their suits are too big for them, and they are ready to jump in and give it their all. They have so much energy stored up that they are like wind-up toys, which is exactly what they look like when they race down the pool. Their arms spin at warp speed. They take about a million strokes to get to the other end. It is the cutest thing ever!

Here is what their equation looks like:

15 strokes x .8 seconds/stroke = 12 seconds

The great effort that was just put forth ends up not paying off. The time is slower. Even though the rate side of the equation was reduced, the number of strokes went up significantly, because the arms never “held” the water. This scenario can be likened to a car’s wheels spinning on ice.

Most people reading this book will fall into the category of Example 1, but understanding what is going on in Example 2 is important. Learning to “hold” the water is critical. If you are paying close attention to words, then critical is your clue that we are getting closer to discussing the 20 percent of stroke elements that take us 80 percent of the way to optimizing both factors in our equation.