When Does Freestyle Arm Extension Become Gliding?

Swim Speed Secrets straight-arm underwater pull

A reader on the Swim Speed Secrets Facebook page made a point recently, “I know there is a fine line between gliding and extension. Could you explain further?”

In freestyle swimming, gliding is holding your leading arm out in front of your body for too long. Gliding makes you slower (see this post The Swimming Equation). Some swimmers, particularly triathletes, glide simply because it feels easier, but when you glide, you are missing the opportunity to take more strokes that will propel you forward faster. Gliding feels easier because it’s slower, just like soft-pedaling your bike or walking up a hill instead of running. Both are easier, both are much slower than racing.

So the reader is essentially asking, “How long is too long to hold your arm out in front?” When does arm extension become gliding?

During her career as a Olympic swimmer and world cup triathlete, Sheila Taormina reviewed archival video of the world’s top swimmers to analyze their swimming technique, stroke counts, and stroke rates. What she found makes answering this reader simple:

Extension becomes gliding at 1.7 seconds or longer.

Many gliders have stroke rates of 2 to 3 seconds per arm cycle. Since they are taking fewer strokes to cross the pool, these swimmers have low stroke counts, but they are also taking a lot longer to do it.

In Chapter 7 of Swim Speed Secrets, Sheila includes a table that shows the stroke rates of the world’s fastest swimmers. Top swimmers swim with a stroke rate between 1.15 and 1.6 seconds. Any longer is gliding instead of swimming fast. The most common stroke rate among top swimmers is 1.3-1.4 seconds per cycle.

This may sound like a quicker cadence than you’d expect. When watching the summer Olympics, for example, some of the big guys look like they are hardly moving their arms as they set new world records. Even the elites who extend the most, like Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe, simply appear as if they are moving their arms slowly. If you got a stopwatch and counted the time from one arm’s entry to its re-entry, you’d find that Phelps and Thorpe have stroke rates of 1.5-1.6 seconds per full arm cycle. Female elites swim on the faster end of the range. Sprinters in the 50m and 100m distances stroke even faster, between 1 and 1.2 seconds per cycle.

SSST How to Time Freestyle Swimming Stroke Rate Cadence Swim Speed Secrets

Are you a glider? Here’s a simple test to find your stroke rate:

  1. Get a friend, a stopwatch, a clipboard, paper, pencil, and head to the pool.
  2. Warm up.
  3. Swim a series of 100s at your goal race pace.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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 you have some data! Review the stroke rates your friend wrote down. You should now know your current stroke rate. If your rate is over 1.6 seconds, then you are presented with a wonderful opportunity: speed up your cadence and you’ll instantly swim faster!

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.

Swim Speed Workouts includes drills and speed sets designed to improve your stroke rate. If you own the book already, take a look at the green toolkit cards for a discussion of stroke rate and the swimming equation. Workout 5-1 includes sets that help swimmers find that perfect middle ground of short, powerful strokes and proper arm extension.

For a complete discussion of freestyle stroke count and stroke rate, take a look at Swim Speed Secrets.

Sheila Taormina’s Swim Speed Series reveals the world’s fastest way to swim.