The Swimming Equation: How to Think About Freestyle Swim Stroke Rate

A reader sent in a question recently about stroke rate. He noticed that his stroke rate had fallen after beginning the Swim Speed Workouts training program, resulting in fewer strokes per length. He was concerned about having a lower stroke rate because, in Swim Speed Secrets, swim coach Sheila Taormina fully explains the Swimming Equation, which is:

Strokes per Length x Stroke Rate = Seconds per Length

Sheila busts the myth that distance per stroke is the most important factor for swimmers, explaining that how far you travel per stroke is only half the equation that determines your speed in the water.

The reader expected to be taking more strokes per length as a result of a faster turnover.

Sheila replied:

“It’s fine that your stroke rate is slower. I think you are seeing what happens when you hold more water with each stroke. The equation (# of strokes x rate) is balanced/optimized uniquely for each swimmer. If you look at the rates and number of strokes comparisons in Ch. 7 of Swim Speed Secrets you will see how the equation varies by swimmer, even at the elite level.

Eventually, as the stroke becomes more natural you will find your rate gets faster due to better swim conditioning and also as you learn how the coordinate the core with the arms and legs. Always remember that rate improves based on the core moving past the arm/hand more quickly, never because the hand rushed and slipped through the water.”

You can read about stroke rate, distance per stroke, and the Swimming Equation in Sheila Taormina’s best-selling book Swim Speed Secrets.

Sheila Taormina’s Swim Speed Series is available in bookstores, swim and tri shops, and online. Find online retailer links here.

Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes book coverSwim Speed Workouts for Swimmers and Triathletes SSW_72dpi_400p_strSwim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes reveals the swim technique used by the world’s fastest swimmers.

Swim Speed Workouts for Swimmers and Triathletes provides the essential workouts, drills, and training plan to build all-new levels of swimming speed. Workouts and drill cards are waterproof for use at the pool.

How do you do a push-up in the water? Try a Press-Out Drill.

The Press-Out Drill is an easy way to get in some quick upper body and core strength training in the middle of any swim workout. Press-outs can be tough depending on the water level at your pool, so maybe give this drill a first try in the deep end.

Before watching this Swim Speed Secrets drill video, please read this brief note about how the videos are intended to be used.

Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes book coverIn Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes, 4-time Olympian, gold medalist, and triathlon world champion Sheila Taormina reveals the swim technique used by the world’s fastest swimmers. Find new speed in the water with Swim Speed Secrets, which is available in bookstores, tri and swim shops, and online.

Distance per Stroke vs. Swim Stroke Rate: How to Find Your Swimming Cadence

Do you know your cadence?

Ask any committed runner or cyclist and you’ll probably get a confident reply. But ask a triathlete or swimmer 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.

You need to know it. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’re leaving speed in the water.

Fast swimming relies on good technique 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 Time Your Freestyle Swimming Stroke Rate Swimming Cadence

How 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 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. Both books are available in bookstores, swim and tri shops, and online. Click below for online retailer links.

Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes book coverSwim Speed Workouts for Swimmers and TriathletesSwim Speed Secrets reveals the swimming technique used by the world’s fastest swimmers.

Swim Speed Workouts provides waterproof workout cards, drills, and training plan so swimmers can get in the pool and learn the fastest way to swim.

Sheila Taormina is a 4-time Olympian, gold medalist, ITU triathlon world champion, and internationally recognized swimming coach. Learn more about Sheila here or at sheilat.com.

How to Get Rid of Leg Cramps During Freestyle Swimming Kick Sets

We sometimes get questions from swimmers about leg cramps during kick sets. What causes them? More importantly, how do you get rid of them?

Swim Speed Workouts: Proper Freestyle Kicking TechniqueSheila Taormina gives this advice for avoiding cramps during kick sets:

Be a flexible kicker: Men especially have cramping issues in their legs (whether it be foot, calf, or hamstring), and often it is because they go a bit too rigid in the muscle as they try to get power.

Kick with tone, not too much tension: Feel the water on the top of your foot and hold just enough tension to give dynamic energy to the down-kick. Try to hold no more than 20 pounds of tension (preferably only hold 10-15 pounds) in the leg muscles. 10-15 pounds of tension is equivalent to having athletic tone in the muscles without “trying too hard.”

Kick from the core: The power from the kick should come from the lower abdominal muscles, especially the psoas. If swimmers concentrate on transferring power from their core, they will be using the appropriate set of muscles to get a powerful kick.

Kick with small, quick kicks: Swimmers should kick in small, tight motions, not big kicks. Many triathletes try to get the leg super deep on the down-kick, which makes for a slow, plodding kick and also causes them to bend on the up-kick. Keep the legs closer together, which should encourage a small, quick kick and straighter legs.

Kick with a straighter (not straight) leg: Another likely cramping culprit is bending the knee too much during the up-kick phase, which engages the hamstring. Instead, swimmers can clench their glute muscle to engage the glute, which should result in a straighter up-kick. Then bend the knee only at the top of the up-kick just before beginning the bent-knee down-kick. This may eliminate the cramping problem.

Build kicking fitness: Finally, I’d encourage people to commit to kicking. Kicking stabilizes the body so the arms have leverage for a strong underwater pull. A propulsive kick will help them swim faster. Oftentimes, cramping during kick sets is due simply to muscles that aren’t ready. Swimmers who don’t have a strong kick will need to slowly build their muscle strength and the neuromuscular firing patterns before kick sets will start to feel like a normal part of each swimming workout. If a swimmer is really struggling with the kick sets or cramping, they should ignore fast and sprint kicking sets until they’ve built their kicking base/strength. Instead, go easy on all the kicking sets for the next 2-3 weeks and then try some faster kicking later in the program to see if the muscles have strengthened.

Stay hydrated: You can get dehydrated while swimming. Cool pool water helps dissipate waste heat from your body, but a body warm from exercise will sweat, even in the pool, even if you don’t feel like you are hot or sweating. Swimmers on the Swim Speed Workouts program need a bottle of water and a bottle of sports drink on the pool deck with them. If you swim in the morning, make sure to get properly fueled and hydrated before your swim workout. And if you’re a coffee or tea drinker, try to drink the amount your body is accustomed to.

Take a multivitamin: If you’re medically cleared to take a multivitamin, topping off your body’s reserves of vitamins and minerals may help avoid cramps.

Work on flexibility: For some, flexibility is a controversial topic in endurance sports. Researchers have found conflicting evidence about how flexibility affects performance and injury rates, but much of what age-group athletes practice is informed by the practices of professional athletes. And a majority of pro athletes embrace various forms of stretching. Whatever your opinion on flexibility, members of the Test Team have found that stretching after exercise or periodically throughout the week has helped avoid cramping.

Sheila Taormina’s Swim Speed Series reveals the world’s fastest way to swim. Both books are available in bookstores, swim and tri shops, and online. Click below for online retailer links.

Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes book coverSwim Speed Workouts for Swimmers and TriathletesSwim Speed Secrets reveals the swimming technique used by the world’s fastest swimmers.

Swim Speed Workouts provides waterproof workout cards, drills, and training plan so swimmers can get in the pool and learn the fastest way to swim.

Sheila Taormina is a 4-time Olympian, gold medalist, ITU triathlon world champion, and internationally recognized swimming coach. Learn more about Sheila here or at sheilat.com.

Freestyle Swimming Core Strength, Part II

Swim Speed Secrets underwater pull

In her book Swim Speed Workouts, 4-time Olympian Sheila Taormina describes a key concept for developing your fastest freestyle, the Serape Core Drive. Here’s Part II of an overview of serape swimming, which is explained fully Swim Speed Workouts, a swim training program that develops the world’s fastest freestyle swimming technique. Part I of this series introduced the Serape Core Drive.

TIMING, RHYTHM, AND MOMENTUM

Many swimmers think low stroke count is the only key to speed, and they’ve sacrificed every natural instinct of athleticism to reach an all-time low count. They hold their extended hand/arm in front of their head, envisioning a “gliding” effect, to achieve low stroke count. Yet, many swimmers in this group remain mystified as to why their times don’t improve after years of working at lowering stroke count.

The reason is a lack of tempo (the rate side of the swimming equation, # Strokes × Rate = Time), and this is directly related to rhythm, timing, and fluidity of forward momentum.

Tempo (rate) is as important as stroke count. A swimmer must strive to lower either of the two numbers without adversely affecting the over-all equation. Optimizing the equation can be complicated with freestyle because our pulling arms move asynchronously. While one arm presses back on the water, the other arm recovers forward over the water. (For more in the Swimming Equation, read Swim Speed Secrets.)

But even though the arms move asynchronously during the freestyle stroke, particular muscles show up in both arm extension and core drive. Everything is connected; what may appear to be unrelated independent movements (each arm spinning freely on its own) is actually a coordinated, connected motion.

The serape movement is central to this connected motion. To feel the coordination and connection in your stroke you must be patient during the catch. A swimmer who rushes the catch, hastily pulling the hand back, lacks not only a feel for the water but also loses the opportunity to load the core with athletic tension. A swimmer who works through the details of the catch gains traction on the water and allows the core the moment to extend on the serape plane to load tension.

Stroke timing can be thought of in two ways. (For more, please see Swim Speed Workouts.)

Where does kicking fit in?

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This is true for swimming; a swimmer who doesn’t kick won’t pull as strongly under water because they aren’t anchoring their pull. A leg kicking against the water provides the leverage and stability that the core, shoulders, and arms need to pull more effectively. This is why all swimmers must kick, even triathletes. To neglect your kick is to leave a lot of speed in the water—and lose out on another way to build fitness, strength, and flexibility in your legs that can pay dividends for cycling and running.

Where Kicking Meets Breathing

Concentrating on my breathing during yoga class brought about the greatest benefit to my athletic performance. Under pressure, especially when my body was in a spinal twist, my diaphragm had to strengthen to breathe against the pressure and tightness. [Yoga helped my] diaphragm become very strong, giving me the ability during a race or training session to powerfully take in air volume.

The diaphragm also shares attachment areas with the psoas, [a crucial muscle group of the core drive]. Thus, this area has been called the part of the body “where walking meets breathing.” As a swimmer I’d rephrase that as “where kicking meets breathing.” So don’t dread the kicking sets on the workout cards. Instead, breathe strong and notice how the kick is connected to your breath.

VIDEO: See two drills from Swim Speed Workouts that help develop serape swimming, the Serape One-Arm Drill and Serape Kicking Drill.

Swim Speed Workouts is a card deck of waterproof swimming workouts designed to develop the technique used by the world’s fastest swimmers. Workouts and drills early in the program focus on developing feel for the water, fitness, and the high-elbow underwater pull. Workouts later in the swim training program focus on developing the timing, rhythm, and momentum of serape swimming.

The Swim Speed Workouts Test Team is a group of volunteers that committed to using Sheila’s workout program to get faster in the pool. They describe their early exposure to serape swimming drills and their later success in their Test Team reports.

Sheila Taormina’s Swim Speed Series reveals the world’s fastest way to swim. Both books are available in bookstores, swim and tri shops, and online. Click below for online retailer links.

Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes book coverSwim Speed Workouts for Swimmers and TriathletesSwim Speed Secrets reveals the swimming technique used by the world’s fastest swimmers.

Swim Speed Workouts provides waterproof workout cards, drills, and training plan so swimmers can get in the pool and learn the fastest way to swim.

Sheila Taormina is a 4-time Olympian, gold medalist, ITU triathlon world champion, and internationally recognized swimming coach. Learn more about Sheila here or at sheilat.com.

Freestyle Swimming Core Strength, Part I

In her book Swim Speed Workouts, 4-time Olympian Sheila Taormina describes a key concept for developing your fastest freestyle, the Serape Core Drive.

Here’s an overview of serape swimming, which is explained fully in Swim Speed Workouts, a swim training program that develops the world’s fastest freestyle swimming technique.

From Swim Speed Workouts:

If you’re unfamiliar with the terms core drive or hip drive, it’s probably because you know this concept as “rotation.” The more I coach, the more I realize that semantics are very important. I’ve seen the concept of rotation misinterpreted many ways by swimmers, including tipping the entire body on its side or rotating the shoulders as one unit.

A close study of swimming rotation reveals a coordinated, athletic movement that I refer to as core drive or hip drive, and even more specifically as serape. A serape is a shawl worn in Mexico and South America that is placed over the shoulder and draped diagonally across the body. The diagonal aspect of the way a serape is worn is where the term serape effect originated; it was coined by authors Gene A. Logan and Wayne C. McKinney in their book Kinesiology.

Logan and McKinney studied the connection between the trunk of the body and the limbs while observing ballistic activities (e.g., kicking a ball) and overhead activities (e.g., throwing). Their study of the throwing movement revealed an interaction between the pelvic girdle (the hips) on one side of the body and the upper core and throwing limb on the other side of the body. The ribs on the side of the throwing limb rotated one direction and the hips the other direction. McKinney and Logan discovered that this diagonal rotation prestretched or “loaded” the core with tension that could then be released and transferred to the throwing limb, increasing the overall power of the throw. They concluded that the diagonal/transverse movement noted in the thrower held true in all overhead activities and that the core should be trained and strengthened on diagonal planes and in rotational directions so as to take full advantage of the benefits it can deliver.

How does this relate to swimming? It relates because swimming is an overhead activity. We’re on a horizontal plane when we swim, so it’s not so obvious, but take that horizontal plane and make it vertical, and you’ll see that swimming is an overhead activity.

VIDEO: See two drills from Swim Speed Workouts that help develop serape swimming, the Serape One-Arm Drill and Serape Kicking Drill.

Swim Speed Workouts is a card deck of waterproof swimming workouts designed to develop the technique used by the world’s fastest swimmers. Workouts and drills early in the program focus on developing feel for the water, fitness, and the high-elbow underwater pull. Workouts later in the swim training program focus on developing the timing, rhythm, and momentum of serape swimming.

The Swim Speed Workouts Test Team is a group of volunteers that committed to using Sheila’s workout program to get faster in the pool. They describe their early exposure to serape swimming drills and their later success in their Test Team reports.

Sheila Taormina’s Swim Speed Series reveals the world’s fastest way to swim. Both books are available in bookstores, swim and tri shops, and online. Click below for online retailer links.

Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes book coverSwim Speed Workouts for Swimmers and TriathletesSwim Speed Secrets reveals the swimming technique used by the world’s fastest swimmers.

Swim Speed Workouts provides waterproof workout cards, drills, and training plan so swimmers can get in the pool and learn the fastest way to swim.

Sheila Taormina is a 4-time Olympian, gold medalist, ITU triathlon world champion, and internationally recognized swimming coach. Learn more about Sheila here or at sheilat.com.

Swim Tubing Drills and the Freestyle Diagonal Phase

During some swim clinics last year, swim coach Sheila Taormina noticed that some swimmers were missing a key part of the stroke pattern.

Ignoring the legs and core, the fastest freestyle stroke has 3 parts:

  1. The high-elbow catch
  2. Diagonal phase (the underwater pull)
  3. The finish

In this video, Sheila demonstrates how to drill the diagonal phase using swim tubing.

Before watching this Swim Speed Workouts drill video, please read this brief note about how the videos are intended to be used.

See more Swim Speed Series videos here.

Sheila Taormina’s Swim Speed Series reveals the world’s fastest way to swim. Both books are available in bookstores, swim and tri shops, and online. Click below for lists of online retailers.

Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes book coverSwim Speed Workouts for Swimmers and TriathletesSwim Speed Secrets reveals the swimming technique used by the world’s fastest swimmers.

Swim Speed Workouts provides waterproof workout cards, drills, and training plan so swimmers can get in the pool and learn the fastest way to swim.

Sheila Taormina is a 4-time Olympian, gold medalist, ITU triathlon world champion, and internationally recognized swimming coach. Learn more about Sheila here or at sheilat.com.