Working Tempo For Faster Swimming in the Open Water

by Pool Builders on 04-12-2009 in Articles

In simplest terms, swimming speed is determined by two things; how far a swimmer travels with each arm pull (distance per stroke) and how quickly the strokes are executed (stroke rate/tempo). In open water it is not possible to evaluate the distance taken for each stroke, and impossible to get splits (unless the course is loops) so stroke rate is the only information available to evaluate performance.

Distance per stroke, is determined by how a swimmer executes the pull and moves through the water. Many articles and clinics cover the intricacies of how this can be improved however; stroke rate or tempo is of equal importance for faster swimming.

Stroke rate terminology can be confusing. Historically in open water, stroke rate counts the right arm as "1" and the left arm as "2". Using this method, most world class open water swimmers have stroke rates from 80 - 100 per minute. In pool terminology, stroke rates are determined by counting stroke cycles, meaning the right and left arms are counted as "1" instead of "2". Using the pool definition, the 80 - 100 rates would be written as 40 - 50. For this article, I will differentiate between these two methodologies by referring to the 80 - 100 numbers as "strokes" per minute and the 40 - 50 numbers as "stroke cycles" per minute.

How is stroke rate determined? In open water, a coach or trainer can count the swimmer's strokes for one minute, or count for 30 seconds and double the number. In the pool it is a bit more difficult especially in a 25 yard pool, with turns and push offs. One method is to time a "stroke cycle", starting a watch when the swimmer's right arm enters the water and stopping the watch when the right arm re-enters the water. (This includes the time for a right arm pull and left arm pull). Use this number and refer to the chart below to get an idea of your tempo in strokes per minute.

2.4 seconds for one stroke cycle = 50 strokes per minute

2.0 seconds for one stroke cycle = 60 strokes per minute

1.7 seconds for one stroke cycle = 70 strokes per minute

1.5 seconds for one stroke cycle = 80 strokes per minute

1.2 seconds for one stroke cycle = 100 strokes per minute

Once you have this information, what can you do with it?

1) First improve stroke rate consistency. Novice swimmers have difficulty maintaining a steady stroke rate, even within 25 yards. Learning to maintain a stroke rate will improve a swimmer's ability to maintain a specific pace. A set to help learn consistent tempo is 10 x 50's @:15 rest. The goal of this set is to take the same number of strokes for each 50 while maintaining the same stroke rate, resulting in the exact same time for each 50.

2) Next, swimmers can work to increase the rate while taking the same number of strokes per length. This can be difficult for newer swimmers since they have a tendency to increase their tempo and increase their strokes per length at the same time. To work on this, a swimmer can count their strokes per length while a coach or another person on deck times the stroke cycle rate with the goal of maintaining the strokes per length while increasing tempo. A swimmer can also repeat the 10 x 50's set above, maintaining the same number of strokes for each 50 while decreasing the time.

When training in the pool, both distance per stroke and stroke rate can be used to increase speed. For example, a swimmer who takes 20 strokes (10 stroke cycles) for 25 yards and has a stroke rate 60 strokes per minute will take 20 seconds to execute those strokes (10 stroke cycles multiplied by 2.0 seconds per stroke cycle) and complete the 25 yards (not including push-off time). If this swimmer increases his stroke rate to 80 strokes per minute, maintaining 20 strokes per length, it will take 15 seconds to complete the 25 yards, (10 stroke cycles multiplied by 1.5 seconds per stroke cycle). This same swimmer could also decrease his strokes per length to 18 (9 stroke cycles) while maintaining the 60 strokes per minute rate. It would then take 18 seconds to complete the 25 yards, (9 stroke cycles multiplied by 2.0 seconds per stroke cycle.)

In long open water races where each swimmer has an escort boat, a coach or trainer can monitor the stroke rate and relay that information to the swimmer. This can help the swimmer avoid going out in a race too quickly (it the stroke rate is higher than planned) or let the swimmer know if his/her stroke rate is dropping and they are slowing down.

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