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by Scott Bay

December 14, 2020

Dialing in the right stroke rate for you

For all strokes, there’s a trade-off between efficiency (distance per stroke) and velocity. It’s complicated, and as swimmers and coaches have increased their understanding of technique, lots of adjustments have been made to produce faster swimming.

Each swimmer, however, needs the right technique and the right stroke rate for the right distance. Here’s what to keep in mind to find what’s right for you.

Stroke Efficiency

Essentially, efficiency is how few strokes and the least amount of work you have to do to get from one end of the pool to the other. Of course, there are ways to cheat the system, such as by having a longer streamline (which is not bad for swimming) or slowing down your stroke rate and kicking more.

Here are some thoughts on increasing efficiency for each stroke. Remember: This is not about the clock but rather the least amount of work

  • Butterfly: Butterfly technique is so complex that an entire book could be written about it. One of the best ways to maximize efficiency in butterfly is to think of your hands in your catch. Many people dive their hands down after entry to facilitate undulation. Instead, try sliding your hands forward at the entry using a good kick. Once you find clean water, pitch your hands down and your elbows forward, as with freestyle but with both hands at the same time.
  • Backstroke: Similar to freestyle, efficiency in backstroke is related closely to stroke cycle and getting a good catch and accelerating to the finish. You should focus on your hand entry directly in front of your shoulders or slightly outside of them and hand placement to get an efficient pull. Your finish should be strong and past your hips. Also focus on the drag created by your head and body position. Experiment with those adjustments after you get a clean stroke, meaning you don’t skip your hands across the top of the water on the propulsive part of your stroke.
  • Breaststroke: Just as with butterfly, breaststroke technique can fill an entire book. Start with the pitch of your hands and where you let go of the water. Experiment with how wide and how narrow your out-sweep is and when to release and recover. The same is true for how wide you kick. As you make these adjustments, your timing will change, something you need to adjust to.
  • Freestyle: Don’t make a big splash when your arms enter, and make sure you extend your arms so you can find clean water that isn’t turbulent from the entry. Extend your hand forward and reach, rotate, and relax. Once you have that good water, start your catch by pitching your fingers down and sliding your elbow out and forward to get a good catch. Accelerate your hand all the way through and recover. If you do this by 25s, you can count the number of strokes you take each time you make a small adjustment. If it works, keep it; if not, reject or refine the tweak that you made.

Stroke Rate

Stroke rate is how many stroke cycles you take in a given time period. Is it 10 cycles (one arm and then the other in freestyle and backstroke or one complete stroke in butterfly and breaststroke) in 15 seconds or 20? Obviously, the shorter elapsed time means you’re moving your arms faster. Isn’t that better? Yes and no. If you can still have a good hold on the water and increase your stroke rate, then yes. If your hands are slipping or waffling, then maybe not.

Next try this experiment for each stroke.

  • Spin drill. Get your arms going as fast as you can to see how high a stroke rate you’re capable of. For this drill, don’t worry about your hold on the water or slipping or waffling, just how fast you can get your rate. The more you do it, the faster it will get.
  • The clock is your friend. Now that you’ve been all the way to the most efficient and now the least efficient (spin drill), it’s time to find what’s right for you right now. Add intensity while still counting your number of strokes. How many do you add for how much time? This takes a while to find that best balance. Make sure you are recovered between each effort and internalize the feel for each time and how many strokes and effort it took for that.
  • Change is good. It’s good to make changes, but they have to be thoughtful changes. Don’t try to change too many things at the same time or else you won’t know which changes work better than others and which may get you going in the wrong direction.

Right Stroke, Right Rate, Right Distance

This introduces another level of complexity. Your stroke rate will likely be way different for a 50 than for a 1650. It takes a lot of experimenting to figure out what’s best at each distance. Your best bet is to experiment with both the distance and stroke rate.

There are plenty of technique articles on that you can read and pick something out to try. Again, don’t pick out a lot of things to try at once. (Tip: If you can use a smartwatch and, it’s much easier to keep track of your stroke rate.)

As you change things, you’ll learn what works best for which distance, but keep in mind that as you make adjustments to one thing or your fitness and strength levels change, so will your ability to be efficient and have a faster stroke rate. What that means is that the journey never ends, and there’s always a reason to go back to the pool.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke
  • Breaststroke
  • Butterfly
  • Freestyle