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by Richard Garza

July 12, 2019

Here’s how to figure out your ideal stroke count

Building on the study by Texas Ford Aquatics Coach James Smith that was published in the Journal of International Society of Swimming Coaching in 2012, we can create a formula to figure out how many strokes you should be taking per length based on how long your arms are and how long your streamline length is.

To measure your reach, extend one arm above your head while standing against a wall and have a friend mark where your fingers are on the wall. Then hold the same arm at your side and have a friend mark the position on the wall. The distance between the two marks is your reach.

To measure your streamline length, get into the tallest streamlined position you can while standing against a wall, which includes pointing your toes, and measure how high your fingertips reach above the ground.

Now you can figure out what 100 percent efficiency would be for each stroke, based on your reach and streamline length.

Next you need to know how far you’re actually swimming across the pool, a measurement that excludes the distance you cover underwater. Take the distance of the pool and subtract how far from the wall your feet surfaced and add your streamline length.

Distance of the pool – (How far you streamlined off the wall + Streamline length) = Distance to swim

Take that number and divide it by the length of your stroke for a stroke or cycle count. Here’s how to determine how long your strokes should be.

What Your Best Stroke Count Should Be

Backstroke and freestyle

In backstroke and freestyle, 100 percent efficiency would mean that your hands don’t slip through the water while you’re swimming. Instead, they would enter and exit the water at the same place as your body travels through the water. If your hands travel back toward your feet and exit the water closer to the wall you pushed off of, your hands are slipping through the water and not holding it very well. The length of your stroke in backstroke and freestyle should be equal to the length of your reach.

To figure out how many strokes you should be taking, use the following formula:

((Distance of the pool – (Distance your feet traveled off wall + Streamline length)) / Reach


In butterfly, you want your hands to enter and exit the water in the same place as you pull yourself forward with each stroke. As your hands exit the water and start the recovery, your body is still moving forward.

How far should your body move forward during the recovery before your hands re-enter the water? I’ve found that the hand entry point in butterfly is equal to about 80 percent of your streamline length compared to the hand entry point of the previous stroke. When your hands enter the water and start the next stroke, your knees are at about where the previous stroke started. The distance from hand entry to hand entry is equal to 80 percent of your streamline strength.

The formula to figure out how many strokes you should be taking in butterfly is the following:

(Distance of the pool - (Distance your feet traveled off wall + Streamline length)) / (0.8 x Streamline length)


In breaststroke, we need to account for the underwater pullout. I’ve found that the ideal place to surface and start swimming is two and a half times the distance of a person’s streamline length after they glided off the wall. In this case, the distance your feet traveled off the wall would be the point where your hands initiate the downward pull or when you initiate the dolphin kick, depending on which you do first.

Once at the surface, I’ve found that the hands would start the next stroke when the feet would reach the point where the hands had started the previous stroke, so the length of a single stroke should be the same as your streamline length.

The formula to figure out how many strokes you should be taking in breaststroke would be the following:

(Distance of the pool - (Distance feet traveled off wall + 2.5 x Streamline length)) / Streamline length

Real-World Example

These formulas help us understand how many strokes you should be taking if you were 100 percent efficient. Let’s apply these formulas to a real-life example. I coach a swimmer with a reach of 54 inches and a streamline length of 82 inches. Let’s assume the swimmer’s feet reach the flags after streamlining off the wall. In a 25-yard pool, here’s what we should expect for stroke counts. (All distances are in inches.)

Backstroke and freestyle: (900 – (180 + 82)) / 54 = 11.81

Butterfly: (900 – (180 + 82)) / (0.8 * 82) = 9.73

Breaststroke: (900 – (180 + 2.5 * 82)) / 82 = 6.28

Perfection is unrealistic, of course. Eighty percent efficiency is a great goal to shoot for. If we round up, my swimmer’s goal stroke counts should be 15 strokes in backstroke and freestyle, 13 strokes for butterfly, and nine strokes for breaststroke.

Final Thought    

These formulas can help you gauge how efficiently you’re swimming and if your time and energy should be spent improving your technique or your stroke tempo or your underwaters.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke
  • Breaststroke
  • Butterfly
  • Freestyle
  • Tips