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by Scott Bay

February 21, 2022

Success in rhythm strokes is all about timing

All breaststrokers and butterflyers can tell stories of how they missed a turn or short-armed a stroke going into a turn. The anxiety that comes from deciding in a split-second whether to take another stroke can be a distraction and slow you down. Is it better to be long or short?

The answer is neither. You want to time your stroke just right. Here’s how to do that.

The Open, the Middle, the Close

Do you know how many strokes you take in the first 25 of a 100 butterfly or breaststroke? The second? The third? The last?

Many elite swimmers know for sure, and it’s something they work on and constantly evaluate to determine what combination makes them the fastest. Here’s a simple workout in which to experiment with your breaststroke or butterfly stroke count.

  • Baseline. Warm up as you would for a race, and then do a time trial 100. The big deal is your time, but count your strokes or, better yet, have a friend or coach count for you. Write down your stroke count and time.
  • Reflection. Go through your time trial in your mind, and make notes on whether you felt long or short on your turns. Was it the first 25? Somewhere in the middle? The finish?
  • Adjust. Now that you have a baseline, make some changes. Allow yourself enough time to recover, and do some easy swimming. Then, do another time trial, only this time change your stroke count by changing your stroke rate, how hard you kick, or how long you do your underwater dolphin kicks or pullout.
  • Document. Again, take notes. What was your time? How many strokes did you take? How did you feel during your turns and finish?
  • Repeat. Not every change will yield improvement. It can be frustrating, but at the same time, it can be enlightening. You may find getting through your pullout faster in the second half of your 100 race is the key to a faster time.

Getting Better

After you’ve run these experiments, look over your notes, and see what worked and what didn’t. Here are some workout sets to practice your race strategy, stroke count, and timing, while keeping your volume and intensity up.

  • Broken 100s. This is a progression of 4 x 100s with an easy 50 between each one. The clock will provide your best feedback here. Swim a 100 fast on the first one; on the second one, do a 75 fast, take five seconds rest, then do a 25 fast; do the third 100 as 50-25-25 with five seconds rest between efforts; and then do the fourth one as four 25s with five seconds rest between each length. Examine your times and stroke count for each 25. What worked and what didn’t? This is another good time to have a friend or coach help you with your times and stroke counts.
  • Time-Trial Tuesday. This isn’t so much of a set but a weekly check of how you’re progressing and whether the changes are working. After a good warm-up, do a 100 time trial noting not just your time but your stroke counts and how the walls and finish were. You will have good days and bad days, but having a log of this over time will reveal some patterns that can lead to faster swimming.

A Final Thought

As adult swimmers, there will come a time when your ability to get stronger and fitter levels off. The great thing about swimming is the ability to get better never goes away. It’s a constant process of discovering what works for you and adjusting accordingly. Sometimes the changes don’t stick. This, too, is part of the process. But you can always learn new things and improve upon your existing skills.

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  • Technique and Training


  • Breaststroke
  • Butterfly