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by Erica Slaughter

July 27, 2020

Improving your freestyle distance per stroke is important for the swim leg of triathlons

The holy grail of freestyle technique for triathlon swims is distance per stroke, or DPS.

It doesn’t matter how short your swim is—your objective is to expend only as much energy as necessary. A good DPS allows you to take fewer strokes to cover the distance while maintaining a consistent rate of speed.

To help you improve your DPS, here are a few drills and sets you can do.

(Note: Focusing on DPS only works well in calm water. If you’re facing a lot of chop from waves, you’ll have to shorten your stroke and increase your turnover and energy output.)

DPS Drills

To get started, you’ll want to train yourself to maximize each and every stroke. This means that your technique needs to come with optimal propulsive force. Your strokes must be long. You’ll need to stretch into them to lengthen your stroke from the catch to your hips.

Try these drills to help increase your DPS:

  • Hip thumb-swipe: To ensure that you’re maxing out on stroke length, swipe your thumbs against your hips on each stroke. If you’ve been finishing short, this drill will feel odd at first, but stay with it. You can’t have good DPS without lengthening your stroke.
  • Hip drive to side kick: You should use your hips to rotate your body between 30 and 45 degrees on every stroke. This hip rotation is a crucial part of DPS. In this drill, take three strokes, kick for 10 seconds with an arm extended while your body is rotated, take three more strokes, and then kick for 10 seconds with that arm extended while your body is rotated. (You can also perform a specific number of kicks following each set of three strokes. A common number for this drill is six.)
  • Opposite paddle and fin: Did you know that it’s possible to kick only once per foot for each stroke cycle? Once you get a feel for hip drive, you may observe the tendency to force your hip roll with an opposite side downward kick. It’s a contralateral movement that you can further enhance by wearing a paddle on your right hand and a fin on your left foot, and vice versa. When you catch with your left hand, kick downward with your right foot.

Pace Work

Once you feel comfortable with your DPS, you can start building the technique into pace sets in which you count your strokes per length of the pool. Strive for your lowest possible stroke count while you’re able to hold the same intervals. That’s your magic number.

  • 10 x 50s DPS freestyle: Start here to establish your lowest stroke count. Don’t forget that the length of your streamlines off the wall need to be consistent so you can have an accurate and consistent count.
  • 5 x 100s DPS freestyle: Continue with longer repeats to challenge yourself to take the same number of strokes per length and still make the interval. (You should set comfortable intervals that allow you to have about 20 to 30 seconds of rest.)
  • 1 x 500 DPS freestyle: With no need to make an interval, focus on maintaining your stroke count like a metronome. This is hitting the sweet spot for getting the most out of your workouts.

Productive Practice

These drills will help you reach your two main objectives in triathlon swim workouts, which are to solidify good technique while making physiological adaptations for endurance. The best things you can do for yourself are to follow a regimented training plan, be consistent and deliberate in your workouts, and get in the pool frequently (at least three times per week). Welcome to swimming—there are no shortcuts, but there will be measurable gains with diligent hard work.


  • Triathlon


  • Training
  • Triathletes
  • Triathlon
  • Drills