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by Scott Bay

November 28, 2016

Moving your arms faster doesn’t always make you go faster

Who doesn’t love that great warm-up mode—swimming nice, easy, happy laps in the comfort zone. This is good for the mind, body, and soul to be sure. But eventually, many swimmers want to see if they can go faster. For many, that’s when stroke rate overtakes efficiency, and although they’re working much harder, they’re not going any faster.

How can you resolve the conflict between efficiency and velocity? Conventional wisdom and research says that fast swimming happens with a stroke cycle (one right arm and one left arm in freestyle) that is between .99 and 1.5 seconds. You might be thinking, “Great! I’ll set my tempo trainer and push off.” But the answer isn’t as simple as that.

Find Your Sweet Spot

There’s a lot of research out there to support the .99 to 1.5 second rule, but as you look around the pool, you’ll notice that each swimmer is physiological different and that .99 to 1.5 statistical range doesn’t apply to all.

Below are some steps to help you find where your sweet spot is between effort and efficiency. Use these tips to help figure out when you’ll stop getting faster even though you’re working harder.

  1. Find out how far you go on each stroke. There are a number of ways to assess your distance per stroke. The first is by counting the number of strokes you take from one wall to the next. It’s tempting to cheat by having a super long streamline (how is that bad for swimming?) but use your normal stroke for this test. Count each arm movement as one, so right arm is one, then left arm is two, etc. Do this for a 50 or so to find what feels like your typical count.
  2. Find ways to reduce your stroke count. Swimming is really based on feel. At the front part of your stroke, stretch your hand forward as far as it’ll go and roll your body onto your hand as far forward as you can before you start the catch. You should also accelerate your hand throughout the stroke—finish the stroke fast and past your hip. You might feel yourself surge forward a bit at that point and get a little further down the pool each time. Try this a few times while trying to reduce your stroke count.
  3. Increase your turnover. This is one of the hardest things to do. Just push off and turn your arms over as fast as you can, even if your hands slip through the water. Count your strokes again, and you’ll likely find an increased stroke count. As above, do a few trials. Take as much rest as you want since this will be exhausting.
  4. Find that faster turnover. This is really hard to do, but it’s worth the effort: Increase your turnover by kicking harder. Try it with fins if you want, but the whole idea is to get those arms going!
  5. Address the conflict. Now that you know how fast you can move your arms, it’s time to find out where you are on the continuum. A great method is to swim descending 50s, in which you get faster on each repeat. Again, count your strokes and check your time on the clock. Take as much rest as you want in between, and eventually you’ll settle on what the best stroke rate is for you. Remember, stroke rate changes in different events; your rate for a 50 will be different than your rate for your 1500.

Maintaining a tight streamline and dolphin kicking underwater are critically important, as are a good transition and breakout. And have I ever mentioned what kicking does for swimming? Make sure good solid kicking is a part of all of your work on this.

Experiment with Stroke Rate Efficiency

Here are a few clever ways to experiment with efficiency and stroke rate.

20-20: This is a great drill for finding your efficiency and how fast you can turn over. First see how far you can go on 20 strokes. Each arm movement is a stroke and don’t worry about speed. Try it a few times and see how far you can go. The other 20 is see how fast you can do 20 strokes. You may need a friend to help you with the time. Alternatively, see how many strokes you can take in 20 seconds. Take as much time as you need between each repeat.

Odds and Evens: In this drill, swim 50 or 100 focusing on super efficiency in the odd 25/50. The even 25/50 should be done as quickly as you can turn over your arms. The object of the game after a few tries is that the stroke rate becomes faster AND more efficient.

Finding what works for you does NOT mean comparing yourself to others or reading a study out of context, but looking closely at what works for you through trial and error. As you get faster, go back and play the same game again a couple times as the fine line between efficiency and velocity moves with strength gains. You’ll likely see endurance gains, too.


  • Technique and Training


  • Stroke Technique
  • Speed