Triathletes like to talk a lot about bike and run cadence. We’re always striving to hit our bike cadence somewhere in the 80 to 100 RPMs range and we’re constantly trying to elevate those running strides per minute up to that magic 180 number.
And yet, (at least in my experience) we all seem to curiously leave swim stroke rate out of the conversation. This is an interesting blunder for reasons difficult to understand. After all, if we know that an ideal range of RPMs or strides per minute makes us better bikers and runners, then it would only stand to reason that the same principle applies to swimming.
And it does.
Much like a vehicle engine, if we’re putting something into motion then there exists an ideal rate of movement to grant superior efficiency to that motion. And that’s really what swimming is all about: How to move through the water in the most efficient manner possible. This is why stroke rate matters to the triathlete swimmer.
When I was in competitive swim, coaches repeatedly told me to lengthen my stroke. The goal was always to take fewer strokes per length of the pool. While it’s possible that this might have encouraged my technique – if only I had adhered to the practice consistently – I couldn’t help but notice that this principle was being taught to everyone on the team regardless of ability level or body type.
In hindsight, I think this was a coaching mistake for a few reasons. The first is that while the intention of this drill was good – because a good catch and proper body roll intrinsically entails a longer stroke length – it really only encouraged me to over-glide.
To meet the criteria of the drill, I would lengthen my short stroke in the only way I knew how: by gliding. My lead arm would produce a significant dead spot amidst the glide just so I could say I took fewer strokes per length.
Secondly, some swimmers (usually the taller people) were already executing a proper stroke length, but were still guilty of these gliding dead spots. For them, the drill made things even worse. They could have been swimming so much faster. The only part of the equation that they had been missing was the timing.
To put it bluntly, this force-fed stroke lengthening drill was being taught backwards. What should have been taught first was proper timing and rhythm. Your stroke should always remain in motion. The better your catch, pull, and body roll is timed (not to mention how well you execute proper body position), by extension the longer your stroke will be.
This is where stroke rate comes into play. Knowing your stroke rate will tell you a lot about your timing – swimmer or triathlete. Too high a stroke rate (like me) means you need to slow it down because you’re missing out on a stronger catch and pull, which when corrected will lengthen your stroke. Too low a stroke rate means you’re probably over-gliding, thus speeding up your timing will eliminate the dead spots. Meeting in the middle is where the best timing is found and where the most efficient swimming remains.
In the second part of this blog, we’ll look at how to calculate your (SPM) strokes per minute and decide whether slowing down or speeding up is necessary to obtain your optimal stroke rate.
Cadence rates are crucial in the bike and run stages of your triathlon. They’re just as important your swim. Knowing your stroke rate will tell you a lot about your swim and help you make the needed changes for greatest performance.
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JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.