Stroke Rate vs Distance per Stroke: Who is right?

 In recent years there has been an increasing tendency for coaches to push increasing DPS to improve swimmer’s performances. Yet, during the Olympic Games, in every freestyle event over the 50 meter sprint, one sees a variety of techniques used from high stroke rate, shoulder-driven technique, to hybrid freestyles (one arm shoulder driven and one arm hip driven) to pure hip-driven freestyle.  Unlike the 50, where everyone is swimming with a shoulder-driven technique, for the middle distance and distance events there does not appear to be one right way of doing freestyle.

A great example of adapting to a new technique is Katie Ladecky, gold medalist in the 800 freestyle. Though I had not seen her swim before the Trials, allegedly, she once swam with a pure high stroke rate, two-beat kick, shoulder-driven freestyle, ala Brooke Bennett. In an effort to lengthen her stroke, her coach converted her (mostly) to a longer hybrid stroke by breathing to the other side. At the Trials, she did something I had never seen before. She swam most of the 800 breathing to her right with a hybrid freestyle, using a six beat kick and a stroke rate in the mid 80’s. But for a few strokes each lap, she would breathe to the left, convert to her old, shoulder-driven freestyle, use a two beat kick and elevate her stroke rate to about 100. Then, it was back to the hybrid stroke again. She did much less of the conversion at the Olympic games, sticking mostly to hybrid technique, but she shows an unusual ability to switch freestyle techniques in the middle of a race. Nathan Adrian does a similar thing at the end of his 100 freestyle, converting from a slowing, shoulder-driven to a faster, straight-armed, body-driven freestyle; a tactic that clearly earned him a gold medal.

Regardless of whether a swimmer elects to change techniques during a race or not, I believe it is very important for coaches to teach all swimmers more than one freestyle technique, since there is not one technique that works ideally for all swimmers or distances. Perhaps the best tool for doing that is by using the Finis Tempo Trainer; almost an indispensable tool for learning fast-rate, shoulder-driven freestyle, slower hybrid or slowest-rate hip-driven freestyle. By setting the interval of the beep of the tempo trainer from rates of 60 up to 120 or higher, swimmers will more easily adjust to the higher rates demanded of shoulder-driven or to slowing the rate down for hip-driven in order to push out the front and use the legs, core and hips to drive forward. Since hybrid freestyle involves using one arm with each technique, the stroke rates are typically in between the two extremes, usually in the 70’s or 80’s.

There are many other ways to use the Tempo Trainer effectively to help swimmers get faster. One is to teach constant pacing by setting the beep interval to occur at 12 ½ yards or meters. By learning that they have to push harder to maintain the same speed, swimmers will learn to hold back and push at the right time.

For backstroke, the most common mistake I find is too slow of a stroke rate. The Tempo Trainer will enable a coach to get his/her swimmer to turn the arms over much faster and maintain a more constant speed and a more efficient stroke. In backstroke, a fast, controlled stroke rate usually results in a faster time.

If you want to improve as a coach, have your swimmers use the Tempo Trainer often in practice and use it for all four strokes, regardless of whether you are trying to lengthen or shorten the stroke.


Yours in Swimming,


Gary Sr.

The Race Club