Swim Tech Video: stroke rate

Top swim coach, Dan Bullock, from Swim for Tri brings us more swimming technique advice. This time the topic is stroke rate in front crawl triathlon swimming.

Stroke rate

Much has been made recently of upping your stroke rate to swim faster. I get queried on this all the time and I fear too many people are upping the number of strokes they take per minute, but losing any kind of distance moved with each stroke.

Swimmers will shift the relationship of their hands to each other in the stroke cycle as they swim faster but should also try to maintain distance travelled. This needs streamline, rotation (perhaps not as much you may have been taught but keep the head still to prevent over rotating), accurate pathways of the hands under the body, an early catch position and some leg kick. From the video you can see how the relationship of the hands shifts towards a 180° ‘kayak’, ie completely at opposites at the fastest speeds. At the slower speeds it all looks a lot more relaxed and closer to catch up.

YouTube video

Keep in mind

Don’t underestimate how beneficial the addition of a wetsuit can be (but don’t upset the contribution it makes by working against it with an excessive leg kick or large aggressive movements from the arms that are punished as water slips around them). At the slowest speed you can really see how much work the wetsuit does for the legs and how little they need to kick to maintain streamline and contribute to body position.

Unless you are swimming upstream/against a tide you could relax the hands back to mid tempo and allow the suit to work more for you. Prolonged ‘kayak’ is very demanding and while useful in bursts whenever we have ‘tested’ this for most triathletes, heart rates suggested it was very hard to sustain. Unless you are swimming upstream in a river or rough sea with the tide against you, I don’t feel you need to ‘kayak’ all the while unless you have huge amounts of fitness available and you are attempting to break swim records.


A good leg kick that creates traction, ie holding the body balanced and contributing towards helping the upper body rotate will help you to swim faster. Propulsion from the kick is minimal but it should be enough to contribute rather then hinder. Unfortunately it is an area that can go badly wrong. It needs a tiny movement from the hip to keep it hidden behind the trunk, big toes lightly brushing against each other. If all of the body contributes a small amount rather then any one area (arms only – the ‘triathlete’s pull’), then fast swimming can be achieved with no one group of muscles being overly taxed.

The mid stroke, ie where a good catch anchors the hand with a vertical forearm allows the recovering arm to ‘launch’ forwards (review the 1.5ms tech on the video), involving the hips and better offers the opportunity of the body to travel over the locked in anchor hand.

Catch up

Never race — ‘catch up’: it is a drill and effectively it is alternating single arms – there is no rhythm or combination of the anchoring hand and the recovering launching arm. Just one arm pulling the body through the water then the other. The only exception to this would be to protect the head in a rough and crowded start and both arms momentarily surrounding the head could help. It is a great drill to slow things down and learn certain pathways or movements which otherwise in a full stroke front crawl rhythm would be hard to focus on. It does need to be sped up at the appropriate time as you take those technical improvements learned into fast full stroke.

At times in our fitness sessions I will ask similar paced swimmers to pair up knowing stroke rates are very different and ask one swimmer to dictate turnover and the other to mimic and deliberately change to get a feel for faster/slower tempos. The arms don’t get any longer/stronger or the hands bigger/smaller so we still look to travel similar distances per stroke. Try it, it can be quite illuminating.

Written by
Henry Budgett
Latest News
Jan Frodeno IRONMAN World Championship 2023 Nice finish line wave
Jan Frodeno’s final professional race set for November as legend bids farewell
PTO European Open 2023 Ibiza - Alistair Brownlee
Alistair Brownlee announces his return to triathlon racing following ankle surgery
WTCS Hamburg podium 2023 Vasco Vilaca Hayden Wilde Alex Yee photo credit Tommy Zaferes / World Triathlon
WTCS Pontevedra predictions: Yee, Wilde and Vilaca in tantalising battle for world title glory
Beth Potter Montreal win 2023 photo credit World Triathlon
WTCS Pontevedra start list for Elite Women as Potter and Beaugrand go for global glory
Cassandre Beaugrand Beth Potter Laura Lindemann Paris Test Event podium 2023 [Photo credit: World Triathlon / Wagner Araujo]
WTCS Pontevedra predictions: Will it be Potter or Beaugrand for World Championship glory?