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Rhythm and Reach

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

Finding your Optimal Stroke Rate

I’ve been working on my “Front Quadrant” technique for some time to help with stroke improvement. Front Quadrant means that one of yours hands is always in front of your head leading the stroke. It also means holding an arm in full extension, the catch, for a faction of the stroke as the other arm recovers.

An extreme Front Quadrant technique is a complete catch-up stroke, and you will see swimmers with this rhythm, especially in distance and open water events. But it’s not always ideal for every swimmer. If you watch a video of a distance event, you’ll see a range of stroke turnover rates and the amount of glide swimmers use. The winner of the 2016 1500 at the Rio Olympics, Gregorio Paltrinieri, has a very fast turnover rate, while most of his competitors swam with a considerable glide in their stroke.

A great example of the extremes in strokes is the final leg of the Men’s 4 X 100 Freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Australian’s Ian Thorpe started head-to-head with Gary Hall Jr. Thorpe dove in with a long gliding stroke (his signature), while Gary Hall Jr., a sprinter, turned over at a furious pace. On the first 50 meters, Thorpe used 30 strokes while Hall Jr. used about 40. Thorpe has a long lanky body—all arms and legs, while Hall Jr. was muscular and relatively stocky for a swimmer. The point here is that every swimmer has a unique balance point in their stroke rate. In my case it’s taken a while and I’m not there yet--but getting better.

Why focus on a front quadrant stroke?

First, you need to understand and feel a good streamlined position, which is why in my Swim Faster program I focus a lot on streamlining, where your “shadow” in the water is the smallest and your drag resistance is the least. In front quadrant, an extended lead arm in a good streamline position anchors the front half of your body. Focus on staying as narrow as possible from fingertip to toes. This gives you a strong platform as your opposite arm recovers, and sets up for a good catch and pull. That’s the idea behind Front Quadrant swimming--anchor the lead arm while the opposite recovers.

A few years back when I swam a catch-up drill, it felt terrible. I had no speed and could feel my body stopping while my recovery arm caught up. Both my pull and my streamline were not optimal. It’s much better now, but I know I still need to work on it.

An improved rhythm for me is more of a three-quarter catch-up. I still extend my lead arm for stability as I start my recovery, but the timing is faster. I actually like to think of it as a waltz rhythm. Each arm holds through a 1-2-3 count. In a waltz the #1 beat is the accented note, which is where you drive the recovery into the catch (fingers below wrist, wrist below elbow). #2 is the extension (as your opposite hips rotates and drives). And #3 is the full extension in a maximum streamline position. Practice this rhythm in a catch-up drill.

How can you quantify your optimal stroke rate (turnover versus glide)?

There are two methods I use. First is the Golf Score game. Swim a set of 50s at a moderate pace with a good rest period between repetitions (20 to 30 seconds RI). Count the number of strokes on the second 25 and note you time. On the next 50, add a little more glide in the stroke to see if you can reduce the number of strokes on the second 25.

Repeat this to see if you can a). Achieve a better time with the same number of strokes, b). Achieve the same time with fewer strokes, or c). Swim faster with fewer strokes. You will find a point where you’re swimming faster with less effort. And that’s the goal! Repeat this set every few weeks. There are other factors that will improve you distance per stroke (DPS), but this is a good way to gauge your progress. The goal is to maximize your distance per stroke.

Another method is to use a Finis Tempo Trainer. Mode 3 counts strokes per minute--which will range from about 55 to 90. When you first start to use the Tempo Trainer in Mode 3, set it for a comfortable pace. Do a series of repetitions (100s are probably ideal). Every two or three repetitions, increase the pace by one increment (say 68 to 69, then 69 to 70), until you reach full speed where you’re swimming the distance about as fast as you can. Then for the next few weeks, swim your sets at about 2 beats less than your top speed. Adjust as needed for comfort. Find a setting where you’re holding a good pace that you can maintain over a distance.

Of course, as you use the Tempo Trainer, focus on all your good swimming techniques. Over time, you should be able to improve your stroke rate while swimming efficiently. If you feel that you’re slipping, back off the time some to get back to that “sweet spot.” When it comes time to train for an event, notch the Tempo Trainer up a few beats and get ready to win!

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