A lot of attention is given to dialling in the ideal cadence in both cycling and running but what about swimming? Is there a gold standard that we should all be trying to attain in terms of the number of strokes per minute that's ideal for our best times in the water? The answer is absolutely not!
With all three sports (swimming, cycling and running), there are going to be variances from an 'ideal'. Some of that is dependant on the length of our levers: our arms and legs. The other component is about what your general muscle makeup is? Are you a powerhouse, or would you say you have small muscles that can't generate a lot of force, but can keep firing at a steady rate endlessly?
The answers to these questions will have the least impact on the ideal cadence rate you dial in for cycling. They will have the most impact on your cadence rate (stroke rate) in the water. The reasons for this are very subtle. And here's why.
As you know, in cycling the range of motion is the same for everyone. We all spin the same circle. Yes, there will differences based on crank arm length, but basically it’s the same for everyone. That equalises the relative differences in leg length between a very tall person and a shorter person as these differences are going to be dispersed via the crank lengths that you choose for your bike.
In running, there'll be more differences than cycling in the ideal cadence rate because we're talking about leg length discrepancies. But even taking that into consideration, the difference between the ideal running cadence rate that is optimal for a tall runner is not going to be a whole lot different than the ideal for a shorter runner.
But when we go into the water, the differences get magnified. The ideal stroke rate for someone who has long arms and has a lot of upper body strength is going to be dramatically different to another athlete who has shorter arms and very little upper body strength.
Why is that? It’s because in the water, the only difference in speed is going to be how you generate force with your arms. On the bike we are basically equalised. Running we also get somewhat equalised because of our Achilles tendon that returns energy the same for everyone. But in the water, small differences in structure and strength have a huge impact.
So what are those ideal swim stroke rates to target?
If you're someone with long arms (say someone whose height is 6’0” or taller) or who has a lot of upper body strength, then the “ideal” stroke rate is going to be around 25-30 strokes per minute.
If you are someone with shorter arms (say someone who is 5’6” or smaller) or who doesn’t have much upper body strength, the “ideal” stroke rate is going to be closer to 30-35 strokes per minute.
The difference in swimming styles is that the slower the stroke rate that is most efficient, the more the swimmer is going to roll from side to side through the transition in their pull from one side to the other. A lot of this force is indeed generated by the whipping rotation of the hips. But another component is going to be from having a lot of upper body strength to keep the pressure on the water for an extended period of time.
If you're finding yourself in the higher ranges, this is often with less hip rotation and body roll. This is perfect for people with less upper-body strength to hold a lot of pressure in the water through the entire stroke.
Think of it this way. If you look at a quail running along the ground, they have very short legs but can run very fast via a super high leg turnover rate. Then compare that to a giraffe that can also run very fast but has a very slow loping style because their legs are so long. The same is true in the water.
So, assess your stroke rate and compare that to where might be ideal based on your body structure and muscle composition. If you have a very low stroke rate but are small and don’t have a lot of upper body strength, then for sure start doing some one lap drills where you crank up your stroke rate while still maintaining efficiency in the water.
If you're tall and strong but also have a high stroke rate, you are likely slipping your arms through the water inefficiently. If this is the case, try this drill. It corrects almost all stroke mechanic issue that people have that cause their stroke rate to be too high:
Mark Allen is one of the greatest Ironman athletes ever. He has won the Ironman world championships six times. And he's not just a long-distance triathlete. He has won the inaugural ITU World Championships in 1989, and the Nice Triathlon a record 10 times. We named Mark Allen the greatest male triathlete ever in 2016.
Mark now runs www.markallencoaching.com/