Swimmer Athlete Wearing Cap And Goggles Training Freestyle In Indoor Pool Practicing With Stroke Rate

How To Use Stroke Rate To Improve Your Open-Water Swimming

BY Brian Johns

Open-water swimming can be challenging, intimidating, and even daunting. Understanding your stroke rate can help by guiding your training and racing in the uncharted waters. Here's how.

If you’re like most athletes, your first exposure to open-water swimming happens when you’re training for a triathlon. But these challenges aren’t limited to beginners – even experienced athletes struggle when it comes to open-water swimming. Challenges of the open water include:

  1. Accessibility. It’s not uncommon for athletes to not practice open-water swimming until race day. 
  2. General anxiety about being in the open water. A pool environment is predictable, but open-water swimming poses many unknowns. Your mind might wander from thinking about the depth of the water, the temperature, the other athletes around you, or even just your breathing pattern. All these can lead to anxiety and distraction instead of focusing on your swimming.
  3. Accuracy of training. The open water creates a challenge for tracking your metrics like distance and pace due to GPS signals and other uncontrollable variables.  
  4. Rest and relief. In the open water, you don’t have the same level of rest and relief as you do in the pool. You’re not able to take breaks between intervals or get those momentary points of relief between lengths when you push off the wall. This creates higher levels of fatigue in both your cardiovascular and muscular systems. 

One way to overcome these challenges is by using key metrics that guide your training and help you stay focused and engaged. And great metric to use is stroke rate. 

What is Stroke Rate?

Before defining stroke rate, it’s important to understand how your speed is determined for swimming (or any other endurance discipline). Simply put, your speed is determined by how far you go for each stroke (or each stride when running or bike revolution when biking) and how long it takes you to do each stroke, which is your cadence.

Your stroke rate in swimming is similar to your cadence (RPM) while riding your bike. Stroke rate is the frequency of strokes that you take in a specified period of time. Your stroke rate can be measured in a number of ways, but it’s easiest to measure it as the number of strokes you take per minute (SPM). For example, if your stroke rate is 65 SPM, that means you’re taking 65 strokes in a span of one minute. 

Now, let’s take a deeper dive into how to use stroke rate to assist your training, both in the pool and in open water.

Using Stroke Rate to Improve Your Swimming Performance

Stroke rate is a great metric that helps you control and determine effort levels while training, similar to how you use the RPM metric on your bike to control your watts or power. Knowing your stroke rates for different speeds and efforts helps you determine how much energy you’re using and how to interpret your speed based on your stroke rate. 

Once you learn how to leverage your stroke rate to control your speed, you can then translate it into your open-water training and racing. For instance, you might swim at a stroke rate of 50 SPM when you’re warming up and going easy but then at a higher rate, such as 70 to 80 SPM when you’re going all out.

When using stroke rate as a metric to help gauge speed, performance, and effort, it’s important to know that there is no perfect stroke rate. You should always train and prepare at a stroke rate that is specific to YOU. A 6ft 5in swimmer is going to have a much different stroke rate than a 5ft 6in swimmer. So remember that your stroke rate should be personalized to your goals, and refrain from comparing yourself to others!

Finding Your Stroke Rate

To find your stroke rate, you first need to record your stroke rate during a test set that’s applicable to your race. For example, if you’re training for an Olympic distance triathlon, do a set of 15 to 20 x 100 at your target race pace. Record your stroke rate for each 100, and then take the average of that set to get your Olympic triathlon stroke rate. (Note: You’ll need to use a sports tracking device that measures stroke rate, such as FORM Smart Swim Goggles or a sports watch). When you train at that pace, your goal is to hold or improve your stroke rate so that you’ll be able to comfortably hold it for the duration of your swim leg in a race.

As you start to use stroke rate more, you’ll be able to compare how well you can hold your stroke rate over a specific distance (ie. 400 meters) or over a specific duration (i.e., 6 minutes to do 400 meters). You can also do the same by comparing how well you can hold different stroke rates at different speeds or paces. The harder you swim, the harder it will be to maintain your stroke rate over time due to muscular fatigue.

But why train your stroke rate in the pool when you’re training for open water? The goal is to increase your consistency and ability to hold a targeted stroke rate, as consistency is often a big challenge when transitioning to open-water swimming. When you’re swimming in a pool, you’re taking rests between intervals and pushing off the wall after every length. This means you’re probably able to maintain a higher stroke rate than you would if you were swimming in open water. It’s best to determine your baseline swim stroke in the pool and then start planning to overshoot that rate for your transition to open-water swimming. Learning how to hold your stroke over a specific duration in the pool is a great way to start transitioning to open water.

Transitioning to Open-Water Swimming

Transitioning your swim workouts to open water can be done in a number of ways, depending on your access to open water or long-course pools (50 meters). If you don’t have access to a long-course pool, try swimming longer intervals to mimic swimming in open water. Even changing from a 25-yard pool to a 50-meter pool can be a drastic change, which makes it a great training tactic when preparing for open water. 

Another great way to practice your open-water training in the pool is to swim for a specific period of time versus the total distance. In open water, you don’t get the same breaks from turning in a pool or resting at the wall. Training over long periods of time prepares your arms and stroke rate for the open water environment. 

Once you decide to start actually training in open water, knowing your stroke rate over time in the pool helps. Your watch (or FORM Smart Swim Goggles) more accurately tracks the amount of time you’ve been swimming, so try to hold the same stroke rate over the same duration that you’ve been doing in the pool while you swim in open water. Your stroke rate helps guide and control your pace as you continue to train in open water. Don’t be discouraged if holding your stroke rate in open water is much harder than it is in the pool –  remember you’re not getting as much rest, and wearing a wetsuit often increases resistance in your stroke. However, if you try to replicate your stroke rate from the pool to open water, it will serve as a good starting point as you continue to adapt your training in preparation for your event.

Challenges When Using Stroke Rate

One of the challenges of using stroke rate is not being about to know what it is while you’re swimming. When using a bike, you’re able to see your RPM during your workout if you’re using a bike computer or training indoors. But with swimming, you’re only able to look at the data after your training and thus have to base your stroke rate on feel. FORM goggles make it easier to track your stroke rate, pace, and distance without compromising your performance by seeing your metrics in real-time, right in front of your eyes. This saves you the disruption of stopping to check your watch as you swim.

FORM also now integrates into TrainingPeaks, which means you can import your structured swims from TrainingPeaks to the FORM app and goggles. As a FORM user, you can link your TrainingPeaks account to your FORM app, pull workouts to your goggles, and send data back to TrainingPeaks when you’re done. To learn more about the new feature, click here

Triathlon pacing and open-water swimming require focused, consistent, and strategic training. Taking advantage of a training plan will help you go from tackling the first stage of your progressive overload all the way through to swimming your full target distance with your goal stroke rate.

Trainingpeaks And Form Swim Smart Goggles Integrated

Swim Faster With FORM

Compatible Devices

FORM Smart Swim Goggles are the first-ever goggles with a patented AR display and motion sensors that show your pace, stroke rate, and distance in real time. FORM Smart Goggles now sync with TrainingPeaks, so you can leave the soggy paper at home and execute your swim workouts with ease.

Brian Jonhs, Head Coach Of Science At Form And 3 Time Olympic Swimming
About Brian Johns

Brian Johns is a former competitive swimmer, 3-time Olympian, and former world record holder. After swimming, Brian coached the Canadian National and Junior National teams for 10 years. He is currently the head of coaching science at FORM.

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