First, let’s be clear what we are really talking about: Stroke Rate is largely a proxy for Hand Speed, and as proxies go, it’s a decent one. Hand Speed directly effects the force equation, and while it is possible to have decent hand speed at a moderately slow stroke rate, they are far from independent variables. They are fairly well correlated. Hand speed is what we really want. Hand speed creates force, and properly applied force increases propulsion.
Stroke Rate is NOT an Input
Stroke rate is best thought of as an output. While it’s true that when transitioning from a complete novice swimmer to a nearly optimized one, we will almost always observe an increased stroke rate. However, that doesn’t mean that novice swimmers should simply turn up the stroke rate dial and call it a day. While a specific stroke rate is not fundamental, proper timing of the pull, kick, rotation, and breath is, and that’s where it can get tricky.
Here we see a graphical display of the fast turnover of elite swimmers, but we can't see the fundamentals that underpin those stroke rates.
Elements of Timing Work Together
Developing swimmers are at the beginning stages of learning how to time everything properly, so altering one of those elements of timing can do more harm than good. A swimmer who is just learning to “balance on the log”, can have the log rolled out from under them when one element of overall timing is manipulated. Or it can work wonders. That’s right. I’ve seen firsthand swimmers make immediate speed improvements simply by upping their stroke rate. You might be one of them.
There has to be a foundation though. Whether by chance or circumstance, a deliberate raising of the stroke rate will demand a certain level of physical vocabulary or “pieces of the puzzle”, to be in place. Your body needs to have the tools to maintain all the elements of timing and propulsion to support the increased pulling. Most novices do not have the fundamental skills to support an arbitrary increase in stroke rate.
Explore, Don't Dictate In conclusion, I think you will end up with a higher stroke rate, but I don’t think you should try to raise it as a pillar of your development. What you should do immerse yourself in the process of learning the fundamentals of rhythm, timing, relaxation, physical vocabulary and propulsion, while exploring but not dictating stroke rate and hand speed. (I wrote about the unique and effective Finding Freestyle process HERE.)
Some Ways to Play In the following videos I’ll present some of my favorite activities for stroke rate exploration.
The simple act of Pulling, whether with or without a buoy, or in more challenging forms such as Mono-Leg can help expedite the process of increasing stroke rate.
Head-Up Swimming (Tarzan style) will often stimulate the swimmer to move the hands faster to regain the balance lost by elevating the head. Done with a 2 Beat Kick, success can be both more elusive and effective.
The Happy Medium Activity is the most direct method to explore and expand your hand speed and stroke rate capabilities. The concept can be applied to full stroke swimming, Head-up swimming, Pulling, and even the torso driven, purely propulsive style of pulling known as Float & Paddle.
In fact "Happy Medium style Float & Paddle"could be one of the more effective formats to explore stroke rate, as it removes the timing of the kick, and by definition, synchronizes the timing of the pull (and breath) to the rotation, leaving the swimmer free to play with stroke rate without losing any aspects of timing. I don't have a video for this as I've never tried it, and just thought it up as I was writing this blog. I try to keep exploring myself!
Bonus points for anyone who shoots a quick "Happy Medium Float & Paddle" video and throws a link in the comments. Or email it to email@example.com (which is the same place to send any questions).
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