Stroke count as failure criteria?

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    Gary P

    After analyzing my videos from my season-ending meet, I was a little taken aback by how much my Distance Per Stroke fell off through a race, and how poor my efficiency was at the end of an event compared to the beginning. I was really flabbergasted at how much I was “spinning” in the 50M LC free, taking over 50 strokes!

    USRPT was an effective tool for me to rebuild my strength and cardiovascular efficiency last year after being out of the pool for over 25 years. The gains came rather easily as I was able to simply exert more effort week by week and crank up the tempo as my efficiency slipped in a set. I eventually hit a plateau, however. At this point, I think I’ve pretty well built the engine to near it’s maximum power. My gains going forward are going to come primarily from better technique. In an effort to force me to keep my technique together farther into a race, I’m experimenting with putting a maximum stroke count per length as an additional failure criteria for a USRPT set. For example, for 50’s at 400/500 free pace, I’m allowing 16 out and 17 back. For 75’s at 400/500 free pace, its 16/17/17. For 25’s at 100 free pace, I’m allowing 18. If I miss the stroke count, but make the time, I allow myself a “Mulligan.” Two stroke count failures in a row, however, and I’m counting it as a failure, even if the time is met. Any time miss (after the first 4 “dial in” reps) is a failure. Just started this week, so I don’t have any conclusions to draw other than that I had to back up my pace a bit on the 75’s to get a reasonable volume. Curious to know if anyone else has incorporated stroke counts in this manner and how it worked.


    I’ve never done what you’re suggesting, but I’ve definitely heard of it. In particular Bud Termin (who’s own flavor of race pace training has been around for 20+ years) ran race pace sets based on speed and stroke count. He was hyper analytical with it. Lots of math and DPS calculations to come up with an optimal stroke count. I’m not against that at all, but it seems like overkill for most swimmers. There are practical ways to leverage stroke count without getting crazy.

    I’ve approached stroke count like this: swim a handful of 100s or 200s at a relatively high effort and note your stroke count for each lap for each rep. Typically the first lap will be low, then you’ll add 1-2 for the next lap or two (this is typically your current “best” stroke count), then you’ll add 1-2 more for the remainder of the swim. If I start out with 10 strokes per 25 yards I will end up with 12-13 by the end of a 200. If 12-13 mucks up my approach to a wall for a turn then I ought to train to keep that count at 11 or otherwise adjust my kick out/breakout so 12-13 strokes works with the wall on the other end. Whatever pattern your stroke count degrades in and whatever the undesirable effect is (bad wall timing, slow speed) it’s important to have a handle on it so you can plan how to improve it.

    If my count becomes bonkers high in a longer swim, say, +5 or more stroke per 25, then I’d start training as you suggested…use stroke count as a failure condition. In this case I can recommend the Finis tempo trainer pro. Learn to let it drive when you take a stroke. As you reach the point where you’d add strokes you’ll start to get a feel for what mechanical defects are creeping in that force the extra strokes to be necessary. It’s always some mechanical defect…head/body position, poor catch, not finishing the pull, lack of body rotation, kick goes away, etc. Then it’s a matter of recognizing the defect has crept in and building the skill to prevent it from happening.

    Hope that helps!

    Gary P

    FWIW, here are my splits and stroke counts from my 400 free (LC) at USMS Summer Nationals


    Some efficiency degradation is expected. 25% seems too much, although I have no basis to make that judgement other than a hunch.


    Recently I have been watching a lot of video trying to figure what tempo I should be at in my races. I was worried that I had too high of a tempo but I actually found out that some of my tempos were too slow. 100 fly in particular. I figured out my breakout times and stroke counts and calculated my tempo. I watched a ton of video from the elite swimmers to figure out what their tempos were. I was surprised about what I found. For example, everyone knows Michael Phelps as having a long stroke with great dps but if you calculate the tempo it’s actually pretty fast. At nationals in his 100 fly he took 18 strokes on the second 50 at a time of 26.2. He broke out at 6.2. If you time it from when he initiates his first stroke to when his hands hit the water on his last stroke it’s about 19.9. 19.9/18 = 1.105. A tempo of 1.10 faster than you think once you get in the pool and swim at that rate yourself. Phelps certainly doesn’t have the fastest tempo but 1.1 is still not very long. It’s a quick turnover. I wish I wrote this stuff down but I think I remember most of it pretty well. Sjostrom was around 1.05 for most of her 100 in Kazan and even a little bit faster in short course. Worrell was close to 1.00 on her scy record. The mens ncaa is super high tempo and a lot of people are actually under 1.00. Michael Andrew was 1.1 on his 46.95 yards swim and about 1.15 in LC.

    For my 100 fly I decided that I wanted to hit a tempo of 1.15, give or take a few hundredths. At an interval at 16.5 I usually break out a little under 4 seconds, 16.5-3.85= 12.65. Tempo’s by stroke count are 10-1.265, 11-1.15, 12-1.05. After the first few I settle in to 10 and try to hold 10 strokes as long as I can. After I can’t make it in 10, I have to increase tempo to 1.15. Holding this tempo is almost self-regulating because I can only make it in 12 strokes every once in a while, the tempo is too fast for me. If I’m holding 1.15 and in the middle of the lap I feel that I am slowing down, increasing stroke rate won’t work because there is no time to hit 12 strokes. I have my tempo trainer set to 8.25 and usually my hands hit the water after my 4th stroke right after the beep at 8.25. So, if I decide to increase my tempo to try to hit 12 strokes I have to increase my tempo to 1.03 to make it to the wall in time in 12 strokes. If I increase to something like 1.08, there is no time to get the 12th stroke in on time and 11 strokes will only get me to 23 meters or something like that. Therefore, I am forced to try to get as much DPS at 1.15 to make the interval. I have to think really hard about technique and how to get the most out of my stroke at 1.15. Recently, I found that my hand entry kick tends to weaken as I get tired. Once I figured out that I was doing that, I focused really hard on maintaining my power on that kick and I was able to eek out some more reps while exhaustion was setting in. Similarly, in breaststroke my hand recovery tends slow without me realizing it. Since I have to focus really hard on maximizing dps at a particular tempo, I am able to figure out portions of my stroke that I can improve. I kind of have a new outlook on a failed rep. I look at it more as distance covered rather than time. On the fails I still like to be on tempo at least, I don’t like getting caught by the beep before my hands hit the water on the 11th stroke. I like to look at it as failing because of decrease in DPS rather than not getting to the wall in time.

    Going back to Phelps 100 fly tempo. A lot of people think that the reason Phelps is so good is that he is a physical freak, which he is, but what really puts him over the top is that he is a technical master. Especially in the 100 fly. Honestly, I don’t think his is the most physically equipped to be the best 100 flyer in the world, but his amazing technical skills allows him to surpass everyone. Every elite swimmer and probably every college swimmer can take 18 strokes at a tempo 1.1. They may finish 18 strokes at 95 meters, but that pace and tempo is something that a lot of people can do. Phelps is the only person on the planet with enough DPS at 1.1 to make it to the wall in the last 19.9 seconds. Let’s say someone wanted to take less strokes and be even more “efficient” than Phelps. If someone wanted to swim at 1.2 so that they could make it to the wall in less strokes and they broke out at the same point and at the same time as Phelps did, on 17 strokes they would make it to the wall in 20.4. No matter how smooth their stroke looks, no matter how pretty or effortless the stoke looks, it is mathematically impossible to beat Phelps with that tempo on 17 strokes. It would take 16 strokes to beat him at that tempo which might be impossible. I think a lot of people make the mistake about worrying too much about the eye test rather than what is actual happening in the stroke. A couple days ago when I was at practice, I was watching an age group team swimming fly. Their strokes did look smooth and pretty good overall but I don’t think one person was swimming below 1.3. That’s too slow even for the 200 fly. Katie Mcglouthlin swims a 1.15 for most of her 200 fly.

    I now believe that stroke count is totally irrelevant. Another example is Adam Peaty’s 100 breaststroke. He has a super high tempo. I’m sure there are lots of people that could take 46 strokes in 57.92. Everyone except for Peaty would come up short of 100 meters. Like Phelps, Peaty’s DPS at his particular tempo is the best. Even though he has a high stroke rate, he still has great DPS even though most people don’t see it that way.

    I don’t think USRPT automatically conditions you to swim a high stroke rate. Michael Andrews breaststroke tempo is on the other end of the extreme as Peaty’s tempo. Katie Ledecky excels in distance free at a fast tempo. Sun Yang dominates with a super slow tempo, almost 1 second. It’s about finding that sweet spot. For me personally, I found that using a fast tempo for breaststroke works for me the best while using a slower tempo for freestyle works better. When I researched 100 freestyle tempo’s I found that it’s like a bell curve with the range of .55-.65. Most swimmers fall around .6 with a few on .55 and .65. Some examples at Adrian-.6, Mcevoy-.59, Zetao-.58, Dressle-.55, Cate Campbel- .65, Magnussen- .65, Josh Davis 45.1 after training USRPT-.6. James Magnussen was a .65 when he went 47.1 but ever since that swim he has had a faster tempo closer to .6 and has not been that close to 47.1 ever since. .65 is definitely his sweet spot while other swimmers like Adrian sweet spot is .6. If he had a slower or faster tempo he would have a slower time. It’s all about finding that sweet spot that works for you. After studying this, I decided that I wanted to have a tempo of .6 or my 100 free. I can get there but can’t maintain it at all. .6 is 20 stokes in 12 seconds, it’s really fast. I settled into about .64 and have been improving nicely ever since. I was stuck for a while because I was only worried about keeping as low a stroke count as possible and my tempo was to slow to reach higher speeds.

    Gary, I went back and watched your 400 free that you posted on here. It looks like your tempo in the middle of the race is around .73-.78 which really isn’t that high of a stroke rate. If you cut yourself off at 16 or 17 strokes, that is a drastic change it tempo which may be too slow for you. I did time conversion of your 400 free and I figure you are doing 35.00 for 50’s yards at 500 pace? If thats the case, if you take out the time for underwaters and turns, it’s about 15.00 per lap if you take out the underwaters and turns. That would make your tempo 15/16=.9375 and 15/17=.88. That may not be totally accurate but even if you have really long underwaters 13/16=.81. Either way, that is a radical change from your actual race tempo. I wouldn’t cut yourself short with strokes. I would try to hold a low tempo as long as you can and add strokes until you reach your target tempo. I think you’ll find that you won’t be able to sustain a higher than race tempo for very long. In the middle of your race you are around a 36.5 from first stroke to the last stroke before the turn. If you wanted to go on a slower tempo like .85 and still go 36.5 you would have to do it in 43 strokes. That seems like a lot of ground to make up. A more logical route might be keeping the same tempo but getting one less stroke per lap by improving DPS. If you think about it all you need is about 1 inch more dps per stroke to reduce your stroke count by 1 stroke per lap. 1 less stroke means you get there .75 faster. .75 x 8 laps = 6 seconds. I hope this helps. I can’t speak from experience when it come to the 400/500 but whatever the race is, the combination of tempo and dps is more important than stroke count.


    Long post, but really good post, Marlin. I think I agree with all of it – especially the notion that a fine-tuned “optimal” tempo is specific to the swimmer…I really like that. It’s something I’ve thought myself for a long time. I’m getting stuck on how stroke count isn’t important (or less important) than tempo/DPS. How can it be irrelevant/less important given one’s stroke count is the result of one’s tempo and DPS?

    I tend to look at stroke count because it’s the only practical measurement a swimmer can accurately assess while training/racing. With the exception of using a tempo trainer how could a swimmer accurately measure their tempo? If they counted strokes they could make a relative assessment of DPS in some cases (i.e. rep time was same/slower & count went up = DPS down or vice versa). But say stroke count goes up and time gets faster or vice versa…DPS could have shifted either way. Assuming one could do the math there’s no reasonable way to do it in the moment during a set. It seems to me stroke count is all that’s readily available to help a swimmer self-assess.

    I don’t think I’m arguing or, really, disagreeing I just got hung up on the notion that stroke count isn’t important. I had a thought that perhaps you meant that there isn’t a stroke count that, generally, we “should” be doing. Rather one’s ideal stroke count is specific to the swimmer. Which would parallel what you were illustrating with all the numbers.

    Getting back to Gary…I’d say that I would’ve liked to see his 400 splits flatten out at a 38 mid or high, but it’s tough to be too definitive without seeing splits from other races. Maybe Gary is one of those bat-out-of-hell mid distance swimmers. I’d expect a split spread like that out of a good 200 swimmer who leans toward the sprinting, but got tossed into the 500. Not a bad race, really, but not the splits of a refined 400/500 swimmer (with no disrespect intended toward Gary).

    Looking at the stroke counts themselves I’d toss out the 1st and last 50. The 1st includes the start and all the adrenaline…everyone is wicked low in the first lap. We should all see that effect rep to rep in a set much less a race. I didn’t see the video (where’s the link?), but I’m guessing the last 50 included some end-of-race spurt of speed which usually involves a big gear shift in tempo. So you went from 42 to 51…closer to a 20% rise which is probably not great but better than 25%. There seems to be a pretty consistent 0.40 second correlation per added stroke after the 2nd 50 which would tend to point to your mechanics staying stable. I keep ringing the bell on the walls, but is there a difference in your approach to the walls and/or the speed/distance you’re carrying off of them? So often I see an extra stroke force a glide into a wall or a weird half stroke to make the turn work and poof…there goes your turn momentum and distance on your push. Also, what are you doing in your breakouts? Where and how that first breath happens can make all the difference in the world. Easily enough to account for your splits and stroke counts.

    On a slightly different but related topic whenever I work with sprinters on increasing tempo they usually dislike how it feels at first. Especially the larger power sprinters with smooth mechanics. They hate the feeling of rushing a stroke or pulling in a way that’s obviously slipping to some degree. I am always forced to go to the white board to show that if you normally take 12 strokes and get it up to 16 then you can lose up to a third of your DPS before you break even with your 12-strokes. Get that stroke count up to 18 and the math is even better. The first thing I have them try is to move their arm through the recovery quicker and change nothing else. Once they balance things out a bit there’s a tiny hit to DPS and instant gain of 2 strokes. Now if we’re smart about things and slowly add strokes then DPS doesn’t suffer much and we’re left with a buzz-saw of a sprinter. Hopefully.

    Both in sprinting (raising tempo) and longer races (maintaining tempo) it’s all about the mechanical mistakes that creep in. Is the sprinter shorting their stroke to boost their tempo or are they forcing the proper mechanics and allowing their CNS to adapt to be able to fire their arms around faster? Is the mid distance swimmer shorting their stroke because that’s their personal tendency? Or is it body rotation. Or head position. Or hips & kicking. Or on and on. Sort that out, gain control and the swimmer should get a lot faster.

    I had another thought pop in my head about stroke count and Gary’s race. How much rise is generally good or bad? Most of my experience is in 25 yard pools where (from a push) I usually start off with 10 strokes, then 11 for 50-75 yards and then stabilize at 12. From a start I’m sure I’d be 8 or 9 strokes the first lap then 10-11 and into my normal pattern. 10 to 12 is a 20% rise and really doesn’t strike me as bad at all. Food for thought.

    Gary P

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, guys. Matt, below are links to two videos of the race, from opposite sides of the pool.

    (In this one, I’m the third swimmer from the top, 4th lane (numbered 3 because the first is 0):

    (In this one, which gives a broader field of view but less detail, I’m third swimmer from the bottom):

    I was only able to do one Long Course practice and only swam one LC 400 free race this season. In fact, this was only my 9th race since coming back to the sport. The 200 free was my best event as a high school swimmer, but I swam the 500 a lot because we had less depth at that distance. I had originally planned to swim the 200 at this event, but for scheduling reasons switched to the 400 and switched my training focus from 200 to 400 back in January.

    To be clear, I wasn’t unhappy with my performance; I pretty well swam the race to my plan and hit the time I expected. I agree that ideally the splits would stabilize in the low 38s and I’d have a little more juice on the final 50, but the pacing in this race was much better than the previous attempt at a 400LCM and the one SCY 500 I swam. I’m looking for ideas how to shore up the back half of this event, and break through the training plateau I seem to be stuck at. Any ideas would be appreciated.


    The first video is worth a watch if only to hear Gary’s family cheer him on. Good stuff.

    Here’s what jumped out at me: you have a really solid kick. Counter to what I usually see as your stroke lost power your kick got bigger. In the first 150 or so I noted how the kick would drop off in rhythm with your breathing. Not good but not uncommon. The legs/feet can do weird stuff during the breathing stroke to compensate for an arm that is placed wide or a head that’s moving out of line. Then as your stroke rate climbs and it looks like your losing power the kick gets bigger and more consistent. Not common at all and a great habit.

    Watch your turns. Both your approach and your breakouts change a lot. The approach you look like you are eyeballing the wall more and more. You end up gliding more into the wall later in the race, thus losing momentum and having to really toss yourself into the flip by picking up your head, lunging and adding a fly kick. Those are the turns of a tired dude. Ironically they are slower and cost more and make the push/breakout harder. The breakouts are more stark. Note where your head breaks the surface off each wall. Toward the end it’s barely at the flags whereas earlier it’s well past the flags. Note the quality of the first breath. Earlier it’s smooth and doesn’t effect your speed much while later your head comes up a ton and your speed visibly stalls at the moment of your breakout.

    Just the wall stuff could account for most of the added strokes. It also looks like – as you said – your losing DPS. Later in the race your hand is exiting the water closer to you hip instead of finishing the stroke down by your quad. It also looks like you have a nice powerful body rotation in your stroke early on and later much less. That would tend to make finishing the stroke harder to do. It was tough to see if you were rushing your catch as you got deeper in the race, but that is another common error that results in loss of DPS.

    Overall I wouldn’t be too discouraged. Despite everything I saw you appeared to fight harder and harder throughout the race. That’s great! I would train to keep my turn mechanics – especially the push and breakout – better for longer and to keep that long rotation driven stroke longer. Switching to higher tempo, bigger kick isn’t bad if it’s on purpose and you aren’t shorting the bottom of your stroke. If you have the gas tank for that it’d be a killer way to finish the last 150 or so of a 400/500.

    Hope that helps.

    Gary P

    The increase in kick intensity was definitely intentional. Late in the training season, as I was looking for ways to get deeper into sets, I worked on a 6-beat kick to go with my “distance” stroke. (My 100 free stroke pattern is to breathe every 4 to the opposite side). I would start with a 2-beat, then go to a 6-beat later as the arms started to fatigue. It got me a little bump in repetitions successfully made so I worked it into my race plan, going to the 6-beat at the 200 mark. If my kick looks a little inconsistent early, it’s partially because I was fighting my natural inclination to go harder there.

    Thanks for the insight on the walls. I knew the breakouts got worse, but I didn’t catch the pre-turn issues that probably contributed to that. Also thanks for pointing out the diminishing rotation and shorter stroke late. Things to work on, things to work on!

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