In the previous article – When You Go Harder But You Can’t Go Any Faster – I discussed how stroke length and stroke rate are yoked together and suggested as an initial step that you get a baseline measurement of what your current comfortable stroke rate is. Once you have this you can (perhaps with guidance from your coach) evaluate whether it is too high, too low, or just right for your developmental stage. In this article I present some ways you can measure your average stroke rate.

First, to make it easiest to do measurements and simple calculations for pool swimming, I recommend using the term and measurement of ‘tempo’ which is the mathematical inverse of ‘stroke rate’. Tempo = the number of seconds, in decimal, per stroke, while Stroke Rate = strokes-per-minute (more common) or strokes-per-second (less common).

One way to measure your current comfortable tempo is to take a Tempo Trainer Pro and (after reading the instructions on how to use the buttons) set it to Mode 3 (the tempo mode) and set the seconds to maybe 1.30. Even before getting in the water, just stand there, close your eyes, and imagine taking strokes in sync with that beep rate. Does it feel fast or slow in your imagination? Adjust the tempo up or down a few clicks until it gets closer to what seems like natural timing in your imagination. Then, after warming up a while or even better, after doing part of your workout, keep that setting and swim a couple of lengths, then adjust the tempo up or down by no more than .02 seconds (two clicks) at a time and try another 2 lengths. Keep testing and making those adjustments until you feel like strokes at that tempo or around that tempo are quite normal – not feeling rushed nor held back. It will likely not be a single number but a small range (for example, a person’s strokes might feel comfortable between the range of 1.32 and 1.40 seconds).

Another way to measure is to set up a camera or have a friend video you while you do a test swim. For the test swim, maybe aim for 400 to 800 meters (or yards) so your body really settles into a stroke that is comfortable for doing a little distance. Make sure the camera is capturing your swim from wall to wall. After the swim you can watch the recording, and either using an app that allows you to see the time stamp on each frame or use an on-screen timer to take a 15-second segment of swimming within a chosen length (only the portion of the length where you are actually taking strokes, not where you are gliding to or from the wall) and count the number of strokes taken within that 15-second segment. Then do a little math: divide 15 seconds by the number of strokes you took and that equals the average tempo for that swim segment. Do that for several lengths of the test swim to get an idea of what your average tempo may be, or if there is a big fluctuation in your tempo over the test swim.

After you’ve got your baseline measurement of tempo, you can confirm this or gain some more insight into your neural fitness, by doing another test swim of the same distance. With the Tempo Trainer Pro set to that comfortable tempo, now do the same 400 (or whatever your chosen distance is) and just observe how your body responds to that consistent tempo constraint over the whole swim. Does it feel comfortable all the way through? Does it start to feel like it is rushing your stroke or slowing it down as you get into the second half? Does it fluctuate between those three feelings all through the swim? A strongly normalized tempo (one that is etched deeply into your nervous system) would stay rather consistent through the swim (granted you are not bumping up against muscular or metabolic limits). If your experience of the same tempo over the test swim fluctuates between feeling rushed and feeling slow, this may be a sign that you could benefit from more neural fitness training.

If you would like to convert units from tempo to stroke rate (in units of strokes-per-minute, which is common for open water swimming) then take 60 and divide by the tempo number.

If you would like to convert units from stroke rate (strokes-per-minute) to tempo then take 60 and divide by the stroke rate number.

Photo by Rachel Loughman on Unsplash

Converting to or from stroke rate allows a third option for measuring baseline tempo.  Using a musical metronome app** on a smart phone (maybe set the beat to 1:1) you can either watch a video recording of your test swim or have a friend watch you and adjust the dial on the metronome (which is set to beats per minute = stroke rate) until the click synchronizes with your stroke rhythm.  Look at the bpm number and use that to convert to tempo.

**Note: For some years I have been using the Soundbrenner app to do quick stroke rate checks on swimmers and cadence checks on runners.

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