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Triathletes - Stroke your way to faster times

Kevin Koskella explains how to develop your swimming stroke length.

You may have had coaches that make you count strokes throughout the workout, either by mixing it into drill sets, the main set, or at the end of the workout. Some coaches recommend making a habit of always keeping track of your stroke count. As a coach of distance swimmers and triathletes, I believe stroke counting is a necessary part of most swimming workouts.

Stroke length

If you stick with it and do it consistently, stroke counting in swimming is an excellent way to increase your DPS (Distance per Stroke). The world's best swimmers are faster than you because they travel further with each stroke, not because they are moving their arms faster. Keeping track of the number of strokes you take per length will allow you to begin to lengthen out your stroke, as well as add more speed and distance while keeping your heart rate down and allowing you to save your energy for later in the swim or race.

The goal should be to bring down your average stroke count per length. Great swimmers like Alexander Popov or Ian Thorpe may be able to scoot through the water at record speed while taking 30 strokes per length (50 meters), but this low stroke count does not have to be your golden number for improving your stroke. First, determine what your range is. Try to swim most of the time at the low end of your range or below your lowest stroke count. Do not worry about speed at first - you can influence this later, perhaps as you begin to learn what your "ideal" stroke count is. Here is an example of a set that can help lengthen your stroke, as well as build endurance:

  • 50+100+150+200+200+150+100+50
  • Take 10 to 30 seconds between swims
  • Count your strokes each length on the way up
  • Try to maintain or lower your stroke count on the way down while keeping the same pace

Another fun set that you can play with is free golf. For example:

  • 6 x 50m's freestyle in 1:05. For each 50, count your strokes AND check your time. Add these two numbers together to get your golf score. Try to lower this score through the set. The tricky part is, trying to add speed without adding strokes or subtracting strokes without sacrificing speed.

Consistently incorporating stroke counting into your workouts will, over time, help you to swim with more stroke length in the water, and use less energy to go the same speed or even faster. And for those that do not consider swimming to be their strength in a triathlon, this saved energy is sure to translate into a better bike and run!

Wetsuit Considerations

After the bicycle frame and components, purchasing a wetsuit is the largest expense in a triathlon. During the 1980s, triathlon events began to permit the use of wetsuits in competition. Benefits include increased buoyancy, expansion of potential workout and race venues, increased safety, and general comfort. USAT sanctioned races allow wetsuits for races in water 78 degrees or less. USMS (Masters Swimming) swim events do not permit the use of wetsuits. Racers who decide on wearing wetsuits do so for reasons other than official placing or awards and may be used by choice.

Why a wetsuit

Warmth - The neoprene or rubber material traps a layer of water close to the skin that is warmed by core body temperature and delays hypothermia in water less than 80 degrees.

Buoyancy - The wetsuit provides safe and fear-reducing buoyancy but should not be relied upon as a life preserver. However, increased confidence in open water can be another benefit.

Speed - Reduction of drag, the effects of providing buoyancy to the hips and legs, and the ease of breathing and sighting all contribute to a 10% or greater reduction in time over an Olympic distance swim (3-5 minutes!).

Energy Conservation - This should be your goal on the swim since you still have some biking and running left to do!

Additional considerations

  1. Open water swimming is often done "double capped" using latex swim caps
  2. The fit of the wetsuit should be "second skin" tight. Legs and arms can be "cut" to length with sharp scissors, if necessary. Fit around the chest and arms for ease of movement is the single most important fit consideration
  3. The first time you swim in your wetsuit, it can feel like your breathing is restricted. This diminishes with practice as long as the fit is proper
  4. "Neck rash" is the chafing that can occur around the neck due to the movement associated with breathing. "Rash Guards" are shirts that help prevent this rash and can be obtained at most surf shops. Also, Vaseline helps prevent this
  5. Wetsuits should be rinsed after each use
  6. Use of "body glide" at the lower legs, neck, and wrists can help in suit removal
  7. In a race, start unzipping your suit as you exit the water.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • KOSKELLA, K. (2006) Triathletes - Stroke your way to faster times. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 34/ July-August), p. 1-3

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • KOSKELLA, K. (2006) Triathletes - Stroke your way to faster times [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Kevin Koskella coaches masters and triathlete swimmers in San Diego, CA. He operates the website, a resource for beginner to intermediate level triathletes looking for help with swimming.