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Boost your turnover rate for quicker swim splits

  • By Paul Regensburg and Alister Russell
  • Published January 27, 2016
Photo: Shutterstock

Looking for ways to increase your swim speed? How about moving your arms faster? It sounds ridiculously simple; however, we tend to deemphasise arm turnover in our training, focusing instead on such aspects as body position, the catch and the kick. Not that there’s anything wrong with working on such things, but increasing and maintaining arm turnover is the next step for increased speed in the water. By boosting your turnover, you can:

  • Maintain more effective propulsion if you bump into other swimmers, as you can get your arm back into contact with the water sooner
  • Maintain better momentum through waves and swell
  • Sight more easily without reducing your speed

The challenge is that swimming with a higher stroke rate is a learned neuromuscular skill and must be practiced, and you have to be careful not to sacrifice efficiency or technique for the sake of quicker turnover.

A little help

You can count your strokes each length to determine your stroke rate; however, doing so may interfere with your mental focus. Enter the swim metronome. A swim metronome is an electronic stroke rate-pacing device that attaches to a goggle strap or is placed under your swim cap and creates an audible beep to help develop stroke-rate consistency, just as musicians use a metronome to maintain a specific tempo. Finis (finisinc.com) and Wetronome (wetronome.com) offer swim metronomes. You can change your rate of strokes per minute by adjusting the beep tempo and synchronising the beeps with each hand entry into the water.

The advantages of using a swim metronome are as follows:

  • You no longer have to count strokes per length
  • You can adjust your stroke rate based on type of training or distance of interval you are completing
  • Your stroke becomes more rhythmic and symmetrical
  • You can maintain your stroke rate and speed even as you become fatigued
  • You can use the device in the open water and still be aware of your stroke rate.

 

Your baseline stroke rate

In order to use a swim metronome you need to determine your baseline stroke rate (BSR), a value that corresponds to the number of seconds it takes you to perform one stroke, as calculated over a longer-distance swim rather than a short sprint. BSR is displayed in a tiny LCD window on the front of the metronome. You can use either of two methods to determine your BSR:

1. Swim 400 metres continuously at your race pace (ideally in a 50-metre pool) and have a friend or coach count your number of strokes (left arm = 1 stroke, right arm = 2 strokes, left arm = 3 strokes . . . etc.) for 30 seconds. Ideally this 400 should be done at race pace for your target distance (i.e. 750m, 1500m, 1.9km or 3.8km), and your stroke rate should be assessed in the latter half of the 400 after you have settled into your natural rhythm. Have your partner take your stroke count twice, ideally after 200m and then again after 300m so turns are not included in the 30-second sample:

Then use this simple formula:

Number of strokes for first 30-second interval = X (e.g. 34)

Number of strokes for second30-second interval = Y (e.g. 36)

Add these two numbers together to get your stroke rate per minute: X + Y (e.g. 34 + 36 = 70)

Divide your stroke rate per minute into 60: 60/(X + Y) = N (e.g. 60/70 = 0.86)

N = your baseline stroke rate (0.86 = number of seconds per stroke; this number will be your beep setting on the swim metronome)

You may want to repeat this exercise a few times and take an average value to give you a better reflection of your typical stroke rate. You might find that your BSR ranges from an already high value of 0.70 to very slow value of 1.20.

2. A second method of determining your BSR is to set the metronome on 0.90 (0.9 seconds per stroke) and adjust the setting up or down manually to match your natural rhythm. This is more difficult to do, however, because, as stated earlier, the best indication of your stroke rate is calculated in the latter stages of a longer interval.

Stroke-rate workouts

Now that you’ve calculated your baseline stroke rate you can utilise the metronome for some stroke rate-specific swim sets. When completing these sets, remember some key factors:

  • Maintain and emphasise your rotation (from the hips)
  • Try not to shorten your stroke. Be long in the water
  • Focus on your catch and feel for the water
  • Don’t over-kick to meet the stroke-rate setting

 

Swim workout #1: Developing your rhythm: The purpose of this set is to familiarise yourself with the audible beep of the metronome. The workout should start at your predetermined BSR (no higher, no lower). It may take a few lengths to get used to synchronising your stroke with the continual beeping sound of the metronome, especially when the turn at the end of the pool disturbs the flow of your stroke. You may find that the stroke rate seems very slow at the beginning, but it is in the second half of the interval where it should feel like the right pace.

Warm-up:     2 x (100 free/100 kick/100 pull)

4 x 50 choice drill

8 x 25 fast

Main set: 4 x 400 on 45 seconds recovery as 2 x 400 at BSR, then 2 x 400 at BSR minus 0.02 on the metronome’s setting

Cool-down: 400 mixed stroke

By working on your rhythm, you are developing new neuromuscular patterns and a more efficient stroke over distance. Keep a record of the setting on the metronome, and as you become more efficient and improve in your ability to maintain a stroke rate you can perform this workout at a slightly faster stroke rate.

Swim workout #2: Improve your stroke rate

Once you have mastered swimming with the metronome at and just below your BSR you can explore raising your stroke rate. Note that this should be done in very small increments. Raising your stroke rate too much too quickly will cause your technique to break down, resulting in a loss of efficiency. This workout increases your stroke rate in a controlled manner.

Warm-up: 400 choice, easy and loose

6 x 50 as 25 drill/25 free

6 x 50 as 15 fast/35 easy

Main set: 3 x (3 x 200 freestyle on 20 seconds recovery) as first set at BSR minus 0.05 on metronome, second set at BSR minus .010 on metronome, third set at BSR minus 0.15 on metronome. Rest 60 seconds between sets

Option: Finish your main set with a 400 backstroke at your BSR

Cool-down: 400 mixed stroke

If you notice your stroke begin to become inefficient (e.g. you start thrashing), revert back to your previously efficient stroke rate and get comfortable there. Remember, the aim is to become more efficient, not less.

Variations

Once you have mastered swimming at your BSR you can experiment with variations to your stroke to see how each might affect your stroke rate. For example, if you breathe with a three-stroke pattern, experiment with a five-stroke pattern, which may help increase your stroke rate. You can also use a slower, steadier stroke rate (increasing the seconds per stroke on the metronome from, say, 0.86 to 1.05) to build strength and efficiency, which will help you master an efficient body position and propulsion system.

Take-home message

Looking for ways to increase your swim speed? How about moving your arms faster? By boosting your turnover, you can:

1) Maintain more effective propulsion if you bump into other swimmers, as you can get your arm back into contact with the water sooner
2) Maintain better momentum through waves and swell
3) Sight more easily without reducing your speed

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