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Open Water Training using Stroke Rate


There are a number of challenges that open water swimming presents to athletes who are just getting started in the sport and are inexperienced in swimming in the open water. The following challenges are common not only for beginners, but also for experienced athletes.

  • Accessibility to open water. An athlete may not swim in open water or be able to swim in an open water environment, even up to race day.
  • General anxiety about being in the open water. There is a lot more unknown about the open water environment vs. a pool environment that is much more predictable. Whether it is thinking about the depth of the water, the temperature, the other athletes around you, or even just the breathing pattern.
  • Accuracy of training. The open water creates a challenge for tracking your metrics like distance and pace due to GPS signals and other uncontrollable variables.
  • Rest and relief. In the open water, you do not have the same level of rest and relief as you do in the pool. This can create higher levels of fatigue, both cardiovascularly and muscularly.

One way to help with these challenges is to learn how to use key metrics to guide your training in order to help you stay focused and engaged on your swim performance. A great metric to do that is stroke rate.

But first, what is stroke rate?

Before we define stroke rate, it is important to understand how your speed is determined not just for swimming but for any endurance discipline. Simply put, your speed will be determined by how far you go for each stroke (or each stride when running or bike revolution when biking) and how long it takes you to do each stroke, which is your cadence.

So our stroke rate in swimming is similar to your cadence (RPM) while riding your bike: your stroke rate while swimming is the frequency of strokes that you take in a specified period of time. The easiest way to measure stroke rate is as the number of strokes you take per minute (SPM). For example, if you have a stroke rate of 65 SPM that means you are taking 65 strokes in a spam in one minute.

Stroke rate is a great metric to help control and determine your effort levels while training. Knowing your stroke rates for different speeds and efforts can help you determine how much energy you are using and how to interpret your speed based on your stroke rate, and as you use stroke rate more and learn how to leverage it to control your speed, you can then translate that into your open water training and racing. For instance, you might swim at a stroke rate of 50 SPM when you are warming up and going easy, but then swim at a higher rating like 70 to 80 SPM when you are sprinting all out.

When using stroke rate as a metric to help gauge speed, performance, and effort, it is important to know that there is no ‘perfect’ stroke rate, but rather you will train and prepare at a stroke rate that is ideal for YOU based on your goals, targeted paces, and the distance you are swimming. A swimmer that is 6 ft 5 inches is going to have a much different stroke rate than a swimmer that is 5 ft. 6 inches.

You may ask why train stroke rate in the pool for training in the open water? The goal is to increase your consistency and ability to hold a targeted stroke rate. Consistency is one of the big challenges when transitioning from the pool to open water swimming. When you’re swimming in a pool, you’re taking rests between intervals and pushing off from the wall after every length. This means you’ll most likely be able to maintain a higher stroke rate throughout the course of that swim than you would if you were swimming in open water without rests or the ability to push off the wall.

So, it’s important to determine your baseline swim stroke in the pool--and then start planning to overshoot that rate for your transition to open water swimming.

Understanding how to hold your stroke over a specific duration in the pool is a great way to start transitioning your training into the open water.

There are a number of ways to do this, depending on your access to open water as well as long course pools (50 meters). If you do have a long course pool available to train in, try swimming longer intervals to mimic swimming in open water.

Another great way to target your open water training in the pool is to swim for a specific period of time vs. the total distance you have swum. In open water, you will not get the same breaks from turning in a pool or even resting at the wall. So training over long periods of time, will help you train your arms and stroke rate to prepare for the open water environment.

As you begin to swim more in the open water, using your stroke rate will help guide and control your pace. You may find that as you start open water swimming that holding the same stroke rate may be a bit more challenging due to the lack of walls to turn and rest on, as well you may have a wetsuit on which will increase resistance in your stroke.

One of the challenges is not being able to see your stroke rate while swimming.. When you are on a bike it is easy to understand your cadence because you can look at your RPM, yet with swimming, you can only look at the data after and have to base your rating off feel. With FORM goggles, you can also make it easier to track your stroke rate, pace, and distance without compromising your performance in open water by seeing your metrics in real-time, right in front of your eyes.

FORM also now integrates into TrainingPeaks, which means you can now import your structured swims from TrainingPeaks to the FORM app and goggles. This is a new feature that FORM has just developed to bring more functionality to their overall swim training platform. As a FORM user, you can link your TrainingPeaks account to your FORM app in order to pull workouts to the goggles as well as send the data to TrainingPeaks after you swim.

To learn more about the new feature, click here.

Triathlon pacing and open water swimming require focused, consistent, and strategic training. Taking advantage of a training plan will help you go from tackling the first stage of your progressive overload all the way through to swimming your full target distance with your goal stroke rate.

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