When we talk about cycling or running cadence we often refer to a cadence of 90+ steps/revolutions per minute which tends to be the most efficient for a majority people. Unfortunately we can’t use this same reasoning when it comes to swimming. We can’t fit everyone into the same mold and believe that each swimmer is going to swim at their most efficient speed at stroke rate X. A number of conditions come into play when discussing a swimmer’s ideal stroke rate, e.g. height, ape index, stroke style, ability (novice or elite), etc. Even if you know all of these it’s not a guarantee that you can pin point your perfect stroke rate without testing it out for yourself.
In the photo below are two elite triathletes, Kate Bevilaqua (3x Ironman Champion) and Guy Crawford. Kate stands about 5’4″ and Guy at 6’3″. At a steady pace Guy takes 57 strokes per minute (spm) while Kate takes 85spm. It would be unfair and inefficient for us to as Guy to speed up his Stroke Rate (SR) to 85spm but more often than not we usually see coaches that would try and slow down Kate’s SR to be more inline with Guy’s. The problem with this is that if Guy were to speed up to 85spm his stroke would become chaotic and his distance per stroke would decrease significantly in the frenzy while if Kate slowed down to 57spm she would have such an enormous glide in the front that she would end up slowing down dramatically and wasting a great deal of energy just to keep moving forward.
That’s not to say that it’s the case every time that the taller swimmer should always have the slowest SR. The 2013 Barcelona World Championships saw American Katie Ledecky and Dutch swimmer Lotte Friis taking gold and silver. Friis stands at 6’0″ to Ledecky’s 5’10” but Friis swam at a staggering 95spm to Ledecky’s 81spm. Neither one of those stroke rates is for slackers but that is a huge spread between the two and if they were to try and conform to each others SR the results that day would have been far different.
All this is to say that when your mother always told you that you were a unique snowflake, in the case of Stroke Rate, she was right. Unless you’ve worked with a coach to determine the stroke rate that you’re most efficient at try not to listen to the nay sayers telling you that your Stroke Rate is too short/long for your speed/gender/height.
For a little extra viewing pleasure, below I’ve added a chart showing the average spm from the top 8 performers of the 2012 Olympic Trials. You can see that there is a very large range in SR between distance and gender.