Distance Per Stroke

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For those who come from a running and cycling background, the common thinking is that the higher the cadence the better. If you are able to move your feet or pedals faster than you speed up. Thus, when you throw yourself into the pool the same principle should also apply right? WRONG!

One of the biggest misconceptions that beginner (and even masters) triathletes make in the water is that speed=greater number of strokes.

Instead the exact opposite applies. When you slow down your stroke, but increase the distance and the power of each stroke then you speed up. If you try to sprint a hundred by taking as many strokes as possible you will not only look like Scooby Doo escaping from a ghost, you will not hit your splits guaranteed. The best, most efficient way to hit those fast speed sets is to:

a) lengthen your stroke
b) increase the power of each stroke

Pretty simple on paper, but hard to implement in practice. For this reason, swimmers include DPS (distance per stroke) drills to improve both principles.

DPS is where you exaggerate your stroke to consciously lengthen it. If you do it often enough and correctly, then your regular stroke will also lengthen. DPS though is harder to do than it sounds. Firstly, many triathletes misconstrue these sets and think they should be easy. While you do not want to sacrifice efficiency and form for calorie burn and feeling winded, these sets if done properly will elevate your heart rate naturally since you are putting so much effort into each (efficient) stroke.

Another common mistake is that they turn these into a kicking drill to decrease the number of strokes they take; they take a stroke, kick a bunch and then take another stroke. Although, I am not a fan of the pull buoy, it may be helpful to use one in these sets so that you can take away the temptation to kick a lot. Moreover, a pull buoy will allow you to focus on your front quadrant.

Next time your coach assigns you a DPS drill (or you do one on your own), focus on each stroke and do it right! While you may feel like you are slowing down, chances are you are actually speeding up.

4 thoughts on “Distance Per Stroke

  • Steve says:


    I will defer to you on swimming, but please tell me you do not coach track or cycling. Running speed is increased by lengthing your stride – similiar to increasing your stroke length – NOT by increasing your cadence. Cycling speed can indeed be increased by a faster cadence, but that has a point of diminishing returns. If on a geared bike, it will be more efficient at some point (usually about 90 to 100 rpm, depending on individual, terrain and so on) to use a lower cadence.

    • Chris says:

      I do coach cross country and track actually. In track and cross country the fastest runners are usually the ones with the cadence of 90-95 steps per minute (spm). Long strides where your foot falls way out in front of you are inefficient and lead to more wasted energy. If you look at the fastest track stars and marathoners than you will see that they have a fast spm with quick turnovers where their feet strike right underneath their hips. If you over extend your stride as you suggest you put a lot of stress on your hamstrings and hip flexors. Moreover it is impossible to become a mid foot striker if you are bounding with long strides. Try it and compare your times.
      In cycling though, I agree with you to a point. Lance Armstrong revolutionized cycling training philosophy when he began using a high cadence. Once again, the ideal cadence is between 85-95. If you have too high a cadence then yes you will spin and go nowhere. However, if you have a high cadence and increase your power you are going to move faster. Lower cadence or pedal mashing generates high power but is inefficient and a waste of energy.

  • Cynthia says:

    I agree with you, Chris, about the running. Sorry, Steve. I too was miss-informed about the extended stride. You may think it leads to a faster time and longer distance, but as Chris said, it actually leads to more inefficient running as well as more running injuries. I started training under a new running coach who pointed this inefficiency out a few months ago in my stride (after coming back from a fracture in my foot, injured hamstring, and bursitis in the hip). I am now learning to shorten the stride and increase the cadence. It was hard to transition. I argued that this would slow my run down. It did, at first. But as I continue to train, my cadence is getting faster, thus my overall time is faster AND …. no injuries. I highly recommend shortening your stride and increasing your cadence.

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