Freestyle Swimming Strokes: The Magic of 90

by SwimSwam Partner Content 9

January 30th, 2019 Training

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.

Freestyle swimming strokes for freestyle and backstroke involve the number 90.

I believe that everything in the world involves mathematics. The way objects are structured, animate or inanimate, down to their atomic configurations, and the ability and way in which they move, specifically in the stroke rate of swimming, all involve mathematics.

I do not know why, but in nature, when it comes to endurance events, there seems to be something magical about 90. In endurance running, 90 strides per minute seems to work well. In endurance cycling, 90 cycles per minute seems to work well. In swimming freestyle, in the longer events of 400 and 1500 or up, we frequently find elite swimmers holding a swimming stroke rate of around 90 per minute with the shoulder-driven or hybrid technique, which is a cycle time of 1.5 seconds.

In London, at 15, when breathing to her right, using a hybrid freestyle stroke technique, Katie Ledecky won the gold medal in the Olympic Games women’s 800 meter freestyle with a swimming stroke rate of about 86 strokes per minute. Four years later, in Rio, she swam faster and won the same event breathing only to her right with a freestyle swimming stroke rate of about 90 strokes per minute.

The swimming stroke rates for backstroke and freestyle are very similar. So are their fundamentals. For the 200 backstroke, the longest official distance of that stroke, we recommend using the 86 stroke rate. Getting to 90 is even better, but 86 seems to be more achievable for most swimmers.

This week, in Lanes 2 and 3 of our Race Club subscription service, you will find a webisode on how we teach the 86 stroke rate in backstroke. You will also see world class backstroker, Luca Spinazolla, training at an 86 stroke rate, using beautiful swimming technique. To help maintain his swimming stroke rate at 86, he also uses a wonderful swimming stroke rate monitor and training tool, called the Tempo Trainer (FINIS). It may be the most valuable piece of equipment that ought to be in your swim bag.

I am not sure why 90 works so well in so many different sports, but it does. To be able to hold 90 strokes per minute in endurance races, that means you will need to train at 90 strokes per minute. Or close to it. Check out our webisode and find out how you can do that.

Yours in swimming backstroke faster,

Gary Sr.


Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

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Courtesy of The Race Club, a SwimSwam partner.

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Jake Frost
2 years ago

What about men’s swimming?

Martin Bruinsma
3 years ago

Gary, Thank you for all the positive inspiration you’ve provided via your messages and your family. As a swimmer with Type 1 and a parent at St Paul’s I’ve benefited tremendously. 👍 now if I can only make it to 90 like my father did last week!

cynthia curran
Reply to  Martin Bruinsma
3 years ago

Diabetes is just as bad if you get type II. My mother lost her leg because of it.

gary hall sr
Reply to  Martin Bruinsma
3 years ago

You are welcome! Get to 90 and make Gary Jr proud of you. With type 1 or 2 you can do anything you want to!

3 years ago

If I swim with paddles and fins on, will that affect my optimal stroke rate or just my DPS?

gary hall sr
Reply to  AfterShock
3 years ago

Definitely will increase your DPS. The SR is likely still ideal at 90 for endurance swims, but there is a limit to how fast we push the hand paddle through the water at 90 SR and how well we can sustain that. Typically, most swimmers with fins and paddles will go faster with greater DPS but slower SR. The DPS increases more than the SR decreases (both count equally in the velocity equation).

3 years ago

Minor technical point: Katie did not break the 800 WR at the London Olympics. She first broke it at 2013 Worlds.

Caeleb Dressel’s Bandana
Reply to  Jack
3 years ago

It was a few tenths off, but definitely superior since it was full textile

gary hall sr
Reply to  Jack
3 years ago

Right you are. Gold at 15 is still pretty cool.