Vary your stroke cadence based on where you are in the race.
Ever notice how the last song you hear before you go to the pool is the one that gets stuck in your head on repeat for the entire workout? If it happens to be “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, you are going to have a great swim! The chorus is catchy and easy to remember, but, most importantly, it has the perfect tempo for a fast stroke cadence. If a slower beat is ingrained in your head, the results might be different.
Calculate your personal stroke cadence by having a friend count how many strokes you take in a 10-second period and multiply it by six. Most age-group triathletes will fall between 50 and 65 strokes per minute. This is an acceptable tempo for a long-distance swim when conserving energy is sometimes more important than speed. But if speed is the goal, increasing cadence will result in faster swimming.
A typical triathlon swim can be divided into different segments, and each has an optimum stroke cadence.
Start to first buoy
Here is where there’s typically a sprint with a lot of physical contact, and it’s important for positioning for the rest of the race. A quick cadence of 75–85 will be beneficial, allowing you to stay balanced and maintain momentum.
A good place for a slower, energy-conserving stroke rate of 60–75. Consider increasing cadence on the approach and turn around the buoys to maneuver quickly through the gridlock and potentially drop any drafters.
Last 100–200 meters
Increase cadence, and subsequently heart rate, in preparation for standing up and running.
Track Your Cadence
The poor-man’s tempo trainer is to mentally sing along to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. However, if you are looking for a more reliable way to increase your cadence, consider a waterproof metronome (e.g., the Finis Tempo Trainer Pro, $50, Finisinc.com) that is programmable to a specific cadence, fits under your cap or on your goggle straps, and has a beep that can be heard while swimming. Adjust the tempo to sample a range of cadences. Record your times and make mental notes about what tempos you feel comfortable swimming and where you are no longer in your comfort zone. Some pros, including reigning Ironman and Ironman 70.3 world champion Leanda Cave, use a tempo trainer to stay focused and on pace during the swim.