What the Heck Is SWOLF?

Is it a mythical beast that stalks triathletes during a full moon? Is it what happens when you get too huge in the weight room? We break it down.

SWOLF is a weird-sounding thing: It’s built into pretty much every Garmin watch from the Vivoactive 3 on up; it’s in the Polar Vantage M (and its fancier older sibling, the Vantage V); it’s in Suunto’s offerings as well. You’ll hear coaches asking about what your SWOLF is, and you might even hear some of your more obsessive tri friends bragging about their SWOLFs while sipping post-swim lattes. While a SWOLF may sound big and mean, it’s actually a simple and useful measurement that can help you become a faster and—more importantly—a better swimmer.

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Coach Dan Szajta is a former collegiate swimmer and the owner and head coach at Richmond, Virgina-based Grn Mchn Multisports. He uses SWOLF with his athletes to help develop their efficiency. “Athletes swim a set distance, typically 50-100 yards/meters and count their strokes along the way,” he says. “Stroke count is added to time for a SWOLF score, with the goal of achieving the lowest score possible.” If an athlete swims 40 seconds for 50 and takes 34 strokes, the score would be 74. Take an average of each trial for a good baseline before making changes. 

Szajta believes that distance swimmers, particularly triathletes, can benefit from the SWOLF score because there is so much opportunity for triathletes to save energy while still swimming near their peak output. “When covering long distances or competing in a triathlon, energy conservation is key,” he says, especially knowing that the race isn’t even remotely over once a triathlete gets out of the water.

For his athletes, he likes to do two sets of 2 x 50y mixed in with drill work to compute SWOLF scores. He also finds it important to keep track of them over time, with the goal of lowering the number as much as possible. This simple test helps balance speed (a faster time is obviously better) and stroke rate (a lower stroke rate uses less energy and implies more efficiency).

But it’s only effective if there’s consistency in the test. “A SWOLF score could easily be manipulated by a really long underwater kick-out,” he cautions. “Therefore, athletes need to be honest with themselves and their coach and make the details of their efforts as repeatable as possible so that stroke efficiency is highlighted.”

The fun side of SWOLF is that, particularly early on, there are a host of ways to lower your score that would surprise you. In fact, SWOLFers are encouraged to play around with their stroke to see what works. “Lowering a SWOLF score is highly dependent on the athlete. One athlete may need to develop better body position, while another may have a weak kick or catch phase of their stroke,” Szajta says. He recommends video to help nail down the obvious low-hanging fruit that can help lower your score or using a set of trusted eyes, like a coach, to help get started.

When it comes to using high-tech gadgets fully loaded with SWOLF capabilities—like the ones we mentioned above—if you think automatically calculating your score will make you use it more, then go ahead, but don’t forget devices like smart watches are far from perfect. Be sure to use common sense and check in the old-school way when you can. “The watch can be used to record times, but stroke count should be taken manually as some variables impact SWOLF score on a watch: The wrist the watch is worn on, which hand starts swimming after a breakout, and which hand finishes to the wall can make a significant impact on the stroke count,” warns Szajta. “If an athlete switched their watch to their other wrist, their score will change, potentially by 2-3 strokes.”