Distance Per Stroke: Why is it not effective?

Distance Per Stroke: Why is it not effective?

Earlier this week I posted to Facebook:


The post came out of frustration and as an emphasis that distance per stroke (DPS) is not effective for the masses of the triathlon world. I really feel that it is a constant fight to promote what actually works for triathlon over what is actually being taught, especially within the club culture of our sport. Now I don’t know why this is and speaking honestly I haven’t spent a huge amount of time looking into it, but my initial thought is coach development.

Understanding the exact ‘make-up’ of our sport is key. Relating to all the specifics of each discipline, every format, the physiological and psychological requirements all, in my eyes, are necessary for those jumping in and wanting to be hands on as performance coaches in triathlon. Specifically swimming.

A world-class swimmer, or any competitive swimmer for that matter, does not necessarily make an effective tri-specific swim coach, and I wish clubs, groups even high performance centres would start to recognise this.

As time moves forward methods and training approaches evolve. It is becoming clear that the coaching approach of a competitive swimmer is not as effective as a coaching approach tailored for a triathlete. Therefore my frustration comes when DPS is seemingly still being enforced purely out of a mindset ‘what works for competitive swimming, works for triathlon.’

But why doesn’t it work?

Well there are elements, a large number of elements that are found within a triathlon that are not found within competitive pool swimming. Here are some;

Competitive Swimming Triathlon
Start environment: Somehwat spacious. Alone 300 – 1500+ people
Best surface condition: Flat Never pool flat, but calm
Average surface condition: Flat Minor swell no white horses
Worst surface condition: Flat 2 – 3 metre swells, mass white horses
General swimming environment: Alone and free to roam Never alone and very rarely able to roam
Under current: None Minor to substantial, never none
Space: Plentiful Anything but…
Obscure Movements: Tumble turning Climbing over other swimmers, safely manoeuvring turning buoys, wave surfing, sighting, missing strokes etc.

So above I have listed some elements and differences between the environment seen in competitive swimming and triathlon. Now with the knowledge that there are differences in environment it also highlights there are differences in what is deemed as an effective, efficient swim stroke. We would be very wrong to assume that there is only one type of effective, efficient stroke. There isn’t but my experience tells me this;


  • For those keen on being the best open water swimmer they can be; don’t focus on distance per stroke in training…at all.
  • Avoid drills that are reminiscent of a competitive style swim stroke; i.e long slow DPS type of drills.
  • Forget about what happens above the water and how un-pretty something looks. Providing the entry and under-water mechanics are correct then who cares if it looks ‘messy’.
  • Efficiency comes from being fluid in the water, irrelevant of stroke rate.
  • Teaching amateurs and non-natural swimmers to apply a long DPS style brings more dead spots in the stroke than not.
  • We are faced with a lot of resistance in races, train this in the pool. It will encourage a good, effective catch but also develop strength, transferrable to open water tri-specific swimming.
  • As much as all the phases of a stroke are important, establishing the catch is critical especially for open water tri-specific swimming.
  • A band is one of the greatest tri-specific tools out there for improving and teaching catch. Use in moderation.
  • Big paddles encourage a slower stroke rate, especially for those not strong enough to use them.

DPS makes a swimmer very efficient in a flat, spacious environment like a pool, however you transfer that to OW and elements seemingly have a negative effect on this approach to swimming. Effective open water swimming requires a stable and fluid cut of the water that is unfazed by elements such as close swimming, lack of space, waves, currents, turn buoys, hits, bashes and other etc.



  1. Thank you. Can you explain how the "band" is used?

  2. Dear Helle,
    As I undoubtedly share your concearns in regards to the differences in the inviroment that one compeets in and the differences in strain that has to be overcomed, swimmers and triathletes in between, – I lack a more nuanced discussion.
    In my opinion, a long DPS can be something to strive for, especially for beginners that has to get a clear understanding of the aquadynamics. For instance, that since water is about 900 times thicker than air, as speed increases, water resistance increases to the same amount raised to the power of 2. Thats really hard swimming. Now, isn't it of major importance for endurance athletes as triathletes to somewhat conserve energyfor the remaining two modalities?Distance per stroke will, at least for the novice, help them think about eliminating drag – hence, power and triathlete specific swimming comes second and is something that is tought and mastered as they go along. Terry Laughlin says: ”Most of it comes from how well they shape and position their bodies to eliminate drag and become more “slippery” – relatively little from how they use their hands and arms to push the water around…In water, drag is everything.”
    Some studies show that swimmers, compared to triathletes, have faster strokes during the underwater phase which is transfered to more power, and that swimmers has a faster recovery-phase, that again will give more time to propel under Water and increase power, hence speed. There is also differences in how efficient swimmers and triathletes are in creating power with their legs, undoubtedly also as a result of triathlete-specific swimming and wanting to "save" your legs. An in-debt discussion isn't possible here, but..
    Look, all I'm saying is that at least for the novice, eliminating drag should be emphazised and in my opinion, DPS is a Tool that will help them monitor that. The traithlete specific swimming can come further down the line and as a result of mastering the true element and getting the competitive edge. Those things can come from more race specific training as you mention.

  3. Too many tri-athletes are buying these massive paddles and destroying their shoulders. Paddles can do a few things for swimmers, but they need a coach who understands how to tell them how to use it. I'm a professional, open water swimmer that coaches a lot of triathletes. This post doesn't present the full picture.

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