Math Class or Swim Practice? Use this Simple Equation to Swim Faster

USA Swimming Equation
Photo Courtesy: USA Swimming Sport Development Division

By Melissa Wolf, Swimming World College Intern.

Walking on to the deck, you see a whiteboard with numbers and symbols scribbled all over. The novice swimmer might ask, “Am I in math class or at swim practice?” However, the experienced swimmer knows that math is an integral part of their training and racing.

Math Class

Photo Courtesy: Melissa Wolf

Much of training and race evaluation goes back to simple math. Some elementary skills learned in the first years of school can help swimmers and coaches improve their race results and focus at practice. Clock reading, counting, adding, multiplication and subtraction are all used almost every minute of practice and competition to give swimmers an evaluation of their speed and efficiency in the water. Over the years many varieties of math equations for swimming have evolved, but all of them use the basics of stroke count or cycle, tempo and underwater time. Swimmers and coaches owe much of the credit to late Coach Bob Gillett, known as “the father of race stats,” who developed equations and implemented math into training his swimmers long before the tools we have now were available.

Every swimmer must be an expert at using a clock – not just to make it to practice on time but also to maintain their intervals and know their splits during practice. While being able to read a clock sounds simple, it can be tricky, especially when you are working hard and out of breath. Swimmers can easily solve time equations that have been given in almost any interval – the 20 or 15 or 45. The experienced swimmer has learned the patterns of how to quickly solve when to leave the wall for the next rep or how to get the results of your set.


Photo Courtesy: Ironman

All coaches know how to use the stopwatch to time the race. The clock doesn’t lie and can be our greatest judge in swimming, both during practice and competition. However, what is seen on the watch is only one part of the equation: the result can be changed by adjusting the other factors. Learn to use the clock in practice to keep you moving and accountable to your effort. Use the clock in a meet to fill in your race equation and see what you can improve on in practice.

While training and pushing your body to the limit, your coach might ask you to count how many times your arms cycle through the stroke or to count the number of underwater kicks you did off the wall. The stroke count, unlike the clock, is a different type of judge; it doesn’t tell you how fast you are but how efficiently you move the water. Moreover, to be faster, you must become more efficient and get a great distance per stroke. Counting how many strokes you take is simple math that can reveal so much. It can be done in every length of practice or competition.

Take a seemingly simple breaststroke set: 10 x 100 on 1:30 holding 8 strokes per 25. By adding the stroke count into the equation, you can work the efficiency of your stroke as well as the speed – it makes the set more challenging and rewarding. Counting strokes in practice gives them another focus to keep their mind from wandering from what’s for dinner to be focused on what their body is doing at the moment. It is also an essential part of a coach’s race evaluation during or after the race.


Photo Courtesy: FINIS

Once you can be efficient with your stroke, you then learn to increase the speed or tempo. Playing golf in the pool is a great way to better your racing skills. Here is brief explanation on how to play the game of swimming golf:

Have everyone use a tempo trainer set to the same rate. Then, each member of the team counts every stoke they take and add that to the time it took to swim; the lowest score wins. Say swimmer A takes 34 strokes in the 50 and their time is :28; their total score is 62 (28 + 34= 62). Swimmer B has a stroke count of 30 and a time of 31; their total score is (30 + 31= 61) which makes Swimmer B the winner, even though their time might have been slower.

Several different math equations are used in the swimming world, and the USA Swimming Sport Development Division has put together an easily-accessible document that goes into great detail on how to break down races by using math; it can be found by clicking here. Using USA Swimming’s equation or a quick form of a race equation can help you and your coach find a way to make you faster. There are only a few parts to any race: the reaction time at the start, distance and time underwater, the number of strokes taken and the stroke rate.


Photo Courtesy: Melissa Wolf

Using the long course 50 free for our example, let’s coach swimmer A to a faster race. In a previous race, the swimmer spent 5.4 seconds under water, took 38 strokes at a rate of .55 (or 19 cycles at 1.10), and their time was 26.3 seconds. If nothing changes except for increasing efficiency by taking two less strokes in that 50, their time would drop to 25.2 seconds! Simple math and hard work in the pool during practice can help swimmers find a way to drop significant amounts of time.

Between using the clock, improving your efficiency to lower the stroke count and speeding up your tempo, you can find a way to use math to drop time in your swims. As a swimmer or a coach, you’ll never say, “I’ll never use math again!”

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff. 

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Macs Casin Jacinto
5 years ago

Akiane ??

Porscha McCoy
5 years ago

Ja’Von Waters Sr. Sweet

Ja'Von Waters Sr.
5 years ago
Reply to  Porscha McCoy

Porscha McCoy I love it. This is so me in a nutshell. Gotta challenge our kids physically and mentally. Thanks for sharing. ?????

Kelley Gean Burwick
5 years ago

Nathon Burwick

Elise Pham
5 years ago

Ariel Pham now you can make swimming your least favorite thing lmao but this is actually cool tho

Lisa M Weir
5 years ago

Deneka Weir

Shahud Ahmed
5 years ago

Ahmed Zayn

Tim Grubb
5 years ago

Ty Grubb

Greg Potempa
5 years ago

Tom Musch

Tom Musch
5 years ago
Reply to  Greg Potempa


Golf Hub
5 years ago

“For this game you need, above all things, to be in a tranquil frame of mind.” -Harry Vardon