Count Your Strokes
It’s the closest thing there is to a “magic pill” for better swimming.
By Terry Laughlin
Let’s imagine a match race between you and two of the world’s greatest athletes. Suppose you could persuade Michael Johnson, the fastest 400-meter runner in history, to match strides with you around a 400-meter track and Alexander Popov, the fastest 100-meter swimmer in history, to race you up and back in a 50-meter pool. Unquestionably both would beat you with ease. That wouldn’t shock you. But something else about these two races might.
If you and Michael Johnson compared the number of strides it took each of you to cover 400 meters, he would undoubtedly take fewer, but the difference would not be stunning--probably something on the order of 10 percent. And you could, if you really tried and ran quite slowly, increase your stride length enough to match his. But in the pool, the difference between Popov’s stroke length and your own would shock you, and if you tried to match his number, the only way you could do it is by kicking halfway down the pool before you took your first stroke. If you have access to a 50-meter pool, you can check the math. At moderate speed, Popov swims 50 meters in 23 to 24 strokes (12 arm cycles); at top speed he takes no more than 33 strokes.
In a 25-yard pool, Popov could swim for hours at 7 to 8 strokes per length, while the typical lap swimmer takes 25 to 28 strokes per length. I know because I take an informal survey every time I watch lap swimming sessions; the highest number I’ve ever counted was 63 strokes for 25 yards. Even a good high school competitor takes at least twice as many strokes as Popov. So the efficiency differential between an elite runner and a recreational runner might range from 10% to 20%, while the efficiency differential between an elite and recreational swimmer would probably be closer to 100% to 300%, What makes this difference even more striking is the substantial efficiency gap between Popov and Michael Johnson, the result of Popov doing his racing in water, while Johnson gets to race on land. Kinesiologists estimate that the energy efficiency of world-class swimmers peaks at just 9%, while that of world-class runners is probably close to 90%. This means that when Popov is racing at top speed, a maximum of only 9 of every 100 calories he burns are translated directly into propulsion; the other 91 are lost to the inefficiency of the body’s interaction with water.
So if you take, say, 20 to 24 strokes to swim 25 yards, your energy efficiency may be less than 4%. In other words, only 4% of your available fitness is going toward true forward motion; the other 96% is “consumed” by the water and gets you nowhere. So the smartest path to swimming improvement is not more or harder laps to get in better shape--a process that, yes, does make more energy available, but doesn’t keep you from wasting 96% of it with every lap you swim. Only when you train your body to use that energy more efficiently will you see real progress.
Stroke counting is important because it’s the clearest marker of how well you’re using your energy. Remember: Stroke length equals stroke efficiency. Only about 2% of the human race swims with instinctively long strokes. The rest of us have powerful instincts telling us to swim faster by stroking faster. Ask yourself: When you want to swim faster, what's your instinctive response? Right, churn your arms faster. This means that any time you’re not consciously monitoring your stroke length your instincts will probably have you lapsing into arm churning. So more or harder laps will most likely be training your muscles to flail at the water even more ineffectually, ensuring you’ll make poor use of the fitness you’re working so hard to build.
How do you count strokes? I’ve found the simplest way is to count each hand entry. At first, just try to develop the habit of counting each stroke. This may initially take great concentration, and that concentration may crowd out your ability to think of almost anything else--like how many laps you’ve done. But within a few weeks you’ll probably find yourself counting automatically. Once that happens you should be able to count both strokes and laps--and perhaps even figure out complicated intervals.
But in the meantime, for the few weeks in which you don’t bother counting laps and focus all your attention on stroke count, you’ll probably see a steady and surprising reduction in the count. Here are several creative ways in which you can use those numbers to improve your awareness and efficiency.
Be willing to swim slowly. The sprinters I coach at West Point do at least 80% of all their training yardage at speeds that are 75% or less of maximum effort because it’s the surest way to guarantee that they maintain efficiency. You have to swim well slowly before you can swim well at faster speeds. For a 6-foot male, any count over 20 per length is unacceptably inefficient. I have taught petite women on the West Point swim team to swim 12-stroke lengths routinely. Swim as slowly as necessary to make a real difference in your stroke count. Once you’ve gotten it into at least the mid-to-high teens (men) or high-teens-to-20 strokes (women), then continue swimming slowly enough to keep it there, at least for a few weeks. Since you’ve probably been swimming for several years with a much higher stroke count, this is the only way you’ll have any chance to make even a faint impression on your nervous system. It would not hurt your swimming to refuse to “practice” inefficiency by swimming exclusively at moderate speeds even for a period of several months.
Swim shorter repeats. If your stroke count remains over 20 per length on your daily mile of nonstop laps, then do that mile as a series of 30 to 40 50-yard repeats. You’ll find it much easier to reduce your stroke count and keep it low than if swimming a marathon. It’s more important that you train yourself to cover more distance with each stroke than to cover more distance between pauses for rest. Then gradually rebuild the distance of your repeats. When you can routinely swim 50-yard repeats in, let’s say, 36 strokes (18 per length), then increase your repeat distance to 75 yards and stay there until you can consistently complete these repeats in 54 strokes. At that point you can “graduate” to 100-yard repeats. And don’t jump to 150-yard repeats until every 100 you swim requires 72 or fewer strokes. Continue in this way until you can consistently swim your mile at 18 strokes per length. When you accomplish that, you might drop back to shorter repeats and try to increase your stroke length again.
Do less swimming and more drilling. There’s no particular magic in stroke counting as you swim. It simply keeps you continually aware of your Stroke Length as you swim and immediately alerts you when you’ve fallen back into inefficient Human Swimming-- using Stroke Rate (arm-churning) instead. Quite often the habits of inefficiency are so deeply ingrained that more swimming only reinforces them. The only way to make real change is to refuse to do whole-stroke swimming for a while, because your body knows only one way to do it. When you practice drills, your nervous system doesn’t recognize what you’re doing as “swimming,” which gives you a blank slate on which to practice new habits of efficiency. If you spend two or three months doing 8 of every 10 lengths in stroke drills, you should soon see some real change in your efficiency. For information on which drills to do, I recommend the Total Immersion Fishlike Freestyle Video and the Total Immersion Swiminar Workbook.
Make stroke counting more interesting and challenging. No matter how good it is for you, after a time just counting stroke after stroke could become boring. But I’ve been doing it for years and never tire of it because I’ve found numerous ways to make it more interesting. Here are two that could keep you engaged and improving for years: Practice “stroke elimination.” If you’re not yet an efficient swimmer, the main point of your practice should be to develop habits that move your body farther through the water so you need fewer strokes to go any given distance. More work from less energy. Stroke elimination means nothing fancier than disciplining yourself to use fewer strokes than you usually do. If you normally take 17 to 18 strokes per length, your mission now is to do all repeats in 15 to 16 strokes and not one more. Seems simple at first, doesn't it? You swim a series of ten 50-yard repeats, feeling fresh on the first few and easily holding the 15-16 stroke count. This stroke elimination's a breeze!
Then on the 2nd length of the 4th repeat, you head nonchalantly down the pool, take your 16th stroke, and find the wall is still five yards away. And what can you do about it? You've sworn not to take the 17th stroke so there's only one thing to do: roll to your side and kick to the wall. Hmm. Evidently this stroke elimination business will take some work after all.
So as you begin your next length, and every length from now on, you become the miser of arm turnover, keenly aware of how you spend every stroke, making sure that you make 16 of them stretch 25 yards. The clock is forgotten. The rival in the next lane is forgotten. The only thing that matters is how you're spending what you have to spend, which is how you learn to save. Just like real life.
You're working on how well you get there, not how fast. At first, the lower count will slow you down because you'll also have to stretch and glide more. Expect that, and don't worry about it. Your old count was "normal" for so long that it will take some time for your body to adjust. Eventually, the lower, more efficient count will become your "new normal" and somehow your speed will come back, too, without your even trying. As good teachers have always known, discipline teaches what indulgence never could.
Once efficiency has become habit, you can begin to trade strokes shrewdly for speed. "Spend" the fewest strokes for the most additional speed, and if you're not satisfied with the cost, try it again. As you master the 50-yard transaction, try it with your 100-yard repeats, which will give you a larger field on which to play the game. The game of swimming golf. Take time out for a game of swimming golf.It's possible to get too carried away with this business of eliminating strokes, and you’ll know you’ve arrived in this state when you're down to such a triumphantly tiny number that you're taking forever to get to the other end. Clever types can also figure a way to "cheat" the stroke-eliminator system so the numbers are better but the swimming is not (Hint: try gliding or kicking half a length after your pushoff). If the real point of all these efficiency gains is swimming faster, you want to know whether that's happening. Well, just tee up for some swimming golf.
The rules are simple. For a given distance, count your strokes and add that to your time in seconds.
A reasonably good swimmer can usually swim the two lengths of a 50-yard repeat in 40 strokes and 40 seconds. That's a score of 80. A "duffer" can usually aim for a score of 90; serious swimmers might be in the mid-60s. My West Point swimmers can record scores between 40 (men) and 50(women).
Always lower your score by reducing stroke count first, and later by trying to swim faster. Just a few rounds should be eye opening. You'll be amazed how quickly a bit more effort can add a lot more strokes. If those strokes don't translate into enough speed to lower your total score, you know right away how wasteful you've been. Remember: Speed equals stroke rate (SR) multiplied by stroke length (SL), and just about everyone has enough SR. It's your SL that needs work. Your golf score will be an unerring measure of how well you're using SL to create speed.
Monitor your efficiency. If you have difficulty counting laps, counting strokes, and watching the pace clock, there’s always the Speedo Stroke Monitor to do all of these things for you. A new sports watch cum stroke-counting device designed by Total Immersion alum Bill Geiser, the Speedo Stroke Monitor has simplified all the data-gathering and analysis described above. Using diodes in the watch’s face to record hand entries, it times you and counts your strokes. At the conclusion of any repeat (you preset the distance), it displays your time, how many stroke cycles you took, your distance per cycle, your cycle rate (average number of stroke cycles per minute) your speed (yards or meters per second) and your stroke efficiency index (SEI). The SEI is a single number--like a test score--that factors in both stroke length and velocity, and reflects how well you swam a particular repeat (the higher the SEI value, the better the swim). What this amounts to is instant, concrete feedback on how efficiently (whether you used Stroke Length or Stroke Rate) you've produced your velocity.
Even if you elect to do nothing more advanced than count your strokes a few times during each practice, even this modest change in awareness, if you haven’t done it before, will do more than anything else to move you in the direction of greater efficiency. Happy laps!