Device or brain?
Total Immersion head coach and founder Terry Laughlin looks at stroke counting and whether you should do it with your brain, or let a swim watch count for you
Let’s begin by asking: “why count strokes?” The most important reason is that Stroke Length (SL) is the efficiency measure which correlates most strongly with superior performance in all strokes, all distances and all ages or ability levels. Counting strokes is the only way to monitor SL as you swim. Knowing your stroke count on any timed swim or repeat gives you a more complete understanding of the quality of that swim than if you only knew your time.
Once you’re persuaded that stroke count data is valuable, what are the pros and cons of counting in your head or letting a device do it for you? In the early ‘90s when I started counting strokes, the second option wasn’t available. It did take effort initially, but that effort diminished steadily. For many years, it’s been as automatic as breathing. In fact, it now seems to take more effort not to count than to continue.
My primary arguments for counting your own strokes are:
1) IT TAKES EFFORT Many might see that as a disadvantage. But the brain-health benefits are significant. Swimmers who just follow the black line – or the feet of the swimmer ahead of them – put billions of neurons to sleep. A brain with work to do is a happy, high-functioning brain.
2) IMMEDIATE AND DIRECT FEEDBACK Actively counting provides a stroke-by-stroke record of your current Stroke Length. When using a watch, at best, you receive this data only after a repeat is finished. Most people only get this info when downloading the watch, hours later.
3) ACCURACY When counting becomes a habit, your count is highly accurate — I never lose count. Watches are known to be somewhat erratic.
If you want to do Mind-Body training in the most effective way, there’s no substitute for receiving immediate feedback as you complete each lap. Stroke count data is maximally valuable when it’s available as you take the strokes that produce those numbers.
For instance, here’s an experience I’ve had countless times: while swimming a series of 200-metre repeats in a 25-metre pool, I count strokes and check my time on each repeat. My goal is to maintain 17 strokes per length, a time of, say, 3:00 per 200, and a TI-RPE of 2.5 (June 2017 issue) as consistently as possible – the highest level of steady-pacing skill.
Midway through the set, I’ll feel a slight miss – a moment of turbulence – in my catch on a single stroke in mid-pool. Before I even reach the other end, I know my stroke count will be 18… and that my time will be a second slower as a result. That momentary change in sensation galvanises me to put more care into each catch to avoid taking extra strokes – and adding seconds to my repeat time. Without both self-sensing and self-counting I’d keep replicating that error.
If you’re trying to discipline your stroke to produce consistent Stroke Length, you need to feel it as you swim, and recognise sensations associated with one count vs another. This empowers you to recognise errors in the moment they occur, then take action to avoid repeating them.
When you receive stroke count data only after finishing the repeat – or more likely the entire practice – that opportunity to train muscle-memory is lost. Your objective is not merely to achieve a certain Stroke Length, but to memorise the feeling of the strokes that produced that Stroke Length. If you’d like to acquire the ability to do both self-sensing and self-counting, I recommend developing these capabilities in sequence.
1) TRAIN WITH SELF-SENSING FOCAL POINTS (April 2017 issue) to develop and imprint essential skills. Do only this for at least a few weeks until your brain begins to adapt to this demand, and it feels more natural and consistent.
2) COUNT STROKES OCCASIONALLY to measure the effect of one focal point to another. For instance, do you get a lower stroke count with Streamline focal points than with those for Propulsion?
3) COUNT STROKES MORE CONSISTENTLY until your brain can effortlessly do both at once.
Sample Stroke Counting Set
This set tests two skills. Goal no. 1 is to count your strokes on every length of the set. If you lose count at any point, start that segment (eg, the 50-metre repeats) again to give yourself a chance to succeed. Maintaining accurate counts may become slightly more challenging as repeats lengthen.
Goal no. 2 is to calibrate stroke length and stroke timing to be able to hit the target stroke counts as they change… and to remember which SPL you’re supposed to hit next.
Assume Green Zone (efficient SPL range) of 16-19 SPL for 25-metre pool (see chart, left).
SWIM 4 ROUNDS OF (3 x 25m) Each round at 16-17-18 SPL. Strive to improve accuracy in hitting target SPL in each successive round.
SWIM 3 ROUNDS OF (2 x 50m) In each round #1 is 16+17; #2 is 17+18 SPL.
SWIM 4 x 75m Each 75 is 16+17+18 SPL.
SWIM 2 TO 3 ROUNDS OF (3 x 100m) Each 100m is 16+17+17+18 SPL.
Round 1: Untimed. Your goal is only to hit the target counts on each length. If not successful, take a breather and mental reset and try again.
Round 2: If you were successful in Round 1, this round is timed. Your goal is to hit your target stroke counts and record the same time on each 100. If not successful, take a breather and mental reset and try again.
Terry Laughlin is founder and head coach of Total Immersion and winner of six national masters championships since turning 55. The Total Immersion 2.0 Freestyle Mastery Self-Coaching Course teaches ‘Expert’ Pacing/Tempo Training and three other Mastery skills for freestyle.