6 minutes reading time (1162 words)

Stroke Count – Building the Foundation of Fast Swimming

Last time we talked about the importance of training like you race.  Good training habits and awareness during your workout help you develop good race habits.  We introduced the swim performance equation covered in detail in the book Swim Speed Secrets1

Time = Number of Strokes * Stroke Rate

I'd like to clarify one thing I didn't mention last time.  This equation only describes your swimming time, not the time that you spend on the underwater streamline and kickout phase after a start or turn.  Your total time for a length will be the underwater time plus the swimming time.  For now we are just focusing on the swimming part and not the "underwaters".

In the last post we discussed the Time side of the equation and workout strategies for developing a "pace clock in your head".  Today we are going to focus on part of the other side of the equation by looking at Number of Strokes.

The Importance of Distance per Stroke and Stroke Count  

Most elite swimmers look like they glide across the pool.  This is because they have mastered getting an optimal distance per stroke (DPS).  These swimmers are fast because they travel further with each stroke, not just because they move their arms faster.

"Distance per stroke" is closely related to stroke count.  DPS is how far you travel with each stroke and stroke count is how many times you have to cycle your arms to get across the pool.  DPS is independent of how far you go underwater, however it is difficult to measure.  If we assume your underwaters are pretty consistent we can use stroke count as a good measure of your stroke efficiency instead of DPS. 

When you reduce your stroke count (increase your DPS), you can potentially increase your speed without additional effort by being more efficient.  The optimal stroke count is personal and depends on many factors such as the length of your arm span, your level of swim training fitness, and how much energy it takes for you to maintain a particular stroke rate (more on stroke rate in the next post).  Terry Laughlin's article on stroke count2 provides some guidance and an equation to help find your optimal stroke count.

Your stroke count will naturally increase a bit when you swim harder/faster and as you get more tired.  The range of increase, however, should be fairly small – typically within a couple strokes per length.  If you increase more than a couple strokes, you are probably "spinning" and are losing efficiency.  One of your goals as a swimmer should be to work on holding close to your optimal stroke count even as you increase effort and speed.  Once you can achieve this, you are ready to increase your stroke rate and go faster.  This is why I referred to stroke count as the "foundation" of fast swimming in the title of this post – it should be one of the first things you focus on.

Training Like You Race – Stroke Count 

How do you decrease stroke count? Reducing stroke count is all about going farther with each stroke.  There are two main ways to do this: (1) get better at the things that move you farther with each stroke, (2) minimize the forces that reduce the distance you go with each stroke.

First, you can get better propulsion in the water by getting a good catch and pull, having a good kick, and getting good body rotation in order to apply more force to the water.  Second, reducing drag will help you to go further with each stroke.  Reduced drag means less force slowing you down.  You can reduce drag by maintaining a streamlined body position, making sure your hand entry is clean with minimal splash, and not bending your knees too deeplyn you do in training to improve your stroke count?  Start by knowing what your typical stroke count is.  Count your strokes during warm-up.  Try to stretch out and be as efficient as you can and reduce your stroke count and see if you can hold it.  Occasionally count your strokes during a hard set as you increase speed and as you get tired.  Take notice of how it changes. Try to hold your range tight.

There are specific sets that can help with stroke count.  A popular one is called golf or "swolf" (swim-golf).  Keep track of your total stroke count and total time for a given distance, typically a 50.  Add these numbers together and that is your score.  Try to change things up and get a sense for how you can increase your speed without increasing your stroke count or subtract strokes without going slower.  Often times I will do this as a decreasing set where I try to reduce my score by 1 on each 50, either by dropping a second or dropping a stroke.  Pay attention to how you achieve the lower score (did you drop stroke count, time, or both?) and how it feels when you do.

Firebelly Gives You SmartFeedbackTM

With Firebelly you can get automatic feedback on your actual stroke count each length, relieving you of the challenge of counting your strokes.  I personally find it hard to count strokes and also keep track of number of laps and repeats. Inevitably if I start counting strokes, I lose track of something else.

By hearing both your time and stroke count from Firebelly, you can make sure you are hitting your target for both.  The readout is a great reminder to not let your stroke count creep up when you try to go faster or get tired.  It also can help you make sure when you decrease your stroke count, that you maintain your speed.  I would encourage you to experiment and see how various stroke changes affect your stroke count and time.  What if you reach a little further?  Keep your elbow a little higher on the catch?  Kick harder? 

Additionally, with Firebelly's data tracking you can look at each length of your swims and see what your stroke count is and how it changes as you go further, go faster, or as your stroke rate changes for different distances. The key to making any desired change is having data and feedback to learn from and to let you know if you're going in the right direction.  Firebelly is here to help.

Wrap Up

Working on reducing your stroke count can help you become a more efficient swimmer.  Think about your stroke count while you swim and try to find your optimum stroke count. Firebelly can help you become more aware by giving you immediate feedback and detailed data tracking.

This is a good time to note that stroke count isn't the entire story of what's happening on the right side of the equation.  While lowering your stroke count can lower your time, if it negatively impacts your stroke rate then your time won't drop.  Stay tuned for a discussion of stroke rate in the next post.

1. Taormina, Sheila. Swim Speed Secrets. Velo Press, 2012.
2. Laughlin, Terry. "What's the right Stroke Count?": http://www.totalimmersion.net/blog/whats-the-right-stroke-count/

Stroke Rate – The Final Puzzle Piece
Train Like You Race


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