Why should I count my strokes?
Here is my short list of reasons:
- My stroke quality is predominantly a neurological skill
- The brain needs feedback in order to evaluate and make improvements in its motor-control over the stroke.
- Counting strokes is the first, basic form of objective feedback I can learn and master
- It reveals the first critical feature of swimming speed and swimming efficiency (using my limited energy supply most effectively).
- I can conveniently use it in the pool
- I can do it by myself
- I can use it while I am swimming
- I can immediately connect any changes I make to my body position or stroke pattern to an effect on the stroke count
- No batteries required
Many pool bottoms have some random marks, vents, lines, lights, or other things that can be used as relative marker points. In one pool I used to swim in regularly there were 3 water vents along my lane. On a given SPL count, I knew that my stroke count should be X at the first vent, Y at the second, and Z at the third vent. If that count was off when I reached the next vent I knew instantly that something changed and I could quickly assess what might have affected that change in the few meters before.
When going to pools for practice I carry three large colored glass ornaments in my swim bag. (If I think no one will mess with them) I place one at the 6 meter mark from either end of the lane, and one as close to the middle of the pool as I can estimate. On every lap I aim to break out at that 6m mark, and depending on my chosen SPL for that length I know I should be at X count by the middle marker and Y count at the last one just before coming to the wall.
How do I count strokes?
You can check out my article on that topic here.
Can I use a watch to do it for me?
Yes, you can. Getting some data is better than getting no data. (Of course, you’ve got to use that data for it to do any good!).
But a watch gives you that feedback after you swim, even if you stop at the wall to look at it quickly.
Stroke counting in your head gives you that feedback while you are swimming.
The advantage of training your brain to control the stroke with real-time feedback is enormous.
I don’t use a watch that counts strokes and tempo and pace. I don’t anticipate ever using one. I spend my pool time training my brain and whole nervous system to do it for me. Before practice, I plan out where I want my numbers to be and what the conditions need to be to get there. I want the advantage of being able to subjectively measure those metrics in my own brain in the midst of swimming, in a pool where it is easy to measure, so that I have that built-in monitoring skill when I am out in the open-water where it is hard to measure. I will need the sense of Stroke Length (a variant of SPL), of Tempo, and consequently, the sense of Pace to be burned into my muscle memory and nervous system. With training, it is possible for me to know fairly accurately, how I am performing just by the information my own nervous system provides.
I have also practiced for years crunching little math problems in my head while I am swimming- I can take two of three variables (stroke count, tempo, or time split) and work out the third one, or quickly estimate where my splits will be at different intervals. Yes, I am a little geekish about swimming data, but everybody could benefit from a little geek in their swimming brain. And this is part of what keeps my mind engaged and thriving on long swims – the pilot stays busy with productive tasks.
A little more on that instant, direct feedback advantage…
Can you imagine learning to play the piano without hearing what you are playing until it is finished then given the chance to listen to a recording of it? Yes, you will hear the mistakes you made and take note of where in the piece you made them – but now you are separated from that moment by a significant amount of time. Now you have to use the much slower, less effective means of your intellectual mind to assess, plan, and then memorize how you will execute the next round differently. Then when you return to perform the piece again with no feedback you have no way of knowing whether you’re changes put you back on track or not until it is all over.
No one learns to play the piano that way. Then why learn to swim that way???
The powerful thing about learning to play music is that the musician gets instantaneous feedback about how she is playing. She knows what she expects to hear and can instantly compare it to what is actually being played by her own fingers – the feedback she receives in the sound waves goes directly into her ears, directly into her nervous system and into regions of the brain that control her actions. In microseconds her brain (bypassing the reasoning most of the time) makes adjustments to her fingers to either backtrack or prepare to avoid that mistake on the next step ahead. It is the most ideal brain and motor-control training scenario.
Swimming well is predominantly a neurological skill. In learning to swim and in improving our swimming we want to get intimate and instantaneous feedback connected to our nervous system as much as possible. Any device that can help with that should be checked out. The closer (in terms of intimate and instantaneous) we can be connected to feedback the easier it will be to affect improvement. Or, another way of putting it – the more we can bypass the conscious, analytical, intellectual mind and just let the body communicate directly with our motor control centers through the nervous system the better our training will go. The mind and intellect, being mindful, is there to facilitate this connection, not interfere with it.
Using an electronic device to give us this feedback may be very helpful. But we must keep in mind that such a device is meant to help us train the brain to do the accurate measuring, not replace it. We use the device to compare what the device says to what our nervous system says – then we gradually calibrate our brain to recognize and interpret the biofeedback as accurately as the device does. Then we can set aside the device more often (as we must, during a race, for instance). We can check and recalibrate the brain periodically, as needed. But ultimately, we are aiming to swim without dependency on the device.
This self-sensing skill can learned for Stroke Length (by Stroke Counting), Tempo, and even Heart Rate monitoring. You only need to begin training for it.
I have been counting strokes for years. No, I don’t do it on every lap or even on every swim – but I use it quite often, perhaps 80% of the time. Like a musician mastering the basic scales, I spent enough time counting strokes in my early TI practice years that it has become second nature to do it, and it comes in handy quite often. The discipline (at first) and now ingrained habit allow me to monitor a fairly complex set of variables while I swim.
I sometimes hear complaints from students who try stroke counting for the first time. When they are fairly new (not necessarily new to swimming, but new to concentrating) and focus hard on some new level of motor-control, it is understandably difficult to divert a portion of the attention to counting strokes. The work on a new skill will necessarily take up a great portion of one’s attention-bandwidth, much more than a deep habitual one will (which may take virtually none). This difficulty is experienced because the swimmer’s brain is still under-developed in these skill areas. If he continues with TI training – under my guidance at least – stroke counting will be non-negotiable. Just as the music teacher will require her student to learn the scales, my student must eventually learn to count strokes until it becomes an easy habit. If he tries to skip this skill he will definitely be limited in how much feedback he can obtain within his own nervous system, and therefore be limited on how much he can affect improvement on his own stroke while in the act of swimming.
So just because it is hard to do at first don’t be intimidated by the work you need to do to develop the habit of counting strokes. It will become easier, and even become second nature, but only if you practice doing it.