Should I count stroke in my head or can I use my swim watch?
It’s a good question – you’re likely asking it because you own one of those expensive swim watches, and need to know what it is good for.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from using a device that you may really appreciate, especially if you know how to use it to achieve the best neurologic effect. But consider this – the more direct and immediate that feedback can delivered to your nervous system while you are swimming the more effective the neuro-muscular training will be. What exactly are you going to do with that stroke count data after practice anyway, if you didn’t study what caused those stroke results while you were actually swimming? To do you much good the stroke count data analysis has to be closely connected to the moments in your swim that produced those specific results.
A swimmer should beware of a false sense of ‘data-wealth’ when he is still ‘analysis-poor’. That data needs to help us learn to swim better, not harder. We need to identify precisely what systems of the body we are training (in cooperation with each other) in the practice set and use devices that actually support that training objective.
Could you imagine a musician practicing her instrument who then has to wait 1 minute before she hears the sounds her own fingers just produced? Even if not a musician we can all quickly comprehend the role that instantaneous feedback plays in learning an instrument. If you are trying to perfect the shape of your stroke and its effect on Stroke Length, you need to feel it in the act of swimming, and you need to know what sensations to associated with ‘right-on’, and which to associate with ‘a bit off’. You need to learn to detect what is right/wrong, recognize what causes right/wrong, and then learn to control it so you can produce ‘right-on’ with every stroke.
The core short-coming of a swim watch is this: it gives you data AFTER you finished the length, or worse, after you’ve finished the practice. But in order to train your body-memory for a precise Stroke Length you need that feedback NOW while swimming, not later. Your training objective is not merely to achieve a certain Stroke Length (SL) by external measurement, but to memorize the feeling of that Stroke Length using your own proprioception, so that you can produce it by feel on command, and preserve it over the distance. And you need to be able to detect and fix it instantly when it starts to degrade a little. If you are totally dependent on an external device to detect this for you, you are swimming blind in terms of your own nervous system.
Training in a pool makes this Stroke Length memorization possible when you use stroke counting in the head. Set a marker for where you will begin Stroke #1 underwater, and always aim to take your first stroke at that point. As you come to the wall, note what count you are on, and if you took a little extra or a little less glide to reach it. Note any vents or lines on the bottom of the pool, or place your own markers* on the bottom (I suggest at each backstroke flag and at half-way) so you can see exactly where you are on the length or where you should be at certain stroke counts. As you come to each marker you will see that your stroke count is short, long or right on. You are in position in the moment to evaluate why and make corrections or identify what you are doing just right and protect it.
I also hear complaints from some new students that it is too distracting to count. Yes, counting with part of the brain will take up some portion of the limited attention resources for those not used to it, and for those who have to divert a great portion of their attention to hold more fundamental skills in place. But stroke counting is a skill too – it may not be easy at first, but it will become second-nature to do it, if you practice doing it. We don’t add stroke counting to the beginner’s training process until the swimmer is strong enough in fundamental skills so he can afford to make some room in the attention for stroke counting. There comes a time in the training process when the data provided by stroke count will be meaningful and immediately useful to the swimmer – at that point it may be challenging to start but it will be a welcome addition.
So, in using the stroke counting device you still need to set up a way to practice a certain Stroke Length and measure it frequently in order to compare it to how the stroke felt when it was right on, and when it was off. You need to be able to examine what specific things you did in your neuro-muscular control to make it that way – the closer in time your cause and effect are (the moment of knowing the effect), the better you will be able to use that information. So, if you’ll stop to look at the watch, it is better to do this more frequently, at first, to give your brain feedback it can use in the midst of swimming.
In open-water, a convenient ways to do this is to set up a course of a known distance and use this as a regular reference point. Start with a relatively ‘short’ distance so you can make more repeats with more frequent feedback and adjustments. (‘Short’ for you is what frequency you need to check yourself. For me, I use 50, 100, and 300 stroke count intervals or distances). Your watch comes in handy because it can measure the distance between those two points (or use Google Maps), then you can do the math to determine how many strokes that should take you when using your chosen Stroke Length. Then count in your head, and double check by your watch (and then you might see either how inconsistent your head is, or how inconsistent the watch is!).
* For place markers in the pool I use rubber dog chewy rings – heavy, soft and cheap in case one of the kids in the pool steals it. Or I use some colored-glass beads (bigger than the pool filter screen) – a little less conspicuous, but more tempting to those little urchins who spot them.