Optimal stroke count is highly individual. It can depend on your height, speed, fatigue level and workout length. Should you count your strokes often while swimming? We’ll let our debaters decide: professional triathlete and swimming all-star Sara McLarty goes up against Chris Colburn, the head coach of Academy Bullets Masters in Aurora, Ill.
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Chris: Counting strokes can give you a great deal of feedback about your swim. A consistent stroke count can mean a steady pace or an efficient stroke. In the same vein, an inconsistent stroke count can indicate a number of problems, such as an inappropriate pace (too slow or too fast) or issues with stroke mechanics.
Sara: I don’t think you need to count your strokes, because there isn’t a magic number that will make you a great swimmer. Taking 15 strokes instead of 20 doesn’t mean anything if it takes more time to cover the same distance. Instead, it’s best to focus on your effort and how it correlates to pace/time in the water.
When it comes to open water, stroke count is irrelevant because of changes in conditions. Plus, when you are drafting, you will automatically have a quicker cadence and shorter strokes. So, relying on a stroke count for your training and pacing will not help come race day!
Chris: There may not be a magic number, but you can use stroke count to keep track of your efficiency and to become a better swimmer. While counting strokes in a race is not immediately relevant, counting strokes in practice can help improve overall stroke power, a critical component in being able to work through the unpredictable conditions of open water. In hard pool training, I could tell if I was overtrained or getting sick by how easily I could hold my stroke count (if at all) over a series of repeats.
Sara: There are definite advantages; however, when counting strokes becomes all-consuming, you can lose sight of why you’re at the pool: to become fitter, faster and stronger. You can get to a point where you’re overthinking.
Think about the difference between a child learning how to swim versus an adult. You can almost see the wheels turning in the adult’s head as he tries to “think” his way across the pool. However, when children jump in the water, they just swim to the other side, doing what comes naturally.
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Chris: Preventing overthinking, though, is one of the primary reasons I get some of my triathletes to count strokes. For example, I have one athlete who has completed several Ironman races but still suffers from panic attacks during the swim. To get her to focus on something specific and take her mind off the issues that cause her to panic, we have her count her breathing pattern, strokes, or some combination of the two. The process gets her to relax and she is able to perform better because she’s not overthinking the rest of the race.
Sara: Agreed, having something to focus on to reduce panic attacks is a great reason to count strokes. However, when it comes to swimming fast, the main focus needs to be on effort. A big difference between an intermediate and advanced swimmer is the lack of thinking that takes place while swimming.
Despite the complicated technique, swimming is more about muscle memory than about thinking. So, building a “muscle memory” of counting strokes for each length will just be another habit that needs to be broken as the swimmer advances. During hard training, focus on working hard and maintaining the required effort instead of thinking about minor details such as stroke count, body position, kicking ratio, etc.
Final Thoughts: For calming yourself down or checking in on your efficiency, knowing your stroke count can be helpful. Just don’t get too caught up counting every arm move—focus more on the clock!