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Questionable Stroke Counting

Revised from an article which first appeared in Schwimmvergnügen in April 1998.

I received quite a number of thoughtful comments and questions about the article by Rob Rollins (Go Postal!) and my follow-up notes. Based on that response I thought I would expound a bit more on the stroke count thing.

A common line of inquiry revolves around why we spend time doing super low stroke count swimming (which is often also super slow swimming) since absolutely none of our racing is done in the super low (or super slow) realm.

We do a fair amount of work at ever-lower stroke counts where you are bordering on drilling as opposed to swimming. The idea behind this is that, as you get better at doing the super-low counts (even for short distances) it makes doing your “normal” and just-under-normal stroke counts easier to do—primarily because you must get more streamlined and slippery to do the lowest counts. Then the idea is to take this visceral knowledge of slipperiness back to your more “normal” counts. I don't expect nor suggest that you try to swim your races or do your high intensity sets at the super low counts. Super low stroke count work is primarily technique refinement work—think of it as conditioning your nervous system for lower resistance swimming. Doing these swims will improve your ability to do your “normal” count swims at lower energy levels.

Another frequent question mark is related to where one should focus attention to achieve a lower stroke count at any given speed.

At slow speeds we can get a large portion of our desired stroke length as a result of front-quadrant timing (semi catch-up swimming) and excellent streamlining (longitudinal balance, getting off your stomach and onto your sides, keeping compact body lines). Good body roll power transfer (hand/hip connection and vertical forearm throughout the stroke) also plays a role at slow speeds but to a lesser degree.

As speed increases, however, low resistance and power transfer become greater factors in stroke length than catch-up timing. You can see this in sprinters like Biondi, Popov and Hall who's strokes become less front-quadrant as they move into intermediate speeds yet they still maintain very streamlined positions and vertical forearms (also known as “high elbows”) to keep their strokes much longer than their competition.

In elite swimmers moving at the highest speeds the front quadrant aspect is gone altogether—but there is still impeccable streamlining and vertical forearms for excellent power transfer.

Of course, your “top” speed is probably equivalent to an elite swimmer's “intermediate” speed (or perhaps even his “slow” speed). So, even when going at your top speed you most likely need to focus on a combination of stroke length elements that elite swimmers use at their intermediate (or slow) speeds.

Another query often tossed around is “Coach, if swimming lower stroke counts is more efficient then how come I get so tired doing it?”

Whenever you change stroke counts you employ different muscles or muscle fibers. If one is making a large change, say going from 24 spl (strokes per length) to 15 spl or fewer, it means using perhaps 70 percent different (and as luck would have it, completely untrained) muscles. This is the range where someone shifts from swimming primarily with their arms and legs to swimming primarily with their core body, changing the role of the arms to that of transmission rather than engine. From a muscular conditioning standpoint this is almost like starting over from scratch. There is a rather long conditioning curve just as you would expect from taking up a new sport that asks you to use previously untrained parts of your body.

On the one hand, this shifting of work to new muscles may seem like a major drawback of going to lower stroke counts. On the other hand, once we have conditioned the new muscles used in a longer stroke, we can make this shifting of muscle involvement work for us.

Making small changes, say going from 16 spl to 14 spl is much less of a physiological shakeup than making large changes, but does still shift the muscular workload to some extent. Swimming a long event requires a certain amount of total work to be done. We use technique to try to minimize the work required to swim at any given speed. We do this through active streamlining. We further use technique to subtly shift the work around a bit during the swim so that the workload may be shared by a greater percentage of the muscle at your disposal. Doing part of the swim at 16 spl then part at 15 spl then part at 14 spl allows muscular fatigue to be spread out across more muscle mass and therefore delayed.

Judiciously and purposefully shifting through several stroke counts in your endurance swims or sets increases the conditioning levels of the muscles you might want to employ in a competition. The more stroke counts you have in your “range” of well conditioned muscles the more stroke count vs. turnover rate options you have at your disposal in a competition.

The final item I'll touch on here is a gray spot for many people: “How many is too few?”

How low you should go is easily determined by dividing your fully stretched palm-to-palm wingspan into the distance you swim. In a 25 yard pool you glide for about 5 yards and swim the remaining 60 feet. If your wingspan is 5 ft. 6 in. your long term goal should be the ability to swim (not drill) 11 spl with only a 2-beat kick - and be able to keep up with this very low stroke count for a long time at a slow, easy pace. Of course, at faster speeds you'll take more strokes, but the goal at every speed is to accomplish that speed with fewer strokes than you did, say six months or a year ago. Constantly paying attention to and actively seeking lower stroke counts will yield the greatest number of options for you to work with when it comes down to finding the perfect stroke length and speed combinations for any given moment of a race.

Yes, stroke counting is questionable. But I hope I've provided some answers...and perhaps they'll spark some more questions!

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2000

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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