The Swimming Numbers that REALLY Matter

author : Total Immersion
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The essentials of stroke count with respect to freestyle swimming.


Recently at Masters practice we were swimming 9 x 300-yard freestyle repeats with breaks after each round of 3 x 300. In the next lane, two triathletes were talking between rounds. “I’ve been trying to lower my stroke count,” one said, “but it made me slower, so I gave it up.” On the next 300, I watched as the other, both taller and slimmer than me, take 21 spl (strokes per length); at 6-foot-plus, taking 21 strokes under any circumstances is no different than wildly spinning your pedals in a low gear while cycling down a hill. By way of comparison, my own count averaged 13.

Later, in the locker room, they were studying a training plan one had just received from his coach – a “brand name” known for coaching a top U.S. Olympic-distance athlete. I checked it out. While the cycling workouts included all the essential elements – mileage, heart rate and cadence mix, the swimming workouts, while prescribing impressive-sounding “swim zones” like Level 2 Aerobic and T-30 Pace, made no mention at all of the measure that is utterly essential for intelligent, effective training: stroke counts. Any swim program that prescribes only distance, interval or pace is as incomplete as a cycling or running workout that tells you only how far.

Why is stroke count essential?
Every time swimming success has been analyzed at any level from a city championship to an Olympic final, stroke length has been the most reliable factor distinguishing more successful swimmers. While no reliable link has ever been found between Max VO2 and swimming speed -- and there’s been a negative correlation between Muscular Power and speed -- coaches and athletes still cling to the notion that work-to-rest ratios, heart rates and big paddles are what make you faster. Why? Mainly because habits are hard to break and swim training methods developed between the 1930s and 1960s still prevail today even though a growing body of evidence says that efficiency matters most. But you can make the choice to train smarter -- by making stroke-counting a habit!

What’s the “right” count?
There is no one right count. A 5’2” woman will take more strokes than a 6’2” male. The 6’2” male will generally have a higher spl for a 500 than for a 50, or when swimming a 50 in 35 seconds rather than in 40 seconds. Each swimmer should have a stroke count range (mine is between 13 and 17 in a 25m pool), that improves gradually over time. If you always count your strokes, you at least have the information to make value judgments. If your count jumps from 16to 20 spl as you descend a set of 50s or as you go from 50s to 200s, you can judge whether that was the best approach or set a goal of doing it more efficiently next time. Every lap that includes stroke counting automatically acquires more awareness and purpose which produce improvement far more reliably than “swim zone training.” Their absence leads to aimlessness and stagnation.

Is a low stroke count always better?
At TI workshops, we occasionally see a student – who has been ardently lowering their stroke count -- take, say, 12 strokes as we videotape on Saturday morning. While reviewing their video we might tell them they’d be better off taking perhaps 15 strokes because the 12-stroke lap was non rhythmic and over-kicking. The object is to find the optimal rather than minimum spl. Your low spl should always be fluid, effortless, and silent, with no overt kicking - the real goal being to minimize energy cost, not stroke count. And one’s lowest count should drop gradually. Thirty years ago, while prioritizing harder and faster in training, my low count in a 50-meter pool was 60. Twenty years ago, it was 40spl and ten years later it had dropped to 32spl. Today, at age 52, it’s 25. If, on the other hand, you were taking 25 strokes for 25 meters last year, and this year you’re trying to maintain 14, you’re probably trying to do too much too soon. Make more ease and flow, less noise and splash, your primary goal. Increases in efficiency will follow naturally and almost effortlessly.

What if a lower count makes me slower?

A lower count probably will make you slower…at least initially, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A goal of faster, faster, faster is far too simplistic. Virtually all triathletes now recognize the value of low Heart Rate training, running mile after mile at, say, 130 bpm to build aerobic efficiency while increasing their speed incrementally before resetting their HR monitor to 135. Swimming at a lower stroke count is the exact equivalent. It develops neuromuscular efficiency which will enable you to swim with a lower HR at every higher speed. Five years ago I couldn’t sustain 12spl farther than 100 yards.  Now I can swim up to 1000 yards at 13spl. Five years ago my average 100-yard pace at 13 spl (52 total strokes) was about 1:24. Now I can swim that speed at 11spl or 44 total strokes, which means my HR is lower at a 1:24 pace. Thus, while my aerobic efficiency may be shrinking with each passing year, I offset that by increasing my neuromuscular efficiency which has an extremely high correlation to performance in open water. While my 100-yard time has gotten slower over time in an open-water mile, I’m swimming just as fast as I did at age 40 and am still competitive with pretty decent swimmers who are 20 to 30 years younger. It also allowed me to swim 28.5 miles around Manhattan in 2002 in about 26,000 strokes while everyone else in the field averaged about 38,000 strokes!

How do I go faster then?
Once you establish an efficiency foundation then you can make a conscious choice to take more strokes when you want more speed – and to practice doing that efficiently. The guy taking 21 strokes lap after lap can only go faster by going harder – or perhaps by taking 23 strokes! I do it differently: In the set above, the coach told us to do 3 rounds of 3 x 300, descending within each round. I did this by allowing myself only 12spl on the first 300 in each round, then increasing to 13spl on #2 and 14spl on #3, with a goal of feeling silky-smooth at each count. My times came down, but I never felt as if I was swimming harder.  Instead my descending set was a lot more enjoyable as a coordination-and-timing exercise. More purposeful too. I upped the ante by challenging myself to increase the pace in the 2nd round, and again in the 3rd round, without changing my counts. The point is: Know your counts and make conscious and intelligent choices. Don’t swim blindly.

Okay, I’m convinced. What do I do next?
Counting strokes is a start but it’s not a magic pill. It reports your efficiency in real time but will only increase your efficiency up to a point. Major and ongoing gains in efficiency come mainly from reducing drag and turbulence. Better balance, a longer bodyline, a sleeker profile and more-fluent movements will come mainly from drills because muscle memory tends to impede major changes in stroke mechanics. The good news is that because you have Human DNA, like me, you can expect incremental gains decade after decade if you always swim mindfully. Happy laps!

This article has been adapted from Triathlon Swimming Made Easy, published by Total Immersion. Info: call 845-256-9770 or visit


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date: September 11, 2004

Total Immersion

Terry Laughlin is Founder and Head Coach of Total Immersion Swimming.