Coaches have given DPS (Distance Per Stroke) sets for 30+ years, so the concept of lengthening your stroke is certainly nothing new. Heck, I remember my summer club coach yelling about this when I was 10, so that WAS a long time ago.
With more and more people talking about swimming technique, length, or distance per stroke, stroke counting is really an easy way for you to check to see how you’re doing. It’s simple, and very effective in helping you judge your progress.
The most accurate way to count strokes is to count each "hand hit" as one stroke. Each time one of your hands enters the water, count it as a stroke. Some people count each stroke cycle (two hand hits), but this leads to complex math — or inaccuracies — when you reach the wall half way through a cycle.
You can create sets, or entire practices, based on stroke counting. You can swim sets in which you require yourself to REDUCE your stroke count per lap, or per distance swum. You can also INCREASE your stroke count to introduce more rhythm, and to decrease your dependence on POWER in your pull to propel you forward. This could be particularly useful for distance, or open-water swimmers.
Here’s a quick example of a stroke-counting set for freestyle:
12 x 50 on 1:00
Decrease your stroke count by at least 1 for each 50 from 1-6.
Just as an example, let’s say you take 20 strokes per length (40 strokes for the 50) on the first 50. You need to swim the second 50 in 39 total strokes, the third 50 in 38 total strokes, etc., down to 35 total strokes on the sixth 50. On the seventh 50, you go back to 40 total strokes (or maybe only 38 or 39 this time) and work your way down again.
While this can be confusing at first, the more often you do sets like this, the easier it gets. It also gets easier to count. When I first started counting strokes, I had to make a conscious effort to do it. Now, counting is so natural that it’s almost impossible NOT to count. The more often you count strokes, the easier it gets to adjust the length of your stroke AT WILL — whenever you choose. This can come in handy on long sets, in distance races, and in triathlon or open-water swims.
Here’s a set that begins to introduce a bit more challenge to your swimming. It’s the same set as the one above, but with a different focus.
12 x 50 on 1:00
Decrease your stroke count by at least 1 stroke per 50, and keep this going for as many 50s as you can– but you have to swim the same time on every 50.
By introducing the time variable, you’ve made the set a bit tougher. You have to figure out how to go the same speed but with fewer strokes. In other words, each stroke has to be either more efficient or more powerful — or both. And you really have to start working your walls and streamline.
Most swimmers will find it difficult to keep this set going much past the eighth 50. Go as far as you can, and when you’ve reached your limit, head back up to your starting point, and try to descend the last couple as far down as you can, but much more quickly.
When you start to feel as if you’re mastering this stuff, there’s one more variable you can monitor: heart rate. By checking your heart rate after each 50 on this kind of set, you begin to get an idea of the best combination of stroke length, rate, and rhythm for YOU. And the data might surprise you. For example, let’s say you get down to 33 strokes on one of the final 50s, but your heart rate is soaring. Maybe it’s not the best thing for you to be taking that few of strokes in a race. Maybe a rate of 35 strokes per 50 — or 38 strokes per 50 — would give you a more aerobic and sustainable heart rate. If you’re doing a long, open-water race, you’ll probably want to create a nice rhythm, that easy to maintain for anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours. If it’s a 50 free, you’ll want to create a VERY FAST rhythm that incorporates as much power per stroke as possible, without shortening. Experiment with stroke rates and stroke counts while maintaining a certain goal time. Monitoring your heart rate as you do this gives you the opportunity to discover what is ultimately the MOST efficient length and rhythm for you.
One benefit of stroke counting is that it helps you maximize the range of motion in each stroke. It helps you learn how far you are able to reach, and to get the most out of each stroke. Then…once you’ve developed a longer, more efficient stroke, stroke counting helps you develop the power necessary to take those lengthened, complete strokes AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE (if you want to swim REALLY fast).
The goal of stroke counting is not to see how low of a count you can get. The goal is not to compare yourself to others and try to get a lower count than everyone else in your lane. Whenever I hear the question, "How many strokes should I take?" I always want to answer, "I have NO IDEA." It is YOUR responsibility to find the best count for YOU. If I give you a number, it merely limits your ability to figure it out for yourself. It can also make me look like an idiot once you’ve figured out my number was WRONG for you.
The longer you swim, and the more attuned you get to stroke count and stroke rate, the wider a stroke RANGE you will develop. You might call this a stroke-rate "arsenal." Different stroke rates for different purposes. For example, I was pretty tired this morning when I got to the pool, but I still wanted to do a breaststroke set. My usual 5 strokes per length felt pretty exhausting, so I switched to 3 strokes per length — about half my normal count — which better suited my energy level. The slower rate gave me time to focus on certain things. I held my glide longer than usual, and thought about connecting my pull into each stroke, drawing my legs forward while creating as little resistance as possible. I put tons of focus into those three strokes, and it allowed me to keep swimming without having to stop too often.
Stroke counting is a very personal thing, and its purpose is for YOU to check on YOU. It’s not for YOU to compare yourself to HIM or HER or THEM. I’m sure in the next week, people are going to analyze to death Fred Bousquet’s 18.74 50 free. People will talk about how he does this, and how he does that, and, therefore, why you should do this AND that.
I’ll say this about that. Almost NOTHING Fred does can be applied to ME. HE’S HUGE! HE’S YOUNG! HE’S A WORLD-CLASS ATHLETE! I’m an aging former swimmer, and his DPS and speed are things of legends. Chances are, many of you are in the same boat as me, maybe younger, and maybe somebody reading this has aspirations of beating Bousquet. Man, GO FOR IT! For those couple of people on the planet who have that opportunity, watch, learn, get motivated, and then invent what works for you. For the rest of us 7 billion swimmers…watch, learn, be awe inspired, and then discover what works for you.
It still just comes down to you.