The Stairs Are Too Big

Mar 19, 2023
The Stairs Are Too Big

Back in 2015, I embarked with my wife and young daughter on a road trip that started in New York City and ended 15 months later at Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska.  We visited 80 teams in dozens of states.  We filmed thousands of swimmers and did stroke-technique analysis on each one.

Our vehicle for the journey was a 35-foot, one-bedroom RV with slide-out bunkbeds – upper for me and Rachel; lower for our daughter, Maddy. When we left NYC, Maddy was 1½ years old and couldn’t get up and down the RV’s stairs on her own.  They were simply too big.  Somewhere along the way, without even noticing when it happened, Maddy was going up and down the stairs on her own.

Parents will tell you that when you have a toddler or young child, and you leave for a week or two, the child seems to have grown several inches while you were gone.  When you’re with a person 24/7 for more than a year, you won’t notice anything changing.

From what I can find, a typical human child grows approximately .003 inches (.0076 cm), per day.  There’s not a chance that would be noticed.  Over time, however, you see the obvious difference.  This is EXACTLY the same as changing your swimming technique.  Athletes have a tendency of expecting a change to set in immediately.  Do a drill and the benefits will be incorporated into every stroke thereafter for ever and ever.  This is very far from the truth.

Changes to technique are incremental and, many times, tedious.  You have to be patient enough to allow the changes to eventually feel “normal.”  Rushing the process of changing your technique, typically means you won’t get the ultimate results that you’re after.

The best way to update your stroke is to slow down, and pay attention to your performance.  Paying attention means keeping track of something – such as time, heart rate, or stroke count.  One of the simplest ways to measure technique performance and change is stroke count.  Yet…when I ask swimmers how many strokes they take in their training, not everyone can give me a solid answer.

A great way to get started monitoring your stroke count is to find out how many strokes you take at different times during practice.  Don’t aim for a specific count. Simply count and make mental notes.  First, how many strokes per length do you take in warm-up?  How many strokes do you take on a set of 25s, when you have the benefit of a solid pushoff?  How many strokes per length (spl) do you take on a set of 100s – or 200s?   How many strokes do you take when you’re sprinting?  How many strokes do you take when you’re incredibly tired and sore?  In other words, what’s your stroke-count range?

By first understanding your stroke count, you can then use that count to help you improve.  The best way to improve your technique is to do a familiar set of 100s (or 50s or 200s, etc.) in the same time as before but with fewer strokes on each length.  In other words, your goal is not just to take fewer strokes.  The goal is to swim at your usual speed but to take one less stroke per length. By overlaying a stroke-count assignment to a typical set, you’re “straining” your technique…and much will be revealed. You will notice immediately how a poor pushoff  or less-than-stellar streamline affects time and stroke count.  You’ll notice when some little thing you did – more balanced bodyline, better extension, better catch, sharper rotation, steadier kick – helped you hold time and stroke count.  Heck, you might notice that adding one extra underwater dolphin didn’t cost too much, and helped you reduce stroke count and maintain your times.

Another way to improve with stroke counting is by keeping stroke count the same, but swimming faster!  This exercise teaches you how to get more power out of the strokes you do take.   Rather than going faster by just taking more strokes, or increasing the rate, try to go faster by figuring out a better way to swim.  Try descending your times in a set, while taking the same number of strokes.

There are certainly ways to improve your swimming by just training and growing.  The real question is:  Are you developing the technique that will allow you to reach your potential performance?  Swimming is a sport that requires the overcoming of resistance.  Unless you know how to overcome or minimize resistance, you won’t ever reach your human potential.

Always remember, the stairs are too big… until they’re not.  Your stroke always needs incremental improvement, especially because your body is growing and changing all the time (if you’re young).  But we can all get just a little better with more focus on HOW to swim.  Counting strokes is a simple avenue to awareness and success.

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