Counting Strokes - is fewer always better?
Hi, I bet everybody has done it before: "How low can I get my strokes per lane in this pool?" And soon enough you find yourself pushing off the wall a little harder, taking an additional 1-2 underwater dolphin kicks and, once near the end of the pool, gliding towards the wall where you could have easily fitted in another stroke. While all these little tricks are just a different sign of "being competitive", my question is actually targeting another aspect of reducing SPL:
I realized that I can "squeeze" out another 1-2 strokes off a lane by really stretching hard on the spearing arm, by really squeezing my butt and stiffen my legs. However, this technique significantly increases my "perceived exertion". I have to give up on some of Terry's guidelines like a weightless arm and relaxation in general. I can certainly swim much more relaxed at the same pace with just 2 strokes more per lane. However, this experience makes me wonder: How do I find my real ideal SPL?
I do believe that this dilemma (between optimizing for a low SPL vs. optimizing for a relaxed, smooth swim) can be found no matter at which level you're currently swimming. That's why I don't believe that just throwing out a number makes sense. Also, I'm trying to make this discussion pace-independent which might turn out to be stupid as the final goal of improving your technique will be improving speed. My coach always tells me: "Ignore pace for now." The reason might be that I still have a long way to go on improving my technique first, but I've been making great improvements while ignoring pace, so, I'll try to continue asking those questions in a "pace-agnostic" manner.
What are your opinions? What should you take into account when trying to find your personal ideal SPL-value?
I do not often count the SPL. One reason is, that I concentrate on a FP and then I always loose the count. The other reason ist, that I don't want to destroy the great feeling while swimming with counting.
Until now I even didn't use the TT. I'm swimming for pleasure not to get the fastest. So perhaps the "real" swimmers have an other opinion:
I think counting is a tool. If you imprint a new technique the SPL can show if there is something wrong or perhaps also if you really hit the point. If your SPL gets much higher, something is wrong.
And also if you speed up: If your SPL gets rather high then, perhaps it's too fast at the moment and it would be better to swim with FP at lower speed.
Yesterday I counted the SPL: it was 20 without really pushing off and without long glide to the distant wall. For my hight, that's ok, it's in the middle of the green zone.
It was the same the last time I counted about a year ago, but the time for the length was 5 sec. faster. I counted, because my swimming now feels very different from the swimming a year ago and because I begin to overtake swimmers that always overtook me. And because I had a free lane, which isn't often.
It's a bit funny, because the last year I didn't swim often at all and when I swam, I didn't swim much freestyle. I was doing drills for FS or Butterfly and often swam butterfly in the kiddies pool because early in the morning there is nobody. But this pool is too short for freestyle (12 m)
Always subtract the flight off the wall from the pool length to get a true stroke count for the distance you actually stroked - since what you are after is stroke length. Stroke length is how far you move forward on each stroke, also referred to as distance per stroke or DPS.
Stroke length = yards stroked / stroke count (spl). Example: 25 yard pool, swimmer takes 20 strokes after a 5 yard flight off the wall, so stroking 20 yards, then SL = 20 yards / 20 strokes = 1 yard or 3 ft.
Ideally we want you in the "green zone" where SL is between 50-70% of swimmers height (or wingspan). In the above example if swimmer was 5' 2" or 62", SL @ 36" (or 3 ft), green zone = SL/height = 36"/62" = .58 or 58% Do the math and see if you fall into the "green zone" 50%-70%
The answer to your thread title is pretty obvious, if you think about it: It's possible, e.g., to go the length of the pool in a skate position, propelling yourself just by kicking and taking no strokes. Or you could skate that way for half the length of the pool, stroke to your other side, and then skate the rest of the way on that side, taking just one stroke. But both of these would be very unnatural and counterproductive.
A drill I've found useful in finding my ideal stroke count is the stroke eliminator:
Swim the length of the pool while counting strokes, and time yourself (I use the SportCount lap timer for this). Don't strive for any particular stroke count or time - just do whatever feels natural. The time and stroke count you get will be what you currently do when you're not thinking about it.
Next, swim the length again while timing yourself, but consciously try to reduce your stroke count by one. If you fail, try it again. If you succeed, try to eliminate another stroke. Observe what happens to your times when you repeatedly do this.
When I first began trying this, I was shocked to find that by the time I was eliminating my second or third stroke, my lap time actually began going down, even though I was taking one less stroke. What was happening was that in order to reduce my stroke count, I was having to find a way to move more efficiently through the water, and this saved more time than I was losing by taking one less stroke. Obviously, I couldn't keep eliminating strokes forever while getting faster times, but finding the point at which eliminating strokes no longer made me faster helped me to identify my ideal stroke count.
Exactly how you should do this will depend in some degree on what your goals are. If your goal is to compete in pool meets, for example, it will make little difference how you are reducing your stroke count and lap time. But if your aim is open water swimming (where you won't be able to periodically streamline off a wall), you will want to adjust for the time and distance you spend streamlining, as Coach Stuart recommended, to make sure you are really improving what you will be doing during an open water event.
Thanks for the good replies. Getting a really accurate Distance per Stroke (DPS) isn't all that easy in a 20-yard pool. I'll ask a friend to mark the points between my 4 "middle"-strokes, when I already have a steady pace and before I get to the end of the pool. Totally excited to see, if I'm in the "zone". :-)
To Bob's reply: Yes, from that perspective, the answer is obvious. As long as you're not hurting your lap time (in some range I can totally see lap time even improving), reducing strokes per lap sounds like a desirable success. However, in my particular case I was experiencing something different and I call it "perceived exertion":
I'm able to get from say 10 down to 8 strokes per lane at the same exact lap time, BUT swimming with 10 strokes is way less exhausting. Squeezing out those last 2 strokes takes so much more energy, that it feels like a net loss in efficiency. Has anybody had the same experience?
Going with Bob's recommendation would suggest that "fewer is always better" (of course as long as your not sacrificing lap time).
In general increasing stroke length and decreasing rate = lower workload and often faster speed. Dropping a stroke at the same turnover rate is the quickest path to speed. Some of my swimmers swim their best sustainable speed and distance at faster tempos and SL to height 58% (green zone) while others closer to 70% at lower tempos. Phelps 400 free 65%, Sun Yang 1500 free 73%. So it's personal to each swimmer given their skill set, height, distance swimming or event and tempo (rate of turnover) where the swimmer just feels like everything is clicking ,smooth and great rhythm sustained over the distance.
There are two parameters that determine speed or velocity, it's time AND distance, not just time. In the examples below time is strokes per minute (SPM) and distance is stroke length (SL). Speed = SPM * SL
Example swimmer stroking at 60 SPM and 16 strokes per length after 5y glide off the wall (stroking 20y):
SL = 20y/16spl = 1.25y
Speed = 60spm * 1.25y = 75 yards per minute or ypm
100 pace = 100 / 75 = 1.333 mins = 1:20
400 pace = 400 / 75 = 5.333 mins = 5:20
1 mile pace = 1760 / 75 = 23.47 mins = 23:28.2
and so on ...
Alternatively swimmer at 70spm and 19spl:
SL = 20y/19spl = 1.05y
Speed = 70spm * 1.05y = 73.5 ypm
100 pace = 100 / 73.5 = 1.36 mins = 1:21.6
Faster turnover doesn't necessarily mean you're going a faster speed.
Hi Stuart, thanks for the number and your insight from coaching. Couple questions:
1. How is it possible that the world record over 1500 m is swum outside of the "green zone"? Or asking the other way round: If 73% is leading to a world record, why isn't it in the green zone?
2. Turning SPM and SL into a pace is simple rule of three mathematics. However, you're saying that some of your swimmers are (sustainably) faster at 58% and others are slower at 70%. Wouldn't you then try to experiment with the slower swimmers and see, if it helps them "working" less on their SL?
3. You listed a number of factors that influence SL. Can you see any fixed correlation between sustainable speed and those factors?
Is a higher skill set always related to a higher SL/height ratio? (-> a higher SL would always be desirable)
Is a taller swimmer always having a lower SL/height ratio (given all other factors being constant, of course)?
Should every swimmer always try to increase their SL/height ratio when going to a longer distance? Would you recommend a different SL/height ratio when swimming 1.2 vs. 2.4 miles?
My personal experience is that lowering my SL/height ratio will help me sustain a given speed longer (only in a narrow range, of course). Does that contradict your experience as a coach? And then my next question: Does it simply mean that I need to further improve my skills, so that I can achieve the higher SL/height ratio with less effort?
You're raising a lot of good questions, and I'm sure you will get a response from Stuart, but I thought I would throw in my own 2 cents, as a self trained TI swimmer who has been playing these games for a while now. One of the obvious dangers in too much focus on stroke length is that (especially self-coached swimmers) fall prey to introducing a hesitation in their stroke which, of course, increases their stroke length but does not make them faster. Worse yet, if this hesitation (usually at the back of the stroke) becomes habitual, it can be hard to get rid of. One easy way to keep things honest is to use a tempo trainer and practice at stroke rates above what you are comfortable at. This will tend to make you aware of any unnecessary hesitation in your stroke and also give you useful data on how your SPL correlates with stroke rate.
I'm an old guy and I have noticed that periodically, for whatever reason, I develop problems with my technique. There is a standard pattern I see. First, in order to maintain my times, I see my stroke rate increasing until eventually I can't even maintain these times with a faster stroke rate. So I have gotten into the habit of monitoring my SPL just as an early indication that I'm developing some problem that needs to be addressed. When I see that happening, I don't just work on my SPL, but I also do pyramids with the TT to see whether I am starting to waste time during my recovery. All of this is diagnostic work to figure out what I am doing wrong. I have yet to find an easy way to diagnose these problems, but the more I swim, the better I get at early detection of problems and understanding how to fix them.
One last observation, again from an old guy. Flexibility definitely plays a role in your SPL and for this reason it is not always wise to take general green zones too seriously. They do provide bench marks, but, for example, my right shoulder was injured a long time ago, and this places some limitation on how efficiently I can swim. For example, I like to swim 300 yd intervals at the upper end of my green zone and, when I push the pace, I may get out of it. The other thing that impacts SPL is posture and a good range of motion with your hip flexors. These are all things that are not easy to change over night and, as we age, these problems become worse. Finally, a personalized "green zone" should reflect where you are in your swimming right now. If this isn't what the book says it should be, there may be a lot of explanations for this but killing yourself to meet some generalized goal will not help your swimming. A better approach (in my opinion) is to know where you are now and what your opportunities are for improvement. Then just work on those.
I like to think of stroke length and tempo as two dimensions, length and width of an envelope. Any work you put in to increase stroke length increases one side of your envelope. Increasing tempo increases the other side, say width.
1) Increase one, and hold the other the same, and you go faster. Yay!
2) Increase one at the expense of the other and it's an even trade.
3) Decrease both and it's time to call it a day ;-)
The obvious issue with just focusing on stoke length is that you hit some point where you apply a lot of effort/pressure and spend a lot of time slowing down. So you lose out because you lose momentum and have to burn energy accelerating again.
Depending on your distance goal (50Y, 200M, 1KM, 1mi) maintaining momentum at the loss of stoke length could be a good thing. That's why there's a lot of variability for different body dimensions, ages etc. Somewhere in there will be your sweet spot. The only way to find out is to do these practices with a tempo trainer, and count your strokes.
I can do a repeatable 13-stroke length in a 25Y pool, but my open water stroke is probably closer to 17-strokes (equivalent). My fast pool pace is best at about 16 strokes. I can do 14-strokes or 15 fast, but the increased need for air (effort vs time between breaths, don't forget about demand for oxygen) makes 16 pretty sweet for me. In other words, I can't keep up 14 or 15 strokes for more than 400Y. But I can do 16 almost non-stop. My goals are to be able to do 15 non-stop, or do 16 at a faster tempo.
The Green Zone is a generally good technique range. If you're not down to the green zone SPL's, then there's a lot to be gained by cleaning up technique.
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