Why I Count Strokes the Conscious (‘Hard’) Way
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on February 1st, 2014

Earlier this month, TI Coach (and ‘Head Librarian’ of the TI Swim Academy) Mat Hudson wrote a  blog titled Why Count Strokes?

I urge you to read it — all the way through. It’s packed with invaluable insight and clear, compelling explanation. At the top, Mat enumerates his reasons for counting strokes. My favorites include:

  • Counting strokes is the first, basic form of objective feedback I can learn and master
  • It reveals the first critical feature of swimming speed and swimming efficiency.
  • I can do it  myself
  • I can immediately connect any technique changes I make to an effect on  stroke count
  • No batteries required

Halfway down the page, Mat poses the question of whether we should use a ‘device’ to track stroke count. After all there are numerous watches these days that will take care of counting for you.

Counting ‘au naturel’ — in  your head — is harder, as Mat acknowledges: Just because it is hard to do at first, don’t be intimidated by the work you need to do to develop the habit.

I’ve made the same choice.

Actually, there  wasn’t a choice when I started counting–in 1972 as a college senior. No one had suggested I count strokes, but I thought–as long as I could–why not?

The only information to be had about the repeats we did in training came  after I stopped swimming and looked at the pace clock. As we did at least one 800-yard swim in every workout, a times that could mean waiting 9 or more minutes to get feedback. I began counting strokes because I thought it might be better to have some kind of feedback every lap — i.e. every 16 to 18 seconds.

Almost 40 years later I got  a watch which could record stroke count,  length, and rate during a swim. At the push of a button, I could review all that data immediately after a swim. I enjoyed playing with my new toy for a week or two but, after using it no more than 8 or 10 times, I lost interest and went back to counting the hard/conscious way.

Why? For the same reason I’d started counting 40 years earlier. The watch gave a lot more detailed feedback than the pace clock, but still wouldn’t deliver it until after I finished swimming. I want feedback throughout my swim. So I count strokes. Always. In fact, it’s become such a habit, it’s sometimes hard for me to turn off the ‘automatic counter’ in my head.

That’s good. It means that after years of counting, the act of doing so requires so little ‘brainpower’ that I have a lot of free space. For sequencing through internal, external, and visualizing focal points. For noticing subtle changes in my stroke. For tracking my finishing and sendoff  time, while doing more complex forms of interval repeats. Etc.

Here are a few more reasons (of many) why I prefer to count myself:
1) Conscious counting is a way of staying present with my swimming. It acts like a mantra, converting any lap into a moving meditation.
2) Counting consciously – while looking for familiar ‘landmarks’ in the pool – a line across the bottom halfway, or the backstroke flags heading into the wall — provide additional ways of verifying that I’m staying efficient.
3) The mental effort it requires is good for my brain.The website Lumosity.com (and others like it) promise to improve memory and sharpen thinking via ‘brain games.’ I accomplish the same by counting and recalling my SPL–then using that info with either Tempo or Time in doing the ‘math’ of swimming.

2 Responses to “Why I Count Strokes the Conscious (‘Hard’) Way”

  1. Grégoire says:

    Hi Terry,

    I totally understand your “geek” counting technique, it makes total sense.

    On my end I’m a beginner, so I count strokes from time to time just to check if I’m still in my “range” which is 10-11 strokes in a 25 meter pool.

    But more systematically, I have to count and remember the number of laps I’ve done in the pool to reach my 2000 meters objective. As my brain might be already full or because I always swim early in the pool, I often forget my lap count and whenever I have a doubt, I assume I’ve reached the lower number of laps I’m convinced I’ve done.
    As I feel quite comfy in the water, I’m in a relax state, which means I kinda “disconnect” the brain and I’m half asleep when swimming. It all started a while ago when I tried to close my eyes in a 50 meter pool just to check if I was swimming straight. It felt so relaxing to have my eyes quite closed, I kept practicing since…

    All this to tell that I just got myself a watch recently and for the first time today I swam with it, I was surprised when I got the result back home: I swam 400 additional meters says the watch record whereas I was convinced I only swam 2000…

    My conclusion is: either there is a problem with the watch (I’ll double check that on the next session), or I really need to have that feedback to get a precise idea of my lap efforts…
    As for the sleepy mode, I guess that’s my style, as I feel really comfy doing it this way. The most inconvenient part with that is when I accidentally “run” into other swimmers who are pretty awake and displeased ! 🙂
    I guess I have to plan a “conscious” session sometime…

    Happy sleepy laps,


  2. Greg
    Thanks for your comment. Two questions
    1) Is there a reason for wanting to swim exactly 2000m?
    2) Do you swim in continuously.

    I never set out to swim a particular distance such as that. Rather I try to make the best use of the time I’ve decided to set aside for swimming that day. I come to the pool with a practice plan (and generally don’t even bother to add up the number of yards or meters in my plan) then follow my plan. When I complete the items or tasks on my plan, I’m done.
    I usually swim for 50 to 60 minutes. In general that will mean swimming 2000 to 2500m.

    And the only place I might swim continuously for that 50 min or hour is in the lake where I practice in summer. But that would be rare. In the pool, I do repeats. The majority are 200m or less.

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