Counting Strokes

The most common questions (along with ”How thick is your wetsuit?”) you get asked after someone reads ”English Channel Swimmer” one line under your name on your name-tag:

- What do you think about during long swims? Don’t you get bored?

- Nope … don’t get bored … ever. What was the first question again? Oh … right. Well … I count my strokes…

- …

Herding sheep can cause strokes ...



See, even in the circle of open-water swimmers, it is sorta frowned-upon to count strokes. But you see, I like numbers. And swimming too. I get really enthusiastic when I see numbers like 47.49, 6:57, 28:21 or 23’32″ (little game: try to figure out what they correspond to).

It’s usually quite disheartening to do long swims in open-water with a watch … odds are that you’ll be disappointed every time you look at it and it shows that you have swam 30 minutes less than what you thought you had. That’s when the stroke counting comes in handy.

Here is how I usually proceed. I count every other stroke in my head (sometimes out loud too), so it goes … 2 … 4 … 6 … 8 … …296 … 298 … 300 … and then back to … 2 … 4 … 6 …

The idea is that 300 strokes corresponds to approximately 5 minutes for someone with a stroke rate around 60 (strokes per minute). And for some reason time passes much quicker while I’m counting than when I’m not. I think it comes from the fact that in the second case I always know where I’m at timewise and do not have to be all worried about how long is left before the next feed. I can then assign the couting to a bunch of neurons in the intraparietal sulcus and focus a bit more on enjoying the Britney Spears / AC-DC / Black Eyed Peas song(s) that are stuck in my head. Swimming a marathon is all about swimming from one feed to another … for me this turned into taking 1500 strokes + 1500 strokes + 1500 strokes + 1500 strokes + ….

If you’re doing other strokes, it works just as well. Typically I’d take 20 strokes per minute in butterfly and breaststroke and 40 per minute in backstroke.

I believe that this idea (among others) came from Ned Denison who is famous for (among other things) being an expert at predicting (to the one stroke) how many strokes he will have to take to go from point A (say, first corner of Sandycove Island …) to a point B (Baltimore Beacon ? hint hint).

Oh and that’s not the full extend of my counting routines. There’s also techniques for counting pool laps (1km = 40 laps, plenty of chances of getting lost), repeats of 100s as well as one Inception-inspired way (one counter embedded in another one) to keep count of the number of feeds whilst counting one’s strokes and computing the number of jelly fish encounters.

And then of course if it’s not enough to keep you amused during your long swims you can also start getting amazed whenever a prime number, a perfect number or one that’s dear to your heart pops up in your mind. Or you can try counting in other languages, backwards, backwards in another language, only odd numbers, replacing numbers with alphabetical characters, members of the French Rugby squad (sorted by height) or Olympic Host Cities.

Am I an exception as an obsessive compulsive swimmer?

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About Sylle

Swimmer specialised in relatively cold water and relatively long distances, English Channel Swimmer 2009, Butterfly across the English Channel in 2013
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2 Responses to Counting Strokes

  1. jimmy says:

    excellent article :)

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