This article continues from The Importance Of Making Small Steps

When I use the term ‘small steps’ I am referring specifically to taking incremental steps, or measured steps toward a goal where each step is appropriate to how far you can move forward with the resources you have at this moment – just like choosing well-spaced stepping stones to safely make your way across a fast-flowing stream. 


An Example Of Incremental Steps

Measuring your stroke length – your normal, comfortable stroke length – is one of the easiest informative ways to tell where your skill is at, and give some indication of your strength around that skill. Stroke length is how far you travel on the stroke of one arm (in this case, in freestyle). To give some sort of reference point, if your stroke length is less than half your height, that is an indication your balance and streamline is weak and/or you lack sufficient strength around the stroke choreography. 

Stroke Length = Distance Of Swim / Number Of Strokes Taken (counting both arms, in that distance)

With a little math we can convert stroke length into stroke count (the number of strokes you take per length), and then give you something specific to count in the pool. 

Let’s say you have been swimming with a comfortable average of about 26 strokes per 25 meters (after subtracting the push-off distance) but you need to be swimming with less than 20 in order to be traveling farther than 50% of your height on each stroke. Dropping 6 strokes is an enormous task! Just work on a small increase in length. Rather than trying to reach really far and aim for 22 or 21 strokes right away, in the next couple practices just discipline yourself to swim more than 50% of your practice time with ust one less stroke, or 25 strokes per length (after you’ve warmed up the body and tuned skills for about 10-15 minutes). If 26 was comfortable, 25 will be challenging but just within reach if you really concentrate on it.  In the next few practices after those, discipline yourself to swim more than 75% of the practice time with 25 strokes per length. After a series of practices with this kind of discipline, your brain will be working subconsciously to refine your neural control and your muscles will get a bit stronger and a bit smarter for accomplishing that very specific motor task. You’ll find that swimming with an average of 25 strokes becomes as comfortable as 26 was a couple weeks before. You can keep working like this, increasing your stroke count objective every few weeks. 

This is a simplified example to give you an idea of how to set a goal for an incremental increase in ability, like focusing on just the first step ahead, rather than thinking about the second step, or those you will take weeks later. The strength and skill you need for the second step is developed while you are taking that first step. By working diligently on that first step you will acquire a small increase in ability which then places you within reach of the next small increase in ability. It is possible that, on occasion, a sudden jump in ability will take place because your persistent, focused training starts jiggling pieces into place. Enjoy them but don’t rely on those. Just dedicate yourself to doing the work and those magical incidents will come when they will.  

If you are already swimming with a stroke length of something around 60% or more of your height, this might already be sufficient for your general swimming needs, if you are doing it with good form. Instead, you may need to work on incremental (small) steps toward a faster tempo in a similar way. Or you may have a competitive reason to build a slightly longer stroke, or you may want to build up strength by working on a slightly longer stroke, so that your current stroke length is even easier to sustain over long distances. But now that you are in that optimal range you should expect to take more weeks to adapt and build strength around a slightly longer stroke. 


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