How to Know How Far You Have Swum (or, I Am Not Looking at You)

Someone asked in the comments of this post about how to keep track of distance when you are swimming. I am a great person to ask this question because I want to know how far I have swum but I am lousy at keeping count; as a result, I have a number of compensatory strategies, most of which rely on setting up my workout so that it’s easier to count and remember distances.

But before talking about workout design, I should say that the best strategy I know is to swim with my friend K. K can keep track of laps. Let’s say you and some others are swimming a 40 x 50 meter set at 7 am in July in South Carolina. It’s ungodly hot in the outdoor pool, so you’ve pulled off your swim cap and your hair is floating in your face like seaweed, and you are cursing and swearing that this is the summer you are going to shave your head like the guys, and in your distress you have completely lost track of how many repeats you have done. You can ask K, “How many is that?” and he will know. He will always know. K swam the mile in college. He knows how far he’s swum, and he knows how fast. He also swims negative splits, which means that maybe you’ve been keeping up with him for the first 20 or 30 50s, but he’s going to speed up just when you are thinking that it would be nice to get out and lie on the pool deck.

So you can find yourself a person like K. Or, if you want to swim a very long way without breaks–and you want to spend money–you can buy a lap counter. I have had a Garmin Swim for a little over a month now, and once I have figured out all that you can do with it (I unexpectedly got a new phone at almost the same time, and I can only deal with one new complicated electronic device at a time), I will write a blog post about it. But I can say that it is very good at keeping track of straight laps of freestyle. If you swim 1000 yards free, it will record 1000 yards. It is going to be fantastic for when I am swimming lots and lots of distance later this year.

If you don’t have a human or an electronic lap counter, you can set up your workout to help you keep track of distance. The key is breaking your swim up into manageable chunks of yardage (500 yards/meters or less) that you can count and remember, especially with the help of the pace clock. I check how far I’ve swum by knowing what my pace is for different strokes and timing myself. So, for example, a 500 yard free warm-up usually takes me around 7:30. If I note what time I left on the pace clock, I know that in about 7:30, I’ve done 500. I try to count as I swim along, but if when I stop and look up, it’s been 6:45, I know I’ve miscounted and I have another 50 yards to go.

For sets of a distance repeated (like the 40 x 50 in the summer), I set the interval so that I can keep track on the pace clock. A pace clock looks like this:

A pace clock

If I’m doing repeats of 50 yards, I do them on 50 seconds. It works like this: 1st one, leave on 60; 2nd one, leave on 50; 3rd one, leave on 40, etc. Basically, I’m going around the pace clock backwards, and I know that whenever I come in (50 yards takes me 40-45 seconds) I should just leave on the next multiple of 10. The 6th one, I leave on 10, the 7th I leave on 60 (the top), and I continue around.

Some intervals are easier to keep track of than others; I work best on times ending in :55, :50, or :45 (or :05, :10, or :15). If you’re doing repeats on :55 (or 1:55 or 2:55), you know that going around the pace clock once is 12 repeats. For repeats on 1:15 (or 2:15 or 3:15), you know that going around the pace clock once (forward this time) is 4 repeats. For this reason, it’s better to set your interval at 2:05 or 1:55 than on 2:00 even.

All of this means that I spend a lot of time looking at the pace clock. At my pool it’s up on the wall. Every so often I encounter a person who doesn’t realize that the pace clock is behind him on the wall and thinks I am looking at him, hoping to strike up a conversation. This person will inevitably start talking to me just as I’m pushing off to swim the next repeat. Once I had this conversation:

Him: How are you?
Me: Fine. I’m leaving on the 30.
Him: (appalled) You’re using the pace clock?!?

I pushed off in the middle of “You’re using the pace clock?!?” and never found out why he sounded so shocked. We did not speak again. Perhaps a pace clock killed his sister. In any case, I would like a swim cap that reads across the forehead (in very small but clear letters), “I am not looking at you. I am looking at the pace clock. It’s behind your head.” It would prevent many awkward moments.

image from Steve Lambert
This would be helpful too (image from Steve Lambert).

One more tip: on occasion, I use physical reminders to help me keep track of repeats. If you have the right kind of lane ropes, the ones with small individual floating pieces, you can use the lane rope as an abacus, moving one piece for each repeat. For special swims, I break out the poker chips. For my 44th birthday, I swam 44 x 100 on 1:40. I knew there was no way I could count 44 repeats on 1:40 (I can’t count 4 repeats on 1:40). So, I brought 44 poker chips and two plastic containers to the pool. I put all the poker chips in one container to start, and then I moved one poker chip to the other container for every 100. When I was out of poker chips, I was done. Just like at the casino.

Maybe you have some terrific way to help you keep track of distance in the pool? I’d love to hear it.

2 thoughts on “How to Know How Far You Have Swum (or, I Am Not Looking at You)

  1. Counting can even a challenge on dry land. May adapt your poker chip method for counting laps around the track. The one hand, five fingers method isn’t cutting it, especially when I’m easily distracted. I don’t have a knitting row counter to carry along. That would work, too. Oooh, perhaps I should invest in one soon!

    1. What a good idea! I don’t think my row counter will work if it gets waterlogged. But I think it could be very satisfying to click it after you complete each lap. It’s encouraging to hear the sound of each new poker chip as it hits the others and the container fills up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s