There is a hard truth to accept about more efficient swimming: It won’t happen by swimming laps.

Over the years, I have shown swimmers how to improve their inefficient strokes. Then I see them revert back to their old habits as they continue to swim laps.

Such swimmers need to follow an old coaching maxim: It’s not the yards in the workout that count, but the workout in the yards.

Let me illustrate with a recent example. The Bluffton Pool was closed for 10 days in late May for painting and repairs. During that time, I used the small pool where I live to swim only one or two strokes at a time, working on small aspects of three competitive strokes (backstroke was unsafe).

Three weeks later, after a swim-less vacation, I was out of shape in a meet and slow for the longer distances I attempted. However, I swam my best times for 50 meters in the three strokes I had tweaked and, significantly, not in the one I hadn’t worked on.

It takes a lot of self-discipline to sacrifice temporarily swimming laps for building, step-by-step, a more efficient stroke. But in the long term, you will be able to swim more laps over a given time with that better stroke.

There is an appendix in my book, “Swim Better,” devoted to the science of changing ingrained habits. It can be summarized by two rules:

  1. Make it different. The new movement or behavior must be as unrelated as possible to the old, or at least perceived that way.
  2. Develop quality over quantity. Do only what is efficient and then stop.

Changing a habit starts from something new or different (for example, a good push-off and glide), then adding one efficient element at a time for just a single stroke. Only that.

Then go back and do it again, repeatedly, before doing it for two strokes correctly and repeatedly.

Add another element in the same fashion, continuing the process until a new and more efficient stroke is built. Try never to let yourself perform an inefficient movement or relapse.

Quality is always better than quantity, but this method will give you both.

Dr. Bob Colyer of Bluffton is an actively retired college professor and coach who has recently published “Swim Better: A Guide to Greater Efficiency for Swimmers & Instructors.”