As the headline asks, can one swim laps and swim better at the same time? Regrettably, you can’t. Swim strokes are a matter of habit. Changing a habit requires big changes a little bit at a time. It is possible to focus and change for a stroke or two at a time, then to go back and start again. Beyond that, habit takes over.

I’ve seen swimmer after swimmer try to take advice and become more efficient … for a stroke or two. But if they continue to complete a lap, by the fourth or fifth stroke they are back to their old habits again. 

My book, “Swim Better,” mentions only two rules. First, “Do something different,” like a more efficient stroke. Second, though, is “Quality over quantity,” which means to stop as soon as, or even before, the stroke becomes inefficient. 

Repeat the small success, again and again, making it a new habit; then gradually add only a stroke at a time. Again, repeat, etc. It will take as many sessions as necessary to ingrain the new habit, but that will be worth it for the rest of your swimming life.

OK, that’s the ideal, but what can I do for a swimmer who wants to get his/her lap goal completed each session? I recommend single-arm swimming. That way the swimmer focuses on efficiency for just one arm at a time for a pool length. 

Believe me, there are enough aspects or nuances to make that a challenge. Then the swimmer does the same with the other arm on the return lap, thus facing the same wall each way.

Does it work?  It does for me because, for example, I can’t keep up a butterfly stroke for more than a couple of laps, but I can keep going a long way if I swim single-arm. It’s even easier and better to do single-arm for front or back crawl, which should be swum efficiently side-to-side through (not on) the front or back. 

Single-arm swimming makes it easier to stroke closer to the midline of the body and to recover with just the upper arm while the lower arm relaxes between strokes. Note: For breaststroke, alternate upper body (arms and breath) and lower body (kick and glide) instead of single-arm.

Doing drills, such as single-arm swimming, is also a way to add variety to the boredom of swimming the same stroke(s) lap after lap. Give it a try and let me know if it works for you.

Dr. Bob Colyer of Bluffton is an actively retired college professor, coach and author of “Swim Better: A Guide to Greater Efficiency for Swimmers & Instructors,” directed primarily to non-competitors.