Using A Tempo Trainer – SPEED IT UP!

If you’ve read the previous two lessons then great. Let’s procede. If not, I suggest you take a moment to go back to the Intro and see how those two lessons set the stage for this one.

Speed = Stroke Length (SL) x Stroke Rate (SR)

GOAL: to develop the ability to increase SR while preserving SL.

WHY? Increasing SR (tempo) must be done in combination with preserving long SL. It is much easier to develop higher SR than it is to develop a longer SL. Most anyone can get those arms and shoulders to spin a lot faster, but the key to speed is HOLDING long SL while increasing SR. A long SL has the sensation of holding the water on the catch and sliding past. To hold a long SL the catch must begin early with a higher elbow, and slip back in the water as little as possible. This is as much an neurological art as it is a physical strength skill.

In a situation where a swimmer is under the stress of higher exertion, most trained swimmers can still increase the SR somewhat, but virtually no one increases their SL- at that point everything in and around the swimmer is working against it. The analysis of elite level racing reveals that that all swimmers are slowing down toward the end of the race- their stroke rates are often increasing, yet their SL is crumbling out of proportion to it. The winner is not the one who accelerates or swims the fastest, but who slows down the least, or in other words, the swimmer who shortens their stroke the least.

So to use the TT in one of the more powerful ways, we must keep an eye on these two measurements and make careful trade-offs as we increase tempo. The ability to hold a long SL is as much a neuro-muscular skill, if not more so, than a muscular or metabolic one. This will require focus, patience and restraint to do well- BRAIN power not muscle power.


6 to 8x this set: 1x 100 Fist, 4x 50 with 10-15 seconds rest

  • Starting tempo (at 1.20 seconds for example), then increase 0.02 per cycle.
  • Hold target SPL (for example, 17 SPL)
  • Hold effort level at #3


  • Set your TT to the faster end of your comfortable baseline tempo range (where you like to swim ‘endlessly’, but pleasantly quick). Generically, I might suggest 1.30 or 1.20. It should feel comfortably brisk, but not exaggerated.
  • Your objective is to hold your target SPL constant, while very gradually increasing SR.
  • Hold your effort level to a #3 (if #1 is supe-easy, and #5 is all-out). You want to relax the body and let it adapt, not tense it up and struggle harder.
  • For the first 50 swim with fists closed (don’t bother with Fistgloves because you will be taking them on/off too much). Just focus on keeping the timing in the most relaxed way on this first 50.
  • Then do 5x 50 with normal open-hand at the starting tempo. Since this is a neuro-muscular focused set, you don’t want to overload and therefore distract your system by pushing muscular or cardio-vascular limits. So allow the heart rate to settle down after each 50- say 10 to 15 seconds or 6 to 8 deep breaths.
  • Click the TT down (left button) 2 clicks, 0.02 seconds, and repeat the same cycle. First, 50 Fist, then 5x 50 with open-hand on tempo, holding SPL.
  • Continue through several cycles until you start to struggle holding onto your target SPL. Be ready to give up maybe +1 stroke on your target SPL, but keep striving to find ways to improve streamline so that you can preserve or even gain it back. You will be surprised at what you can find in your stroke to improve without applying any more force.

Here are some focus points to help you be more successful:

  • Focus on ‘relaxing’ even more, or in other words, making each stroke as long and as effortless as possible- it’s counter-intuitive, but it is the secret to this set being most effective.
  • Focus on putting the power of your core rotation into reaching forward, rather into ‘pulling back’.
  • You will find that you will need to keep every push-off as long and efficient as possible to hold SPL. Make every push-off, every surface-break, every turn, as consistent as possible- and note when you find these skills crumbling as well (another thing you get to work on).
  • When you focus on the catch, work on rotating the elbow out so allow a higher vertical forearm at the very beginning of your catch. As you apply pressure, think of it as ‘holding’ the water and sliding your body past, rather than pushing back harder. Letting the hand slip back faster without the body sliding past is the first stage of a crumbling SL.

A few more comments:

I recommend at least 300 (meters or yards) per cycle because, for my body at least, that is about the minimum distance my neuro-muscular system needs to adapt to a .02 increase in tempo while regaining a sense of ease. The point is not ‘pushing’ the neurological system, but being ‘pulled’ by it into faster tempos. So you have to give your brain and body enough time for it to work well. This is a process that will spread over several weeks, not something you hammer out in a single practice or even a single week.

I will do a set similar to this in open-water without rest- 250 strokes (about 300m or so) with .01 increase per cycle. And I will do this for 90 minutes straight- starting at 1.15 and find myself at 0.85 at the end, and feeling amazingly great and ready for more.

This kind of gradual, ‘easing into speed’ works so well when we learn to be patient and sensitive to the pace of our neuro-muscular system- it will carry us much farther than we ever imagined when we learn to work with it rather than mindlessly against it.


If you start at an appropriate tempo, what I expect you will find is that the first cycle of 50’s will feel a little rushed. That is normal. But the 2nd to 5th should feel much better, even easy. The neuro-muscular connections are just ‘stretching out’ in the first couple cycles- that is why you need to give enough time before increasing the tempo.  Over the course of 5x 50, your body will be incrementally stretched, then it will adapt then it will feel more ease- but you must concentrate on ‘ease’. You may consider adding 1 or 2 more 50’s on each cycle if you feel your system needs more time adapt. The key here is allowing the neuro-muscular system time and repetition to adapt.

Then beyond a certain tempo in the set you will find you have to focus more and more, to hold every detail just right or you’ll lose SPL. Now you will discover how important imprinting every precise movement of your stroke will be. The vast portion of you ability to swim fast for the entire distance of your event will depend on how well you can focus and hold good form under stress- and this is a neuro-muscular skill! The power of FOCUS.

When you get to a tempo where you are losing -2 or more on your target SPL, I recommend that you stop. For the purpose of this set there is no point in going past this ‘tempo threshold’… unless burning extra calories and imprinting poor mechanics is your goal. This threshold point is now a very important reference point for you- you can measure your improvement next time against it.

One or two practices later you can repeat this same set or a variation of it:

  • You can use the same starting point and see if you can progress to a higher tempo before you hit that ‘tempo threshold’- that will be an obvious improvement.
  • You can start on a slightly faster tempo and work your way down to through the same number of cycles to reach a faster tempo before it crumbles.
  • You can do a staggered ladder, where you go down 1.20. 1.18, 1.16, 1.14, then back to 1.16, 1.14, 1.12, 1.10, then back to 1.12, 1.10, 1.08, 1.06, then back to 1.08, 1.06 and so on. (This is one of my favorite patterns). You’d be surprised at how much farther you can go with this pattern. You could even change tempo per 100 on this pattern so it would not require 3000m to finish (it’s one of my favorite OW sets).
  • You can start at the same starting point but use a lower target SPL.
  • You can start at the same starting point but use a higher target SPL and compare split times to see which is more efficient for you. It is useuful to have a range of SPL (about 3 strokes difference 16-18 for instance) to choose from for different circumstances and paces.

There are endless variations!

I hope these 3 short Tempo Trainer lessons and practice set ideas have helped you. I would be glad to receive your feedback on how these worked for you and if you have additional ideas on how to use a TT.

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