For the last several practice sessions in the sea I was working on improving my ability to hold a long stroke at higher tempos. For me, my goal is to take the long-stroke I enjoy effortlessly at 1.20 tempo, down into my race level tempo range of 1.00 to 0.90.

Here was my open-water set from a week ago: 12x 250-stroke cycles (approx, 275m each at these tempos), using a Tempo Trainer to incrementally increase tempo while holding stroke length. I did this in the sea, swimming approximately 1700 meters in one direction along the coast, then turned around and came back.

The objective is to increase tempo but keep the exact same stroke count for the second half of the swim as I did on the first. In this way, by the pure math of SL x SR = Speed (actually, Pace) I am guaranteed to swim faster. In order to accomplish this objective when I increase tempo each cycle I have to resist the tendency to shorten my stroke in order to compensate for the increased in rate. This requires knowledge of what skills produce my long stroke and knowledge of how to protect it. It requires my complete concentration on best technique in order to achieve it.

I started the Tempo Trainer (TT) at 1.06 for the first cycle as a warm-up (my body in the cool water wants to go faster at the beginning but I control it to give me time to loosen up properly), then increased tempo -0.01 per cycle. I swam east down the coast for 6 cycles- TT at 1.06, 1.05, 1.04, 1.03, 1.02, then 1.01. Turning back I started on 1.00 tempo, but from this point I held that tempo for 2 cyclesto give my brain more time to adapt, then 0.99 for 2 cycles, and finished the last 2 cycles on 0.98 tempo.

I had to wait until the end of my swim, because I could not compare my stroke counts until I reached my starting point. I was pleased to see that I took 1500 stroke one way, and took 1500 +20 extra strokes coming back- which means I held approximately the same stroke length for both halves but increase tempo, which by simple math, means I increase speed. My splits were 27.18 out and 24.48 back. By simply holding SL while increasing tempo I was 2.5 minutes faster coming back.

While swimming in OW how did I know I was holding the same stroke length? I could feel it, though I needed the stroke counting to confirm it. I train with stroke counting so much that I know intuitively how the water feels over my body at each stroke length. My sensory focus was to keep my body in that zone the entire swim, focusing on certain parts of my stroke in order to protect the quality of every movement.

A Tempo Trainer and Stroke Counting are the perfect tool combination to work on this. The beep gives the the fixed time in which we have to complete the stroke cycle. And setting a Stroke Count requires us to hold a certain SL. In open-water we can do stroke counting on out-and-back swims, or repeats between two shorter points. I recommend breaking down the stroke counting into smaller cycles (like 120 strokes, or 240 or something corresponding to 60 second increments that you can use for tempo estimating- I might explain that in another essay). Tempo Trainer combined with stroke count constraints within a fixed distance becomes the perfect situation to test this skill and work on it.

I had to do my counting over 1500+ meters, but in a pool you can do it every 25, 50, or 100 meters. When working with a TT within Stroke Count constraints we are challenged to do it in some other way than just pushing back on the water harder- because pushing water back harder is how you will increase stroke count, not reduce it. So we have to solve the problem by improving the shape of our transition between strokes, otherwise known as ‘active streamlining’, and by improving the effectiveness of the catch. We’re not aiming for maximum speed of the hands driving back through the water, we’re aiming for the most effective HOLD on the water and the longest, most slippery body sliding past it.

In the next essay I’ll share an example of how to set goals with SL x SR, and how the variables affect each other.

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