What is Tempo?

In swimming jargon, and in TI Swimming in particular, Tempo refers to the number of seconds between each arm stroke.

If you were to swim with a Tempo of 1.00 seconds, that would mean that there is precisely 1.00 seconds between the moment your right hand reaches a point in the stroke cycle on the right side to the moment the left hand reaches that exact same point in the stroke cycle on the left side.

If you were to pretend you were marching to the mantra of “Left, Right, Left, Right, Left, Right…” there would be exactly 1.00 second between each step, and each word that you called out.

When you set the Tempo Trainer to BEEP at 1.00 seconds you will set some part of your stroke cycle to coincide with that BEEP, once on the left side and once on the right side.


What are good Tempos?

The good or correct Tempo for you depends on what event you are swimming, what your energy-usage goals are for that event, your body dimensions and mechanics, and your current level of skill. It depends on a few things!

But we can make some generalizations to get you pointed in the right direction to find your best Tempo for a particular event.

Here is a chart showing the average Tempos in various events used in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 1998 Perth World Championships (chart made by Finis Inc):

finis elite stroke rate chart

This gives you an idea what the Olympic elites were using to accomplish their goals.

But this may not likely be what you should use for your goal. Let’s talk through How Tempo Works for a moment…


How Tempo Works

Tempo only has meaning when it is accompanied by stroke length because Stroke Rate x Stroke Length = Speed.

When you take a stroke in a certain amount of time and you also need to travel a certain distance in that same amount of time. This is what defines Speed = how many meters you travel per second.

[Note: We are going to switch back to the term Tempo which is just the mathematical inverse of Stroke Rate. But we don’t want to confuse the two if we’re doing math calculations. In TI and in swimming in general it is far more convenient for us to use units of Tempo and SPL (Stroke Counting) to calculate Pace rather than Stroke Rate and Stroke Length to calculate Speed. They are just the mathematical inverse of each other.]

A really fast tempo with a really high SPL will make a swimmer go slow, despite how fast the arms are spinning – like putting your bicycle into the easiest gear and spinning fast yet going slow.

And, increasing the tempo of the arms will also increase the rate at which energy is being burned in the body whether the body is moving forward or not. (We could just do aqua-aerobics and spins the arms fast and make big splash if all we wanted to do was burn calories!) To prove the point – in the winter in open-water sea swimming (17 C) I increase my tempo considerably in order to increase body heat (= more energy burned), while in the hot sea of August (29 C), while maintaining pace I slow my tempo way down to prevent overheating (= less energy burned). I can hold pace either way, but one way clearly burns more energy than the other. Increasing Tempo (assuming stroke pressure stays the same) increases energy consumption so increase with care.

So, every swimmer, to be truly efficient by the definition of physics and physiology, must practice, test and refine a certain range of combined Tempo and SPL that uses his limited energy in the best way his event and goal requires. There is definitely no One Tempo Fits All, and Faster Tempo does not always equal faster swimming. It is completely conditional.

What each swimmer needs to do to find the right stroke Tempo and the right Stroke Length (SPL) that allows him to go as fast as he want to go for the amount of energy he has to spend.


Where Do You Start?

If you would like to get started finding out where your current comfortable Tempo Range is, I may recommend that you set your Tempo Trainer between 1.25 to 1.45. In general, this is where most new students seem to find a comfortable Tempo to start with, while there are exceptions on either side. Starting somewhere in that range spend some time gradually adjusting the Tempo toward the Slow Extreme to find out where your stroke starts to feel uncomfortably unstable and slow. This will give you some idea of where your Slow End of your Tempo Comfort Range is. Then spend some time gradually adjusting it toward the Fast Extreme to find out where your stroke starts to feel uncomfortably rushed and the water around you becomes turbulent. This will give you some idea of where your Fast End of your Tempo Comfort Range is.

The Tempos displayed by the Olympic athletes are very difficult Tempos to use – virtually all those swimmers have been working at high tempos throughout their childhood, teens and into Olympic years so their bodies are highly conditioned for it.

For the adult-onset swimmer Tempos below 0.85 seconds may be extremely uncomfortable if not injurious. It is possible, but train carefully to approach those extreme fast tempos.

However, no matter where you currently are comfortable in Tempo Range, an important part of your TI training will be to improve your Tempo range. TI Coach Terry recommends that a swimmer develop a comfortable Tempo range for general practice that is about 0.30 seconds wide in which you can use all three SPL counts in your SPL Sweet Spot. [For example a swimmer may develop a Tempo range from 1.10 to 1.40 seconds per stroke to use with his SPL Sweet Spot of 16 to 18 SPL.]


How Do You Improve?

Improving your Tempo is not merely about getting your arms to spin faster – to be more complete, more adaptable swimmers we want to build a wider comfortable Tempo Range, both toward the fast and the slow directions, while protecting Stroke Length.

Practicing near your slow Tempo threshold will challenge your balance and passive streamline. Practicing near your fast Tempo Threshold will challenge your timing and control of active streamline.

Here are a couple practice suggestions for each end of your Tempo range:

To give some extremely general guidelines – TI Coach Terry recommends these various tempo zones:

  • Tempo > 1.60 = For Testing Balance and Stability
  • Tempo 1.30 to 1.60 = For Improving Stroke Length
  • Tempo 1.10 to 1.30 = For Brisk but Efficient Strokes
  • Tempo 0.95 to 1.10 = For Efficient Racing
  • Tempo < 0.95 = For Testing Control

You may find your current comfortable Tempo Range somewhere in these zones. You can get an idea of where you are, and in what direction you may want to start working.


View the whole Metrics Series:


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