Why swim at slower than normal tempos?
Practicing at slower-than-normal Tempos exposes your weaknesses in balance, stability – which make up the greatest portion of a swimmer’s excessive drag and energy waste. And that is the first crux in the swimmer’s speed problem.
Balance (the balance from ‘front/rear’ or ‘head/tail’) is the ability to hold the body parallel to the surface without having to apply vertical force against gravity. Features of imbalance often include a high head and/or low hips and legs. This makes the swimmer obligated to kick a lot more to work against gravity like that. Contrary to the recommendations of others to kick more to compensate for sinking hips – for increased kicking does not cure poor balance, it only covers it up at a higher energy expense – why not just remove the sinking problem so that more energy is freed up to move forward with?
Then there are some swimmers who have the appearance of balance until they are asked to turn off the legs and all is revealed. But balance is not a gift, it is a learnable skill. Though it is not instinctive for land mammals to balance in water, humans can be taught this skill. A little understanding of fluid dynamics and some instruction on how to re-distribute the forces using his own body and the flow of water and he is relieved of a great deal of unnecessary exertion.
Stability is the ability to calmly hold body at a slightly rotated angle using only the core muscles of the torso, while recovering the other arm. If the swimmer has poor stability he is obligated to swing the arm around quickly and get it back down in the water to keep himself from falling flat. The legs will often react to this instability by spreading sideways (rather than vertical) and scissor (spread opposite of each other, rather than one press at a time).
If there is poor balance, poor stability the swimmer’s brain realizes those are priority problems to deal with over forward motion. And for the swimmer’s appendages, this presents a conflict of interest in how force will be applied. Though there may be a semblance of a forward propelling arm and leg movements, so many swimmers wonder why they still can’t move very fast. This is the likely culprit. They are wasting energy and motion on fighting imbalance and instability with each stroke more than actually working to slide the body forward.
We understand this priority on land – try kicking or throwing a ball while falling – the body is unbalanced, unstable and therefore it cannot support the kick/throw. Try even just walking another step when the last one didn’t establish balance – the human brain will immediately divert the next step in some other direction to prevent falling, and interrupt the act of walking forward. The brain will make it very hard for us to carry out the action with any force or accuracy until we have established our footing. It is the same situation in water, but not apparent to the aquatically-untrained land mammal brain.
‘Excess’ arm and leg movements (versus smooth and minimal ones) are a sign that force is being applied in directions other than in the the only direction this swimmer intends to travel. All that excess motion creates drag evidenced in forms of splash, waves, bubbles and turbulence surrounding him. A swimmer with high drag will decelerate relatively quickly between strokes at slow tempo, while a swimmer with low drag will decelerate relatively less. Here is a reason to practice a longer hydrodynamic glide – the ease of acceleration and rate of deceleration of each stroke tells the swimmer a lot about how hydrodynamic his shape is becoming. It is an important form of feedback.
Another example: Take two boats of the same displacement mass: 1) a row boat, and 2) a sea kayak. Give each of them a push of the same force at the same time. Which one will travel farther? Which one will travel quicker? Exactly.
Practice at slower tempos to achieve this farther, faster glide in each stroke (without increasing force) and you will be actively reshaping your body from a rowboat into a sea kayak, so to speak.
Swim at slower tempos and you will be compelled to start solving areas of poor balance and poor stability by reshaping your vessel.
How to swim at slower tempos?
I could write pages on this, but I will try to give a few foremost helpful tips…
Use two metrics for assessing improvement:
1) Count Strokes. This is an objective number fact.
Achieving a lower stroke count per length (SPL) may indicate that you are improving balance, stability, and reducing drag.
But this does not complete the picture – you need to partner that metric with a reading on energy expense too…
2) Improved ease. This is subjective body awareness. This means sensing and controlling how much effort you apply (physically and mentally!). You are improving when you find yourself going farther at the same level of effort, or better, going farther with less effort.
It is not enough that you can achieve longer strokes, but that those longer strokes are actually easier to produce than your previously short ones.
When the stroke tempo slows there is more time available for each stroke cycle. How will you use that extra time?
The whole stroke cycle has a repeating series of phases:
- Extension to setting the Catch.
- Catch and Hold.
- Exit and Recovery.
- Entry and Extension to Target.
How will you distribute that extra time within each phase?
You have two things you can control: speed of movement and force/pressure behind that movement. Just slowing things down only accounts for the first. You need to adjust both.
Work on extending the Catch and Hold phase – imagine starting the Catch a few millimeters farther in front to increase the distance you will perform the Catch and Hold. Though moving slightly slower, maintain firm pressure on the water, and distribute that press evenly from start to finish in the Catch and Hold phase. Pay more attention to getting a good ‘grip’ on the water, placing the palm and forearm on what we might call the ‘pilates ball of water molecules’ – that high pressure zone formed behind the arm. This is what you press on to slide the body forward. And beware of sculling – it is a sign your hand is slipping from this grip (just like a sculling kayak paddle is undesirable) – correct the coordination between your rotation timing and your catch to fix this.
Resist pausing the recovery arm in an attempt to slow down the stroke. Keep a steady forward swing of the elbow combined with a steady slide of the shoulder joint, from hand exit to hand entry, so that you can take advantage of its momentum as you spear and drive energy forward into the water. Increase relaxation in the muscles of that Recovery Arm – you now have the time to pay attention to it. Tension is your enemy in this context.
Hold a long, stable body line – Skate Position – just like a speed skater would step onto her strong sharp blade and smoothly drive her energy forward through that blade to the surface of the ice. The Patient Front Arm, waiting for the Recovery, is the front end of to that long, stable speed-skate-like body line.
And, this Patient Front Arm sets you up for a truly high level skill – asymmetric stroke timing, which is what allows you to control and adjust stroke length on command, under Tempo constraints. This is the basis of ‘gears’ in your swimming stroke, like you have on your bicycle. Let your brain learn to execute asymmetric stroke timing first in slow motion strokes, then you can learn to use it in moderate, and then learn to use it in high tempo strokes.
Overall, discipline yourself to solve the imbalance and instability problem with improved body position control and relaxation (those are actually complementary, not contrary), rather than with more force. You will strive to maintain forward momentum at slower Tempos, but do it with shape, rather than power. Solving the problem this way produces marvelous results in your swimming, at any speed.
Recall what I mentioned occasionally: physics shows us there are two ways to solve the speed problem:
1) Increase force to overcome water resistance
2) Decrease water resistance to decrease the amount of force required
And I ask again, which path do you want to follow to faster swimming?
Swimming at slower tempos gives you the opportunity to learn the skills for swimming faster with more ease, by exposing the major wasters of your energy: imbalance and instability. But you access that opportunity only if you understand how to work at those slower Tempos. The key is what and how you practice – what you train inside the brain and inside the body. What you see on the outside is mostly a product of what has happened on this inside. If you do understand this, then you may step into the process of learning how one becomes a faster swimmer by swimming at slower Tempos.
View the whole Metrics Series:
- Metrics 101 – Stroke Length
- Metrics 101 – Aim For Stroke Length Ease
- Metrics 101 – SPL Development Process
- Metrics 102 – Tempo
- Metrics 102 – Slow Tempo
- Metrics 102 – Fast Tempo
- Metrics 103 – Pace
- Metrics 103 – Pace Construction
- Metrics 103 – Pacing Failure and Success
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Matt, what do you mean by Slow Tempo (SR=Stroke Rate range)?
Same question for Fast Tempo… Thanks.
Both ‘Slow’ and ‘Fast’ will be relative to you.
At the bottom of the first essay on Tempo there is a chart showing some general interpretation of fast and slow tempos.
But I am referring to Faster than Comfortable for You, and Slower than Comfortable for You. So if you can use comfortably use tempo between 1.10 to 1.50 and be pleased with your stroke quality within that range, but not be pleased with it outside that range, then that tells you where your Fast and Slow Thresholds are.
Does that help? Or do you want to get more technical than that about determining your Fast/Slow thresholds?
Your posts are as illuminating as ever.
I have tried swimming at slow tempos ( I have a Finis tempo trainer). I found I was comfortable at 1.7 and stayed with that tempo for a couple of weeks of practice. I was at ease. In fact, I had opted for slower tempos to establish balance and stability.
Much later, when I tried a tempo of 2.0, I was less at ease – perhaps my balance and stability were being tested or pushed to their limits.
Also, I realized that after steady improvement initially, my stroke length was not decreasing further. I realized I have to go back to the basics and improve those – balance and streamline. So, I now spend more time on balance, stability and streamline drills – torpedo, laser lead rotation, superman glide and skate – than on whole stroke. I also do a body dolphin drill to improve my short axis rotation for breaststroke and butterfly.
I use fist gloves most of the time to rule out using force and improve “shaping the vessel” and whole body movement. In fact, my best stroke count swimming whole stroke happened quite effortlessly when I had taken off the fist gloves. As I have experienced already, using more force than necessary can lead to pain in the shoulders. Thankfully, I only do short, focused repeats as advised by Terry focusing entirely on quality (improving my stroke) rather than on distance or speed. I found your 3 stages of mastery described elsewhere on this blog very useful: Stage 1:
I can swim with ease (I am obviously somewhere in this zone), Stage 2: I can swim farther (its so easy to swim farther) and Stage 3: I can swim faster (its so easy to swim faster). Thank you, Mat. Another one of the numerous gems found on this blog.
The fact that I naturally love ease has helped me avoid strain and trouble so far.
Truth is, indeed, paradoxical. Go slow to go fast is another gem on this blog.
I have a video of me swimming taken from the deck. Watching the video several times, I noticed my right hand tending to move more rapidly and in a flatter trajectory for the entry while the left one moved more smoothly, deliberately and with a distinctly higher elbow. I noticed the lack of symmetry and wondered what it meant. I found the answer in your post “If the swimmer has poor stability, he is obligated to swing the arm around quickly and get it back down in the water to keep himself from falling flat”. I am, perhaps,more stable on one side than on the other. I am a natural left hander but cross dominant (maybe early conditioning) ie: I tend to use my right hand quickly and more forcefully (than necessary, perhaps !!!) Maybe an underwater video analysis ( I will get one soon) will reveal more. In backstroke, I tend to veer right (maybe pulling more forcefully on that side !!). I used the tempo trainer to reduce my tempo on backstroke from 1.0 (felt a bit hurried) to 1.5 which felt wonderful. I also used fistgloves and focused more on balance and streamline drills than whole stroke. Recently, my backstroke has felt distinctly smooth and easy, with a distinct body roll and better overall balance and stability seem to be correcting my tendency to use the right hand more forcefully without me consciously trying. As within, so without. TI, in its essence, is a closely connected with deep, universal wisdom. “The Tao of TI” – maybe that can be the title of your book, Mat 🙂 since you (like your poster – deepen the roots, spread the branches) go deep and also relate your insights to data from diverse branches of knowledge.
It is amazing how insightful and helpful your posts are – they certainly reflect a deep knowledge of swimming and outstanding coaching abilities. The truth bears repetition, forgive me 🙂
I looked up the net to check airfare to Antalya. The countdown (however slow and long) has begun. See you in Turkey…. someday 🙂
Thank you- again !! -for your posts on this blog and warm regards,
There is a point of diminishing returns when working at extemely slow tempos. By experience 1.70 sec tempo is quite slow for most. 2.0 seconds is probably the limit or beyond for most people. At that slow of a tempo, one loses so much momentum in the stroke (forces is absorbed by the water) that he has to re-accelerate on each stroke and this gets hard on the shoulders. Going up and down, from Comfortable Middle Range Tempo to Slow Threshold is very productive – and you will more quickly carry breakthroughs in balance and streamline that were discovered in Slow Tempos back into your Middle Range Tempo stroke.
Fist gloves are great as you have discovered – they are not so much meant to teach you to reduce force-per-stroke as they are meant to teach you to distribute the application of force along the entire forearm, not just at the hand. By reducing the catching surface area of the hand, one is urged to increase sensitivity and use more of the entire forearm surface, which in turn urges the swimmer to pull on the water via rotation, rather than pull from the small shoulder muscles.
Couple that with a steady application of force (from rotation) rather than an abrupt one (from jurking back on the water from the shoulder) and you’ll notice the load shifts to the torso. I tell swimmers, “Applying force in the water is like cutting butter, not pounding meat”.
Thank you so much for your suggestions and insight.
I will do what you have said – move up and down from comfortable mid tempo to comfortable slow
tempo – maintaining ease throughout – and see how it works over a period of time. I will get back to you in due course.
Also, I am yet to master asynchronous timing: that is, keeping my recovering hand moving as the lead hand holds the water. I now realize I tended to pause the recovering hand momentarily on my thigh for slow tempos until I heard or read Terry say that it should keep moving. Shinji’s 9 stroke swim of 25 m also says in the sub titles- keep the front hand extended and the rear hand moving.
I am now consciously trying to do that. Perhaps some of the super slow tempos I tried were executed with a momentary pause of the recovering hand on the thigh and that is why it felt easy.
The momentary pause even began to feel natural although it actually breaks the rhythm of the stroke.
I will use that as a focal point – keep the rear hand moving while holding the
water with the lead hand – when I swim at slower tempos hereafter.
Your short reply beautifully describes core based propulsion should be executed.
That is again something I will keep in mind.
What should be the angle of the lead hand in full extension be in relation to the body? Terry’s videos show him holding the lead hand at about 70 degrees maybe, about 20 degrees below the body line. Should a beginner consciously reduce the angle, say, to about 60 or 70 degrees, to pull with the entire forearm? At another point, he says that if the hand is relaxed and the fingers point down, the hand can be held higher. Shinji’s videos show his hand almost straight ahead maybe 85
degrees, just below the surface of the water. My hand is very loose and relaxed, fingers pointing down but just below the surface of the water. In any case, I now swim 90% of the time with fist gloves. What angle would you recommend for the lead hand at full extension?
Many, many thanks for your suggestions and advice. I am touched and honored by your kind
suggestions and advice.
If we refer to an outside measurement like angle, we risk missing the purposes of the arm position.
The first purpose is for balance. The weight of the arm is brought forward the center of mass and the center of buoyancy to add weight to the front and counter-weight to the legs/hips behind. This arm needs to be placed down, well below the neutral line of the body so that it has the counter-balance effect. Those who have more dense body composition, and particularly, more dense lower half, will find that lowering the angle of the arm to hang deeper in the water will help with balance more. Those with low density may be able to hang the arm at a more shallow point.
But at no time do we want that target (the position of the hand) to be higher than the lowest point of the body (when that body is parallel to the surface). Because the second purpose is to ‘cut a path’ in front of the body – to start the displacement of water molecules, get them moving out of the water so the body can fill that space. That path needs to be as deep as the body that will slide though it. This action does not need the hand to go any lower than just below the lowest point of the body, but the swimmer needs to find their own ‘sweet spot’ of balance between the two purposes. If at any time we see a swimmer approaching Skate Position with the target above the lowest point of the body (even if that swimmer is Shinji, Terry, or me) then that is a positional fault according to TI.
So there is a range of angle in which the swimmer may position his lead arm in Skate Position. Deeper angle allows more weight to be shifted forward, but it also presents greater drag because of it’s angle that does not line up with forward motion.
Also, as velocity increases, the swimmer can aim for a flatter angle. The next purpose of the lead arm, is to extend into the water and Send Force
in the direction of travel- not downward. So, although we use one focal point ‘Bumper of the VW Bug’ to help a swimmer learn to keep the elbow pointing up/outward on extension, it can be misleading when swimmers take this to mean that they must send their force downward toward the bottom of the pool at that angle. When I have ‘sinkers’ (those with dense body composition) sending force downward is deadly (in the sinking sense) to their velocity. I use the focal point ‘Ski-jump shape’ entry path instead to show the steep initial arm entry position which goes down and then forward in the direction of travel, finishing with the rotational force from the torso ‘shooting out of the wrist’ like a superheroes’ special wrist-band weapon (relaxed hand at the tip of a well-shaped arm).
At slower or static drill position, the swimmer can afford to let the arm hang deeper. As your current objective in the pool appears to be balance and ease, then you may aim for a deeper angle at this stage. But later on, as you work on stroke length and tempo, you would work at keeping a minimal depth target (minimal by the definition I gave above).
There are some things to consider in the position of your lead arm.
Thank you, Mat. Very insightful and illuminating.