Why swim at faster tempos?

Here are three reasons (among more we might think of):


1. To Improve Speed

In order for increased Tempo to result in increased Speed, the swimmer must maintain a certain amount of Stroke Length, or he will end up going slower while moving his arms faster. Tempo only has meaning in relation to Stroke Length.

Here is an example, with Swimmer ‘Mario’, at 1.80 meters tall (or wingspan), swimming in a 25 m pool, using a 5 meter glide to first stroke, allowing 3 seconds for that glide:

Mario is swimming along at 17 SPL (1.18 m/stroke, 65% of his height) at 1.20 second Tempo. This give him a Pace of 23.4 seconds per 25 meters.

If he increases Tempo to 1.15 seconds, and holds 17 SPL he will increase his pace to 22.5 seconds. That’s the key – he must hold SPL constant.

However, if, in order to hold 1.15 second Tempo Mario adds even just one stroke, to swim with 18 SPL (1.11 m/stroke, 61% of his height), his Pace will be 23.7 seconds – he will swim SLOWER than if he stayed with 1.20 second Tempo and 17 SPL.

Lesson: if you try to spin the arms faster, but shorten the stroke too much to do it, you don’t gain anything but getting tired.

So there is risk of futility in practicing increased Tempo before one has practiced controlling Stoke Length. This is the classic mistake even passionately training swimmers make. The skill for creating then preserving Stroke Length has to be build before the relatively easy skill of Tempo is built upon it. It doesn’t happen by accident.

Also, increased Tempo needs to occur in a way that does not increase Heart Rate (a tangible measurement of ‘energy expense’) so much that the swimmer runs out of fuel or freezes up his muscles before the end of the swim. Anyone who has been caught up in the massive starting sprint of a race and died way short of the finish line understands this. It is a common phenomenon in even elite level races that the swimmers are increasing Tempo on the last lengths, and while appearing to go faster, they are in fact swimming slower.

Even if a swimmer can hold a steady Stroke Length then increase Tempo to raise his speed – he may be doing it by increasing power excessively, which means he is consuming energy at a much faster rate than he needs to. An increase in Speed needs to be affected in the least energy-consumptive manner possible in order to make the most of his limited energy supply. For this, drag reduction and energy conservation needs to be priority in Tempo training.

Keep these relationships in mind:

We have three components: Stroke Length, Tempo, and Heart Rate (which stands for rate of energy consumption which we can relate to more easily). These components are inter-related to one another. A shift in one (moving away from the center) will ‘pull’ on the others.

An increase in Stroke Length (moving away from the center) will urge the swimmer to lower Tempo if he would like to hold Heart Rate steady. If he tries to keep Tempo steady as well, it will urge an increase in Heart Rate.

An increase in Tempo (moving away from the center) will urge the swimmer to shorten Stroke Length, if he would like to hold Heart Rate steady. If he tries to keep Stroke Length steady, it will urge an increase in Heart Rate.

We train in a way to resist these urges.

The objective behind Easy Speed is to dial in Stroke Length first, then increase Tempo incrementally while minimizing any increases in drag (drag that is due to degradation in body shape and  precision in movements). Maximum drag reduction and relaxation are the keys to prevent Heart Rate from increasing more than absolutely necessary as Tempo increases.


2. To Improve Precision

An increase in Tempo means that time is compressed in reality, as well as in the mind of the swimmer – there is less time to accomplish the pieces of the stroke cycle and less time to think about how to do it. The Speed Challenge – simply reaching a certain velocity – is to be able to travel the same distance per stroke as before, but travel that distance in less time. The Pace Challenge – sustaining that velocity over time – is to learn how to travel that same distance using as little energy as possible so that limited energy lasts as long as possible.

But when we increase Tempo drag is increasing due to increased water pressure, increased turbulence from increased movement of human body parts, and increased drag from less precise movements. Faster velocity in water results in exponentially higher water resistance, even with perfect hydrodynamics. To be sloppy in shape and precision only magnifies the water resistance.

The Neurological Challenge for the human brain is to override our instincts for reshaping our body to get better leverage (to apply more power) in a land-mammal way. Our instinct is for generating power on land under the vertical pull of gravity. How we appropriately leverage more power on land is not the best way to solve the speed problem in water. We need to learn to generate power in such a way that makes a careful trade-off between increasing leverage within the human body mechanics and decreasing drag in water which does not favor human body mechanics. (This is one reason why the pursuit of Ultimate Speed in swimming is risky for humans, and so many get injured along the way.)

With time compressed, the fact is we have to shave micro-seconds out of the stroke cycle somewhere, while trying to increase leverage. But where and how?

We need to recognize what are the more valuable parts of the stroke cycle in terms of streamline and propulsion, and which are less valuable. We need to minimize effort and time on parts that don’t require as much energy to get their simple job done in order to divert that effort and time toward those that require the most. And boy, are there a lot of opinions among swim coaching programs about that!

As I like to say, swimming well is about learning how to deliver force with precision – right where it is needed, at just the right moment, and in just the right amount. No sooner, no later. No more, no less. That creates speed and that also creates beauty. We all instantly recognize athletes who achieves those qualities in their performance.

What looks and feels easy at slower Tempos will soon feel quite challenging at higher Tempos. The tolerance for error in precision becomes thinner and thinner as Tempo increases. We feel the consequence of this error in forms of higher Heart Rate, more turbulence and noise, more mental discomfort and distraction, and in premature exhaustion.

Practicing at higher Tempos – with precision as the objective – will gradually reduce those consequences.

High exertion with poor precision is a depressing way to swim. High exertion with high precision is invigorating.


3. To Improve Adaptability

We want to broaden our capabilities so we can perform well or enjoy swimming under a variety of conditions and demands. Comfortably and skillfully handling higher tempos as well as lower tempos (with respect to Stroke Length) gives us many more options when we need or want to add greater challenges to our swimming experience.

Increasing Tempo while preserving Stroke Length at minimum Heart Rate is a skill of neuro-muscular control before it is a fitness strength.

Swimming in cold water? We can speed up the Tempo just enough to generate a bit more body heat while shortening up the stroke to not burn too fast.

Swimming in hot water? We can slow down the Tempo and lengthen to stroke to lower Heart Rate and minimize risk of overheating, while maintaining an acceptable Pace.

Swimming a longer-than-confident distance? We can shift down to a moderate Tempo, moderately long stroke to be conservative with energy until we see the end and know we’ve got enough to finish, and use up the last of our energy.

Swimming in rough water? We can change the combination of Stroke Length and Tempo in order to blend our movements with the wave patterns (or customize every stroke to more erratic waves) while staying within our acceptable Pace zone, or save energy for a more favorable segment of the swim.

Swimming an extremely short distance in an emergency? We have the developed the neuro-muscular patterns that allow us to execute fast strokes with minimal freeze-up in the muscles – not because we have trained to process more lactic acid, but that we’ve trained to produce less.

Swimming in dangerous water? A lower Heart Rate allows the brain to calm down – a swimmer who has trained to adjust Heart Rate by shifting stroke gears can affect this. A brisk but calm stroke allows us to both think better, while swimming to safety as quickly as safety permits.


How to swim at faster tempos?

One can just start trying to move the arms faster, but, as I have tried to explain above, there are a lot of ways to waste effort if Tempo is not built with consideration to the other components of Speed and Endurance.

Tempo Trainer is an invaluable tool for expanding our Tempo Range. There are ways to monitor Tempo without using a Tempo Trainer but this device makes it so much easier to train. It’s an essential tool in the TI Swimmer’s bag. But at any rate, even in using a Tempo Trainer our goal is to train the brain to hold a desired Tempo on demand without one.

Now, I will list some tips that may help you in various ways train for faster Tempos:

Do some experimentation to determine your current Comfortable Tempo Range – find where the center is, where the Uncomfortably Slow Threshold is and where the Uncomfortably Fast Threshold is. That shows you where to start from and what thresholds you will work on expanding.

Take incremental steps toward faster Tempos. Smaller steps are better. And spend enough time at each Tempo step to allow the brain’s perception of time to slow down and identify points of imprecision emerging in the stroke pattern, and plan how to improve those.

As you get even closer to your Fast Tempo Threshold and step over it, make even smaller steps, and give more time for the brain to adapt. For some sort of reference point to start with… from the center of your Comfortable Tempo Range you may start with steps of -0.05 or 0.04 second increments. As you get within .05 seconds of your threshold you may reduce those steps to -0.02 second increments. As you get to the threshold and step over it, you may use -0.01 second increments. With experience you’ll figure out what kind of increments you need to work with at your personal threshold.

Use shorter repeats (like 25m or 50m) with enough rest between that allows your Heart Rate to recover (but not too much – don’t lose momentum physically or mentally). You want to be challenging your neurological weaknesses of relaxation and concentration in this initial Tempo work, not your metabolic limits. Train the brain first, then push the metabolic system later when your neuro-muscular control and your concentration are ready to be tested on longer distances.

When you get near your threshold, whether you do 25 m repeats, 50, or 100, it may still take a few hundred stroke repetitions for your brain to adapt. My experience shows I may need about sometimes as much as 2-300 meters in each step to give my brain time to adapt to near-threshold Tempos. In general (for I can think of some exceptions) the harder the Tempo the longer it will take to adapt and the more incremental the steps should be.

For example: After I step up to a faster Tempo around my threshold it may feel strained or rushed for the first 50 to 100 m. But continuing on my perception of time starts to slow down and I am able to notice finer details in the stroke and make adjustments which increase my relaxation and lower my sense of effort. By focusing on relaxation and precision the faster Tempo starts to feel easier than it did when I started. By the end of the cycle, it seems as easy to execute as the previous Tempo did. Then I know I am ready to step to the next faster Tempo and work through the adaptation cycle again.

You may be able to temporarily adapt to a faster Tempo in a few hundred strokes but it will take several thousand strokes repetitions to imprint that Tempo deeply into your neuro-muscular patterns of movement so that it stands up under pressure.

I may spend several practices (tens of thousands of strokes) using a certain Tempo in order to wire it into my muscle memory and mental sense of timing. When I do that I can reliably set that Tempo by feel, on demand, without using a Tempo Trainer.

Use fist-swimming (with ‘fist gloves’, or just squeeze the hand into a fist, or hold some small object to help your hand to remember to stay closed) as a way to warm up for a faster Tempo. I will sometimes make my first repeat ‘fist swimming’ and then the subsequent ones full-hand. Fist-swimming compels me to find a full forearm Catch (which requires a high-elbow) in order to grip the ball of water, while it allows my arm to slip back in the water a little faster (saving time). In this drill situation I can think about the timing of other parts of the stroke. Then, when I open up my hand on the next repeat I have a heightened sense of grip on the water because the surface area of my Catch just increased dramatically. But that increased sense of surface area for the Catch now requires me to hold a nice shape and steady pressure. (Note: when holding good form, I maintain about +2 SPL difference between my Fist lengths and my Full-Hand lengths in a 25 m pool).

A dropped elbow on the Catch is the lazy way to increase stroke Tempo, and it is deadly to Stroke Length, because it essentially removes the forearm from participating in the Catch and Hold on the water. If a high elbow Catch (what we teach as ‘Holding The Pilates Ball of Water Molecules’) is not already habitual for you at easy Tempos, I don’t recommend you work much on faster Tempos until it is. Holding a full Catch on faster Tempos is one of the greater challenges of this skill set.

Save micro-seconds by increasing the speed of the Recovery Arm swing, while preserving the steady speed of the Catch. This approach alone will work down to a certain Tempo (maybe 0.90 or so) – likely quite sufficient for most people reading this post. You will only be able to speed up the Recovery Arm while holding the Catch steady if you’ve trained to have a Patient Front Arm and from that, an Asymmetrical Stroke Timing (as described in the previous article). The torso must be balanced and stable enough to not require the arms or legs to help steady it, otherwise your SPL will increase dramatically as you increase Tempo. The two arms must be trained to travel independently of each other to be completely devoted to precise timing for propulsion with no other responsibility for stability.

Try it and you may better understand why TI is insistent upon mastering Balance and Stability before anything else because everything else depends on it in order to create that smooth sleek swimming we aspire to. With Balance and Stability in place, the brain can devote the appendages to full-body synchronized propulsion. No need to divert the legs or arms to push up or sideways at all.

And, let’s step into more controversial areas… You can take my perspective on this as you like, which comes from my own experience and study.

Forming and maintaining a longer average body line is higher priority than faster Tempo, though we will work toward faster Tempos on that longer body line. Overall, it saves energy and allows us to sustain a higher Pace. We easily understand that a long, narrow sea kayak glides through the water easier than one with a shorter keel. It’s the same physics for humans in water too. The elites (I am talking competitive swimmers, not triathletes who have, on average, significantly less efficient swimming ability) do use fast Tempos, but they do it on top of an ability to preserve a very long average body line and stroke length (60-75% of their wingspan). That fact should be carefully regarded in any discussion of Tempo used by elite swimmers.

The front half of the Catch and Hold is more important than the back half. Extend fully (though with no exaggeration or over-rotation) as you finish the Spear into the water, keep the start of the Catch well in front of the head, and then save micro-seconds by pulling the hand out earlier near the hip so you can begin the Recovery sooner. This allows you to keep the arms predominantly in the front quadrant. The hands will pass each other in front of the head, never behind it.

Avoid smashing the water in your haste to bring the Recovery Arm around and get it back into position in front. Make the Entry Spear and Extension direct but smooth, splashless, steady in force – like cutting butter. Abrupt movements in water appear powerful, but produce too much drag-inducing turbulence. Consider how aquatic mammals and fish increase power and Tempo in their movements: steady and smooth acceleration, never punchy and abrupt (except when jumping out of the water to escape a snapping jaw!).

Think of your head and spine like a torpedo traveling through the water toward its target. Neither torpedoes nor fish bob up and down when they are making haste – the faster they go the more steady the head becomes. Though we see a lot of idiosyncrasies in our favorite famous human swimmers, any force and any subsequent reactionary movement of the body in any direction other than straight ahead is wasted force, wasted energy. (Beware of what idiosyncrasies those elites can get away with that other mortals cannot.) This is basic physics.


How To Measure

Use a Tempo Trainer to set Tempo, and use Stroke Counting (SPL) to monitor its effect on your Stroke Length. Read this to learn more about how to use a Tempo Trainer.

You can also do a little math to pre-calculate. Tempo = Split Time (minus seconds for push-off from wall) / SPL

In open water practice I set repeats by a certain number of strokes, then pre-calculate what Splits correspond to what Tempos. For example: 300 strokes at 1.00 second Tempo = 300 seconds or 5.00 minutes). 300 strokes at 1.03 Tempo = 309 seconds or 5.09 minutes. 300 strokes at 1.06 Tempo = 318 seconds or 5.18 minutes. If I don’t want to use the Tempo Trainer I do 300 stroke repeats between two points so my Stroke Length is being held accountable, and then test Tempo control by choosing my Tempo and checking the Split at the end. This is the method I use to monitor my Tempo during long races – I just tap the split button and count of 300 strokes (or smaller increments) and click it again, and take a quick glance at my watch.


Faster Tempo Development

Try these progressions:

In the first series of practices, you can use the Tempo Trainer in a certain range of settings, and keep note of changes in your Stroke Count (which is a measure of your Stroke Length) to make observations on the effect. Start in Comfortable Tempo and work your way toward your Fast Tempo Threshold.

In the next series of practices, set your Stroke Count at the middle of your SPL Sweet Spot, then choose a Tempo in the middle of your Comfortable Tempo Range and see how far (or how many repeats) you can swim before you feel either your ability to hold either Stroke Count or your ability to hold Tempo falling apart. Note how far you make it, then note which fails first, and what part of the stroke is presenting the most struggle. That will show you what skills to work on and what distance intervals you can work with.

In the next series of practices, calculate a set of ‘Stroke Count x Tempo’ combinations and practices these at different distance intervals to see what affect they have on your HR or sense of exertion. Spend some time working with SPL N and some a few Tempos. Then with SPL N+1, and then with SPL N+2. (N = your lowest Sweet Spot SPL)

By this method you’ll start to get an idea of what SPL x Tempo combination may be more appropriate for various swimming distances and events.


View the whole Metrics Series:

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