Could it actually be easier to swim at a faster tempo?
Yes. This could be the case for some of you.
To swim fast or swim far you are not looking for longest stroke or the fastest tempo – you’re looking for optimal combination of stroke length and tempo for your event and energy-use goals.
Optimal = gets the job done and feels the best
By far most under-developed swimmers have a stroke that is too short. In TI this is the first stroke control skill we work on. And, it will make the mastery process so much easier when you first work on this at slow tempos. (I don’t mean to disappoint some of you but I would consider “slow tempos” = 1.40 seconds and up. But this is not a negative judgement, just a relative category for tempos in freestyle).
But once you’ve got a decent level of stroke length control in place, you may not realize that it can actually require more effort to swim at such slow tempos than at a bit faster one. The TI training method has never had the intention of keeping swimmers at slow tempos, yet that may be what some people choose to do for various personal reasons. But those who do may consider not staying in slow tempos all the time after reading my argument and the example of my friend below…
Occasionally I run across a swimmer who is capable of very long strokes (relative to their height or wingspan), but for practical continuous swimming purposes such a long stroke is not ideal at all. That really long stroke is almost always accompanied by a very slooow tempo too. [See the height-stroke count index on Mediterra’s Resources page)
There are very important ‘gymnastic-like’ balance and stability skills that we can develop to a robust degree with extremely long, and extremely slow strokes – like climbers walking a slack-line (but definitely not as sexy). So there is benefit to training in this long-slow zone. But you don’t want to be stuck there.
Then, on the opposite extreme, there are swimmers still trying to solve their speed problem by increasing tempo before they’ve learned to control stroke length. And this is the classic dead-end approach to achieving speed, while unfortunately, still the popular one because of land-mammal instincts applied to swimming. Faster tempo without protecting stroke length is the perfect way to waste your energy fast. I learned this the hard way on my high school swim team.
So, we’ve got danger of exhaustion to look out for on both extremes: fast-short strokes and slow-long strokes. Your optimal zone will be somewhere between those.
And the key here is to first build stroke-length-control. Then train that stroke length control to incorporate specific tempos, and then faster tempos, and then then longer distances.
Just, don’t forget to work on the faster tempos too!
My dear TI swimmer friend (and occasional teaching assistant) sent me a report on this experience of increasing his tempo.
He has started to work with increased tempo after a great deal of time mastering stroke length control. This allowed him to increased his tempo while maintaining relaxed control over SPL (strokes per length). By carefully, incrementally increasing tempo while re-integrating relaxation into the stroke at each step, he was able to make a careful trade-off in stroke length to increase tempo and achieve an overall faster pace, at a lower heart rate.
When you look at the pace (in a 20m pool, excluding push-off from the wall) and heart rate, you see what he achieved – he swam faster. 0.35 seconds per 20m may not seem like a lot, but he has just broken into a great discovery on his first practice.
The next benefit he noted was that it became easier to breath at this faster tempo. At slower tempo (depending on the breathing pattern) he felt more desperate for air at each breath. By speeding up the frequency of breathing moments, while relaxing (evidenced by a lower heart rate) he not only lowered oxygen demand, he put himself in a surplus oxygen position. If you train to achieve faster tempos through relaxation, you can get this benefit. I call this practice strategy ‘Easing Into Faster Tempos’.
He also noted that it was easier to concentrate on his focal points at higher tempo than at slower tempo. That seems a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? There were likely multiple complications he experienced at slower tempos but didn’t realize it until he tried swimming outside of his normal tempo zone. I suspect that desperation-for-breath was one of the chief distractions for his concentration. Once his brain felt a surplus of air, it freed up mental resources to concentrate on more discretionary stroke details.
How does one lower effort while speeding up the tempo?
That is the golden question, and answer is really no secret: efficient speed = swimming faster with minimal heart rate. This is about achieving greater stroke precision with minimal increase in muscle power. When the stroke speeds up, when time is compressed for each stroke cycle, when there is more momentum from the mass of those arms flinging forward, that is when the swimmer starts losing precision and increasing drag exponentially. So, the basic approach is to practice with incremental increases in tempo, while preserving SPL, then taking enough time at that tempo to relax into it = imprint the relaxation and rhythm until the brain can accomplish a full stroke at that tempo using far less muscle activation. This is the (simplified) neural-adaptation approach instead of the brute-force approach to speed used in traditional training methods.
Two big tempo training mistakes swimmers can make:
- They try to take too-big steps of increase in tempo as they approach their fast tempo threshold.
- They don’t give their brain and body enough time (repetition) and concentration at each tempo to adapt and relax into it.
If the brain and body are not given time to adapt neurologically to the tempo, then they will have to make up for it with more power, higher heart rate.
Conclusion: My friend’s overall pace was faster at higher tempo with a lower heart rate. He swam faster with lower energy cost. Breathing became easier and concentration became easier as a result. That is exactly what every athlete is (suppose to be) aiming for.