My Tempo Trainer Swim Progress

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So, I am certainly not an expert on how to use a tempo trainer to maximize your training (I have only been using one for about a year), but I would like to share with you the success that I have had over the past few months working with a tempo trainer in the pool and in open water (and even in a couple of races).

First, let’s talk about why you would want to use a tempo trainer:

The most common goal for any swimmer is to swim faster. While I will admit that there may be some out there simply looking to swim with less effort or more comfort, in the end it all comes down to moving through the water with the most velocity possible at a given level of effort or exertion. Forgive me if there are those that don’t look for that but I think that should cover most, if not all, of the people reading this blog.

With that in mind, we should look at what elements make up the speed equation. In it’s most basic form:

Swimming Speed = stroke rate x stroke length.

In other words, it is simply a matter of how fast you move your arms multiplied by much distance you cover on each stroke. Seems simple enough, right? The problem is that most people overlook the stroke length piece of the equation. It is very easy (instinctive even) to move your arms faster when you want to swim faster, but if the result is a faster stroke rate but a shorter stroke length, you may not end up being much faster (if at all). Terry has written fairly extensively about our instinct in water compared to our instinct on land as terrestrial mammals (see some of that here), so I don’t want to go into detail here as this is just a little introduction and not an extensive lesson in stroke rate, stroke length, and land vs. water instincts (I am not the expert).

So, with that in mind, the tempo trainer is a tool that you can use to measure and become more aware of how stroke rate and stroke length interact and translate into speed at different distances and tempos. If you don’t know anything about tempo trainers, let me just give you a quick overview. The tempo trainer (pictured below) is simply a device that beeps at different tempos. The ones that most swimmers use are made by Finis and are adjustable to different tempos measured in seconds/stroke (or more exactly seconds/beep). You can buy tempo trainers right here on my site.

OK, enough introduction on theory of why you should use a tempo trainer and what a tempo trainer is. If you want to get more in depth on that, take a look at Terry’s series on swimming faster here and take a look at Dave Cameron’s website as well.

My tempo trainer training over the past few months:

At the beginning of the year, I did a lot of swim training with Dave Cameron that included some training with the tempo trainer and some stuff without. For the last few months, I have mostly been on my own with my personal swim training and I was specifically looking for sustainable tempos that would give me the greatest possible speed for two different distances (1/2 mile open water for a sprint triathlon and 1.2 mile open water for a 1/2 ironman). I figured that these two distances would require different tempos in order the meet the “sustainability” requirement while also maximizing my speed. In other words, if I truly found the tempo that gave me the greatest possible speed for my 1/2 mile swim, it would be unlikely that I would feel comfortable maintaining that tempo for an entire 1.2 mile swim.

I started searching for the right tempo by using the tempo trainer and counting strokes at short distances and then moving the distances up to see how that changed my stroke count and comfort at a range of tempos.

I started with a set of 10 x 50yd while counting strokes and increasing the tempo from 1.20 strokes/sec down to around 1.00 strokes per second. I found that my stroke count increased as expected as the tempo went up (14 per 25yd up to 16 per 25yd). If you allow 3 beeps for the pushoff, I got the following times:

14 strokes (+3 for pushoff) at 1.20 sec/stroke = 20.4 seconds per 25 yds
16 strokes (+3 for pushoff) at 1.00 sec/stroke = 19 seconds per 25 yds

What I was looking for was that point when my stroke started to feel too rushed and uncomfortable or when I started to gain too many strokes (which would probably be the same point). With the numbers above, I didn’t feel too rushed and felt as though the 1.00 sec/stroke tempo was right on the edge of being sustainable for a 1/2 mile (felt a little fast at first but not bad).

After that, I went ahead and tried to push it down below 1.00 to see what happened and found that anything below 0.95 started to feel unsustainable for any distance and stroke count started to go up quite a bit. Notice that 0.95 sec/stroke with 17 strokes gives you a time of 19 seconds just like 1.00 and 16 strokes. So, adding just one stroke negates any speed gains you might get from increasing your rate.

With this information, I decided to start working in the range of 0.95 – 1.05 and start increasing distance to narrow down the tempo to what I would use on race day. So, now I was doing workouts in that range with distances greater than 50 yds. One of my favorites was a simple pyramid workout similar to this one (there were warm-ups, drills, cooldowns and other stuff in the workouts but this was one of the main tempo trainer sets within the workout):

1 x 100 at 0.95
1 x 100 at 0.98
1 x 100 at 1.00
1 x 100 at 1.03
1 x 100 at 1.05
1 x 100 at 1.02
1 x 100 at 1.00
1 x 100 at 0.97
1 x 100 at 0.95
1 x 100 at 0.93

I would count strokes on each length and average the 4 lengths in each 100. My goal was to lower the average strokes as the tempo got slower up to the top of the pyramid (e.g. if you start at 17 strokes per length try to lower the strokes down to 16 or lower by the top of the pyramid). Then, as the tempo gets faster on the back side of the pyramid, try to remain relaxed while adding as few strokes back as possible. If I could end 0.02 sec/stroke faster than the start but with the same stroke count or lower then I considered that a win.

After quite a few pool workouts (some others included just increasing tempo, just decreasing tempo, and constant tempo but increasing distance with each set), I found that 1.00 sec/stroke seemed to give me the best combination of speed and sustainability for the 1/2 mile distance. I tried this out in the open water a couple times before my sprint triathlon and found that it was indeed sustainable for 1/2 mile and saved me about 45 seconds over a 1.05 tempo. When I went down to 0.95, I felt rushed and had no measurable gain in speed. Could I work toward being able to sustain a tempo of 0.95 and maintain my length?…quite possibly…but for now, 1.00 was the magic number.

The results: In 2010 I swam the same course without a tempo trainer is 12:56. This year with the tempo trainer set at 1.00 sec/stroke, I swam the course in 10:55. I would call that a success! NOTE: I must admit that part of that speed increase is due to the work of Dave Cameron at the beginning of the year. His training with me (which did include some tempo trainer work for sure) was amazing and really increased my speed. However, the tempo trainer during the race was a huge help.

Following the sprint triathlon, I started working on a tempo for the half iron distance swim. I didn’t have a lot of time to work on this and ended up going with 1.05 for the half ironman based on knowing that I probably could not sustain a 1.00 pace for that distance (although I am questioning that now).

The results: I swam the 1.2 mile course in 32 minutes. This is over 2 minutes slower than I was expecting (in the pool, I could get about 2100 yds in 3o minutes at this tempo…and a half iron is right about 2100 yds). The pace was sustainable and felt quite good. I consistently swam by people that were swimming at a much higher stroke rate but a much slower speed and I was able to just stay with the tempo. There is probably one main factor that lead to my slower time than expected: There is a tow line about 6 feet underwater that you can follow at this particular race. This seems like a good thing but when everyone tries to swim the same line, you come up on large groups of slower swimmers that you can’t get through without some bumping and nudging. I had to do that several times. Anyway, regardless of the time, I thought the tempo trainer worked quite well. If I had it to do again, I would probably go with a tempo closer to 1.00 (maybe 1.02).

Anyway, I wanted to share that with all of you swimmers out there. Stroke length and stroke rate practice with the tempo trainer is a valuable training tool that you should work on.

I certainly don’t have all of the best methods for doing it but what I did produced some results for me and I have seen results with my students as well. I will continue to be a student of the tempo trainer and use it to be more aware of the relationship between stroke length and stroke rate.

10 Comments

  • Sherry

    August 30, 2011

    I have just started using the tempo trainer and I have a problem hearing it beep. I have placed it behind my ear, but when I get water in my ear, I can’t hear the beep. I tried ear plugs, but they only helped to deaden the sound. I have used a bathing cap and also tried placing the TT on the strap of my goggles. I realize this is pretty basic, but any suggestions?

    • BASEtraining

      August 30, 2011

      Hi Sherry, I just had a client that had the same issue a couple of weeks ago and we never did find a solution to it. I recommend that you go to http://www.totalimmersion.net and post a new thread on the forum to see if anyone else has had that issue. There are a lot of swimmers and coaches that are on that forum and I am sure that there will be some suggestions.

  • debbikes

    August 19, 2012

    I have just started using the tt, experimenting too. thx for the workout posting, i will give it a go. i did not use it in my races, thought it would distract and i might drop it on my way to T1…they were long transition runs to the bike. hoping that i internalized the rythm…i did swim more relaxed and faster, did not have that oxygen debt feeling on exiting the swim!

    • BASEtraining

      August 19, 2012

      Great! I still use mine in my races. It helps so much! I hope they never ban them from triathlons…it gives such a great advantage! Race and train well!

  • Don

    May 25, 2013

    I have the same problem as Sherry (8/30/11) but I can not see an answer any where. When I use the tempo trainer I have a problem hearing it beep. I can hear it outside the water but once I start swimming I can’t hear the beeping. I looked on the TI website but don’t see any discussion of this problem.

    • BASEtraining

      May 25, 2013

      Don. I am so sorry to hear that. This is the third time I have seen the problem (including you and Sherry) and have not found an answer either. I don’t have one for you and I wish that I did. I am not sure what else to do. Have you tried contacting Finis? http://www.finisinc.com

  • MS

    September 6, 2013

    For what it’s worth…I can’t hear it when I’m swimming either. I’ve tried everything. It’s quite frustrating. Kind of hard to believe they couldn’t have designed it better.

  • steve

    January 17, 2014

    I just started with the tempo trainer (Finis) and had some trouble hearing it at first. I found that if the beep is right after my hand enters the water as I’m gliding, I hear it without any problem. It can get awkward coming off a turn, but I make sure to start my stroke so that I am in that rhythm. It’s harder to hear if I lower the stroke rate, but that is probably due to my stroke getting too splashy and is a good sign that I am losing too much form anyway.

  • Williamdill

    May 6, 2016

    Thanks so much for the article post.Much thanks again. Much obliged.