The Tempo Trainer (TT) is a wonderful tool for training our stroke timing, just as a musician would use a metronome to train the rhythm for a certain song. But the musicians in a band or in an orchestra don’t use their metronomes in the concert. They have practiced with a metronome enough and then weaned off of it in such a way that this sense of timing is now burned deeply into their nervous system. They don’t need that metronome other than to check in and tune up their sense of rhythm, or to learn a new song, or an old song at a different tempo.
Likewise, we train with Tempo Trainers in order to no longer need them. And, for those who participate in certain sanctioned races, they are not allowed anyway. The point of using a device like this is to train our own brain with that skill, rather than use the device to replace our brain’s skill. We use the TT in such a way to eventually learn to keep timing without one BEEPing in our ear. I call this process ‘weaning’ off the TT, like a baby eventually weans off breast-feeding.
The process of weaning off the TT is simple to explain: at first, you regularly train with the TT BEEPing on every arm stroke. After a period of time imprinting certain range of tempos you that intend to use for your event, you then set the TT to skip BEEPS (set it at 2x the rate), so that you have to imagine the BEEP on every other stroke, rather than actually hear it.
If I were to use a tempo of 1.20 and want to eventually wean off it it I may follow this sequence:
- practice some weeks with TT at 1.20 (BEEP comes at each arm entry)
- practice some weeks with TT at 2.40 (BEEP comes at only right arm entry)
- practice some weeks with TT at 3.60 (BEEP comes every 3 strokes – quite tough!)
- practice some weeks with TT at 4.80 (BEEP comes every other right arm entry)
Your brain learns to anticipate the ‘silent’ strokes between beeps, until you don’t need the TT anymore to hold perfect timing. After this, you can use Stroke Count Intervals and a memorized time chart to check your tempo during swims (explained below).
An Example Of Weaning
Ricardo has been practicing to hold a cruising pace stroke at 1.25 seconds. This means the TT BEEPs for every arm stroke at 1.25 seconds. For the next phase of TT training, he slows the TT down to 2.50 seconds and then synchronizes just one arm to coincide with that BEEP – the arms must still move at 1.25 tempo, but only one arm gets a BEEP. The other arm has to hit it’s timing in silence, but in time the brain will anticipate and fill in that gap, and Ricardo will be able to hold the tempo with 50% less frequent BEEPs. On the first interval he synchronizes the left arm to the beep and on the next interval he synchronizes the right arm, in order to balance the effect on each arm.
To go further, Ricardo then sets the TT to 5.00 seconds and then synchronizes just one arm to coincide every other stroke – so there is a BEEP-stroke, then silent-stroke, silent-stroke, silent-stroke, BEEP-stroke. This is just like the 4-beat of many songs.
I have tried it with the TT set to every third stroke (to BEEP at 3.75 seconds in Ricardo’s case) and it is a very challenging timing interval. One could find some utility for this 3-stroke TT setting (like for bi-laterial breathing), but I think its value is limited. 4-stroke time gap seems to be the next reasonable frequency.
One can take it even further to set the TT at 10.00 seconds (every 8th stroke). But I think once you’ve got a good rhythm at 4-stroke interval you can practice turning the TT off altogether. At that point your brain can either fill in the gaps for the three silent-strokes or it cannot.
Next, if you are in the pool, you can calculate the number of seconds, and number of strokes you will need to reach the other wall, and set the TT to this number of seconds. Then push-off the wall on the first BEEP and follow your memorized sense of tempo with stroke counting, to see if you can touch the other wall at the moment of the next BEEP. This is a nice exercise, but if you get off count, you have to go off tempo for a while in the next length to re-align and you won’t know if you’ve come close until you get to the next wall.
A great way to further imprint your own sense of tempo is to do continuous swimming with your own sense of tempo, and then periodically turn on the Tempo Trainer to check if your sense is accurate, and then make adjustments in your perception.
For example, if I wanted to test or challenge my sense of tempo at 1.20 seconds over a 1000 swim, I could preset my Tempo Trainer to 1.20 then turn it off and stick it into my swim cap. I would swim 150, then reach up quickly to touch the button on my TT to turn it on and immediately start another 50 to compare the TT BEEP to the sense of tempo I was just swimming with. I would repeat this 5 times, stopping briefly only to quickly turn off/on the TT.
- 5 rounds of 150 without TT and 50 with TT – swim continuously
Monitoring Tempo in Open Water
In open water, my preferred way to monitor my memorized tempo is to touch the split button on my watch, count strokes to a certain number (I usually count 300 strokes) and then quickly look at the time split on my watch to see how many minutes and seconds went by.
I use this equation: Stroke Count x Tempo = Total Seconds
Here is my tempo-time chart based on 300-stroke intervals:
- 300 strokes at 0.95 tempo = 4 minutes, 45 seconds
- 300 strokes at 1.00 tempo = 5 minutes, 00 seconds
- 300 strokes at 1.05 tempo = 5 minutes, 15 seconds
- 300 strokes at 1.10 tempo = 5 minutes, 30 seconds
- 300 strokes at 1.05 tempo = 5 minutes, 45 seconds
For various reasons I have settled into using 300-stroke intervals as a standard unit of distance and time estimate for open water swimming. Every 300 strokes I know I travel roughly 300m and about 5 minutes has passed. I can then be in the middle of a swim and if curious about my tempo, hit my split button, count off 300 strokes, and then glance at my split to see a ‘close-enough’ reading of my average tempo over the last 5 minutes or so.
This has become for me a quite reliable and useful way to monitor tempo without a Tempo Trainer.
A Tempo Trainer is an essential piece of most of our training plans.
And, for open water swimming with a Tempo Trainer, I want to urge you to practice and master this one skill: learn to click the buttons on the TT without removing it from your swim cap.
This has two main advantages:
- You do not risk losing it in the water.
- You save a lot of time during variable tempo intervals by clicking it in place, versus removing it, clicking it, and putting it back.
For race training, there are no ‘rest’ moments given in the race. So, when practicing race simulation with stroke count intervals in open water, you can hold Skate position, reach a hand up to feel the buttons, and click it in just a few seconds, and quickly resume your swimming with a minimal disruption to body position or momentum.
Pre-set the Tempo Trainer to the setting you intend to start with. Turn it off, if you will not use it immediately.
Place the TT under the swim cap toward the back of your head, behind the ear, where you can reach it with your dominant (writing) hand. Make sure the cap completely covers the TT and comes back snugly upon your skin or hair. Make sure the two TT buttons are at the bottom and then check to assure yourself that you can feel with your fingertips both the left and the right button through the swim cap.
Practice turning on the TT by pressing the right button for 1 second and practice turning it off by pressing down on both buttons at the same time.
[In Mode 1] Practice clicking the TT faster by 0.01 second pressing the left button, and practice clicking the TT slower by 0.01 second pressing the right button. In the practice sets of this training plan you will be adjusting tempo only by 0.03 seconds (3 clicks) between any two repeats – so not enough to forget your click amount in the midst of a demanding interval set.
Before choosing a suitable tempo you first need to have established an suitable stroke per length (SPL) for your purposes. Then you can consider what tempo is appropriate with that SPL, and how much expansion you will need in your tempo range to be able maintain that SPL x Tempo combination.
You may view these charts to get some idea of what pace is produced by various SPL x Tempo combinations:
As you increase tempo you will be challenged to maintain SPL consistently. Tempo control adds another level of complexity for the brain. When you are new to tempo control, while focused on holding your stroke to the beep, if your SPL count goes (too high) out of your optimal stroke count, or Green Zone, likely something fell apart in your technique. If you are using an SPL lower than your Green Zone, you may likely find it more difficult to achieve higher Tempos – there is a critical relationship between your ideal SPL and your ideal Tempo. It gets harder, if not impossible to work at either extreme.
Your goal is to keep your SPL in the Green Zone, while working to gradually increase the Tempo you can maintain inside that Green Zone, and work on this in short repeats. You will first work on being successful in short lengths before expecting to be successful on several uninterrupted lengths.
Swimming at faster-than-comfortable tempo you will challenge your ability to maintain precision and consistent timing of the stroke choreography.
It will expose weakness and limitations in your skills that are still present when you swim at your normal tempo, but you may not be aware of how those weaknesses are affecting you. When you swim with faster tempos your brain will try to take short cuts to get the movement roughly completed within the shorter amount of time – your movements will degrade in their precision, and some parts will rush too fast and others go too slow. Working at faster-than-comfortable tempos will give you the opportunity to observe where your stroke breaks down and give you the opportunity to improve them.
If you spend more time at uncomfortably fast tempos, working hard to improve timing and control, you’ll notice things get even easier when you return to your previously ‘normal’ comfortable tempo!
Practicing with Faster Tempos
When you would like to challenge your stroke with slightly-uncomfortably-fast tempos, you do this by gradually increasing the tempo until your stroke starts to feel rushed. At this point you are forced to make the movements more quickly than your brain is prepared for.
By counting strokes you can measure how much your stroke breaks down by how much the stroke count goes up each time you increase the tempo. You can also see when your brain begins to adapt to the fast tempo by when your stroke count holds steady or even starts to go back down (while staying at the same tempo for a while).
When you first start increasing tempos away from your comfortable tempo (TC) you may be able to hold the same stroke count (SPL) for a few steps. But at some point in increased tempo you may not be able to resist adding strokes to you SPL. But why? Is it a matter of strength? A matter of your ability to hold precise movements? That is what you want to use faster-than-comfortable tempo sets to discover.
What tempo starts to feel fast to you is quite personal and depends on what you’ve been training with. You can shift your comfortable tempo range a bit over a few weeks with a systematic adaptation process. This is not nearly as difficult as shifting your SPL range, but it still requires a gradual process over time.
When you work into faster-than-comfortable tempo range, the harder it becomes (i.e. the more failure you experience) the more incremental the steps of increased tempo need to be.
For example, while inside your comfortable tempo range you may be able to increase tempo by steps of -0.05 seconds and you don’t need any adaptation time – you can get by with 50 or 100m distance for each round. When it gets near your comfortable limit you may need to make the increments smaller by steps of -0.03 or -0.02 and provide more distance for adaptation at each step – more like 150 to 200m distance for each round. When it gets extremely challenging (where failure is 40-50%) you may need to make the increments just -0.01 seconds and provide even more distance for adaptation at each step – more like 300m or more for each round. When failure is over 50% it is too much.
In this lesson series we are going to get acquainted with the three basic ways of using tempo constraint in your first stages of advanced skills training.
Practice Set for Attention
You will use the BEEP to draw your attention to a particular part of the body at a particular moment in the stroke cycle.
For example, you can choose to coordinate the BEEP with the entry, or the catch, or the rotation, or the press of the leg.
Set the Tempo Trainer Pro to your current comfortable tempo TC.
Swim 4x 25 (one length) for each of parts of the stroke mentioned above.
Practice Set for Slow Control
You will practice swimming at a slightly uncomfortably slow tempo. This will create a good challenge for your ability to maintain balance, stability and streamline. Read a bit more in Why Practice at Really Slow Tempos?
Start at your current comfortable tempo TC and swim 2x 25. Then slow down the tempo by +0.05 seconds and swim another 2x 25. Count strokes while you do this and for a while, as you slow tempo down, you should find that you take fewer strokes to get across the pool. When you slow down the tempo farther but your stroke count no longer goes down in response to it, then that is a sign that you’ve reached the limits of your ability to squeeze more travel out of extra time between strokes.
Spend some time working at that slowest tempo where you can just barely hold your lowest stroke count and maintain control over your balance, stability and streamline. You may find that your brain starts to adapt and it gets a little easier (before you get too tired).
Note: swimming with tempos slower than 1.80 seconds per stroke is an extremely slow tempo. It would be remarkable if one can swim much slower than this and continue to lower their stroke count, but it might be possible…
Practice Set for Fast Control
You will practice swimming at a slightly uncomfortably fast tempo. This will create a good challenge for your ability to maintain precision and timing of your movements. Read a bit more in Why Practice at Really Fast Tempos?
Start at your current comfortable tempo TC and swim 2x 25. Then slow down the tempo by -0.03 seconds and swim another 2x 25. At this stage in your training we won’t require you to count strokes – that will come in later stages – but as you speed up the tempo, at some point you will notice that you feel too rushed in your movements, and you are losing control over your body position, your shape, or the precision or coordination of moving parts. This is a sign that you’ve reached the limits of your ability at this time.
Spend some time working at that fastest tempo where you can just barely hold precision, timing and coordination of moving parts. You may find that your brain starts to adapt and it gets a little easier (before you get too tired).
Swimming at slower-than-comfortable tempo you will challenge your ability to maintain balance, stability and streamline.
It will expose weakness and limitations in your skills that are still present when you swim at your normal tempo, but you may not be aware of how those weaknesses are affecting you. Working at extremely slow tempos will make you aware of those weaknesses and give you the opportunity to improve them. It will create even more ease for you at your normal Tempos.
It is not recommended that you swim often with extremely slow tempos because this can put a strain on your joints – some people try to increase the power of each stroke and distort the extension of the body to squeeze more distance per stroke – but if you do this occasionally, and for short periods of time, you can make some important observations and see where you need to work on improving control in balance, stability or streamline skills.
Every swimmer – trained or not – has a range of tempo he/she can swim with right now, even if it is a very narrow range. That might be a range on the fast side or a range on the slow side of the Functional Tempo Range, but nonetheless each person can move their arms through the stroke cycle at some tempo.
Your current tempo range might be on the fast side or the slow side of what we universally consider Fast or Slow, but nonetheless each person can move their arms through the stroke cycle at some tempo. Whether that range is suitable for your goal is another question. But don’t worry, your tempo range can be expanded through systematic training.
You may know your current comfortable tempo – a single number in the middle of your comfortable tempo range, but you still need to explore the boundaries on both sides of that middle number.
Finding Your Current Tempo Range
You should play with your Tempo Trainer to find out what tempo range you currently find comfortable.
First, you should have determined what your Comfortable Tempo (TC) is. Please read and follow the instructions in Finding Your Current Comfortable Tempo.
You also need to have some measurement of your current comfortable stroke count range (SPL ‘N’) and your current comfortable tempo TC. For example, you may know you can make it within 19 to 22 strokes per length (SPL) and that you take about 22 strokes per length when swimming faster, and about 19 strokes per length when swimming slower.
Starting in the higher side of your SPL range, you will swim several lengths maintaining that SPL N. Start with your TT set to your tempo TC and swim 2x to 4x 25. If you can easily maintain your SPL at that tempo with precise strokes, then speed up tempo by -0.03 seconds. When it feels a little challenging to hold SPL and precision at a certain tempo then speed up the tempo in smaller increments, like -0.02 or -0.01 and repeat the 2x to 4x 25s. If you’ve already increased tempo by -0.06 seconds or more, and it feels almost too difficult to hold your chosen stroke count N, then you may (just once) add 1 stroke to your SPL (N+1) and try to keep going. When you can just barely hold your SPL N+1 at that tempo, you may consider that your current Fast Tempo Threshold.
You can do that same process in the opposite, slower direction. Start with your TT set to your TC and swim 2x 25. In this direction, you will likely lower your SPL N for a few tempo steps, then it will no longer increase. When either you cannot maintain balance or you cannot lower your SPL further (without more effort or strain), you may consider this to be your current Slow Tempo Threshold.
A swimmer might work through a series of repeats working toward her Fast Tempo Threshold, like this…
- Start at 1.45 and SPL is easily at 21
- Change by -0.03 = 1.42 and SPL is at 21 easily
- Change by -0.03 = 1.39 and SPL is at 21 is OK
- Change by -0.03 = 1.36 and SPL is not stable at 21-22
- Allow N+1, change by -0.03 = 1.33 and SPL is at 22 OK
- Change by -0.03 = 1.30 and SPL is at 22, but very shaky
- Change by -0.02 =1.28 and SPL goes up to 23
- Change by -0.01 =1.27 and SPL is at 23 or 24, 22 is impossible
- Change by +0.02 = 1.29 and SPL is at 23
- Change by +0.01 = 1.30 and SPL is at 22, but requires all concentration
She swims another 2x 25 at 1.30 barely holding SPL 22 and confirms this is her current Fast Tempo Threshold.
If you don’t already have a guess as to what tempo to start with, in Mode 1 set your TT to 1.45 seconds and swim one length. If that feels too fast, slow down the TT by +0.03 and swim another length. If that starting tempo of 1.45 feels too slow, then speed up the TT by -0.03 and swim another length.
If you are not sure where to start or what is too fast or too slow compared to others, you may read more in What is a Functional Range of Tempo?
Repeat that process of adjusting tempo and swimming another length, until the tempo feels more comfortable, which means you can maintain your normal SPL at that tempo for a long swim (whatever is ‘long’ for you). As you hone in on that most comfortable tempo (which we label at ‘TC’) make smaller changes in tempo, like +0.02 or +0.01 until you hit the center of what feels comfortable.
When you feel that you have found a tempo close enough to your comfortable center, then that can be your first TC reference point. Keep in mind that as you train more with tempo your TC will certainly shift; as your skills and fitness expand, what feels like a fast tempo to you right now will become quite comfortable later on.
A swimmer might work through a series of repeats trying to zero in on her comfortable tempo, like this…
- Starts at 1.45 and it feels too rushed
- Changes to 1.45 + 0.03 = 1.48 and it still feels too rushed
- Changes to 1.48 + 0.03 = 1.51 and it still feels fast, not as much
- Changes to 1.51 + 0.03 = 1.54 and it feels easy, but perhaps slightly slow
- Changes to 1.54 – 0.02 = 1.52 and it feels better
- Changes to 1.52 – 0.01 = 1.51 and now it feels just right
- She swim another couple lengths at 1.51 to confirm that this feels like the comfortable tempo TC.
Get Familiar with the Buttons
The very first task is to practice using the buttons on the Tempo Trainer Pro (TT) and get familiar with the sound of the BEEP and what the numbers on the screen mean. You can read more about this in Tempo Trainer Pro Basics.
Practice Coordinating Movements with the Beep
The second task is to simply get acquainted with how to coordinate your stroke rhythm with the BEEP of the Tempo Trainer Pro.
For this we recommend starting with a tempo of about 1.45 second per stroke (with the TT in Mode 1, click the left or right button until 1.45 appears on the screen). That is slow enough that most people will find it comfortable.
It may be easiest to coordinate the entry with the BEEP. Do a few short repeats or a few lengths to get familiar with how to do that, and observe the effects it has on your stroke and on your attention.
Finding Your Current Comfortable Tempo
Starting at 1.45 seconds may or may not be your most ‘comfortable’ tempo. We encourage you to experiment with it, trying gradually slower or gradually faster tempos until (like Goldilocks) it feels just right for your attention and control.
There are two buttons on the lower part of the device face. You slow the tempo down (the seconds go up) by pushing the right button – one click decreases it by +0.01 seconds (a hundredth of a second). You speed up the tempo (the seconds go down) by pushing the left button – one click increases it by -0.01 seconds.
You may view more guidance for Finding Your Current Comfortable Tempo.
What is ‘Fast’ or ‘Slow’ Tempo?
What is fast or slow compared to other swimmers, you mean?
If you are not sure what is too fast or too slow compared to others, you may read more in What is a Functional Range of Tempo?. It may help to have some sort of reference point for what is considered a ‘slow’ or ‘medium’ or ‘fast’ tempo, compared to swimmers, or what is considered appropriate for certain kinds of events (like sprinting versus long distance).
Not only do you want to develop your capability to hold good form at the tempo appropriate for your pace goals, but also to be capable of swimming with good form at a wider range of tempos along that absolute scale from very slow to very fast.
If this interests you, there is a lot more to study on tempo in the Knowledge Base.
Tempo is the term we use to talk about the rate at which the arms are moving through the stroke cycle. This is measured in seconds per stroke. The Tempo Trainer Pro gives us a little BEEP at this seconds interval so we know when to time each stroke.
Everyone, without even thinking about it, will start swimming and move the arms at some rate which is ‘normal’ to that person. But once you have learned a little about the role of tempo in the stroke will eventually wonder what tempo should I use?
You first need to learn to be in control of your stroke length. Then you can add training for tempo to it. But, assuming you are ready for it, here is a fuzzy scale on which to see where your current tempo range is, and what direction it may need to shift, depending on what event you are training for.
If you are currently working within the 1.00 to 1.40 second range, this is good range for a lot of swimming purposes.
If you are training with tempos below (faster than) 1.00 then it might be suitable to the kind of event and speed you are training for, or it might be an indication that you have an inadequate stroke length and should instead, slow tempo, and first learn to lengthen your stroke.
If you are training with tempos above (slower than) 1.40 then it may be suitable to doing slow, careful drill work and learning new movement patterns. But this is getting into the range where the density of water makes you slow down too much on each stroke, either requiring much more force-per-stroke to re-accelerate, or your stroke pressure is too light and you do not ever gain momentum in your movements.
The lesson is this: it is inefficient to swim with tempo on either extreme, though there may be good reasons for temporarily training in those tempos.
Also, keep in mind that tempo is meaningless without a relationship to stroke length. One could always jump in the water, spin the arms really fast and go nowhere. There must be traction on each stroke – the body must slide forward consistently on each stroke, no matter how fast those arms spin. And this is why we train first for controlling stroke length, then add tempo training next.
If you are in one of those extremes, the good news is that, when you follow an adaptation process (as provided in many of our Dojo courses) it is relatively easy to adjust your comfortable tempo range when moving it toward that middle zone.
In most of our training plans in the Dojo and in live training sessions we will be working with tempo (a form of stroke rate) and controlling it using a device known as a Tempo Trainer Pro, made by Finis.
What is Tempo?
Tempo is the rate at which your arms (or whole body) are moving through the stroke cycle. For convenience in pool training, we measure tempo in units of ‘seconds per stroke’. Over many stroke cycles to get a more accurate average, we can measure from the time between each rotate of the torso, or we can measure the time it takes after one arm has left a position in the stroke cycle for the other arm to reach that same position . For example, we could measure the time between the left arm coming to the entry point and the right arm coming to the entry point in the stroke cycle.
What is the Tempo Trainer Pro?
A Tempo Trainer Pro (which we often abbreviate as “TT”) is a small, waterproof metronome we use for swimming. You can read more about this in Tempo Trainer Pro Basics.
Why Train With Tempo?
The first objectives for training with a TT is to provoke the brain to refine control over the precision and consistency of your movement patterns. The Tempo Trainer helps build your focused attention and sense of timing, helping the body ‘memorize’ the movement deeply. When you train enough with the TT, you’ll eventually not need it any more – just like a musician would use a metronome to perfect timing then set it aside for the concert.
There are three ways we may have you first start to use the Tempo Trainer:
- Using a comfortable tempo, set a steady rhythm to the stroke and train the brain to memorize that rhythm.
- Using a comfortable tempo, call your attention to a particular point in the stroke cycle, stroke after stroke.
- To expand your comfortable tempo range by working on the edges of what is uncomfortably fast tempo and what is uncomfortably slow.
By first working with a comfortable tempo you can give the brain a chance to organize and smooth out the motions under the constraint of a fixed time interval.
Then you can begin working with slightly uncomfortably-slow tempos to challenge your balance and streamline skills. Then you can begin working with slightly uncomfortably-fast tempos to challenge your precision under the stress of faster movements.
There are more ways to use it once we get into advanced training, but these are where we like you to start. Later on we use TT training, in conjunction with stroke length training, to bring your stroke rate down to the range suitable for your pace goal. Tempo work is recommended only after you have the four fundamental features working in your stroke.
Using a Tempo Trainer adds a new level of challenge to the brain while training your stroke technique. For this reason it takes some time and understanding to learn to use one, and to enjoy using one. Some people love it immediately, and sense it will help them focus. While some people find it annoying at first. If so, don’t worry. That may be a sign your nervous system is not ready for it yet. But that annoyance could also mean that your brain just needs some time working with it to get used to a new form of stimulation and start to appreciate it.