Last month, in How to Have Amazing Swimmer’s Hands, I wrote about one of my two favorite swimming tools, fist gloves. In this post–which is excerpted from Lesson 4 of the TI 2.0 Freestyle Mastery Self-Coaching Course, I write about the other.

I’m a minimalist when it comes to swimming equipment. I haven’t used buoys, paddles, kickboards, or fins for 25 years. However, one tool–the Finis Tempo Trainer–has deepened my capacity for mindfulness, yielded priceless insights into my stroke, and taught me to ‘encode’ pacing skills in my nervous system. The Tempo Trainer (hereafter TT) is a small electronic metronome you can tuck under cap or clip to goggles. Here’s why I would even choose the TT over any other timing device, including pace clock or sports watch:

It focuses you. Swimmers often leave one end of the pool thinking only about getting to the other end. The Tempo Trainer–set to beep at a frequency of, say, 1.2 seconds–transforms each lap into a series of 1.2 second intervals. You soon realize that each of those intervals is composed of ‘consequential nanoseconds’ within which you make or break the stroke you’re taking. When you feel a tiny stroke error you know in that instant, it will cost you an extra stroke—and an extra 1.2 seconds—when you reach the other end.  You also realize those tiny errors are almost always the result of a moment’s inattention. This is powerful motivation to pay attention.

It improves rhythm. Consistent—even metronomic–rhythm is a central element of success at distance swimming. It’s also the quality that harmonizes all parts of the stroke into a seamless whole.

It teaches unerring pace. Many people believe sense of pace (sometimes called ‘clock in the head’) is a trait you’re either born with or acquire through endless repetition. The TT is a fast and methodical way to learn this critical skill. Just keep SPL (Strokes Per Length) consistent and synchronized to the beep as you continue swimming. If SPL and Tempo both remain steady, so does your pace.

It ‘cracks the code’ on speed. If you save a stroke while maintaining tempo, or increase tempo by a few hundredths of a second while maintaining stroke count, you swim faster. Add a stroke to your count on any length, you go slower.  This quickly produces an awareness that any pace is the inevitable product of a particular SPL and Tempo; not of how fast—or hard–you stroke. You also become newly confident that you have control over how fast you swim.

It emphasizes the benefits of training your brain. It’s eye-opening to discover how quickly your brain and nervous system can solve a pace or speed ‘problem’ in a thoughtfully-designed set (examples follow). You often experience striking efficiency gains in as little as 10 or 15 minutes—and make thrilling progress in the course of a week. This demonstrates that you can improve far more quickly when you focus on training the brain and nervous system–as advocated by TI–than when you train limbs, lungs, and muscles as in traditional training.

Swimming with the TT develops a new habit: To focus on repeating high quality strokes at incrementally faster tempos over gradually greater distances.  This will produce far more improvement than any other form of training. The TT provides a clear structure, incentives, and rewards for making this an ever more instinctive habit. So strong that, over time you also race that way.

Experienced competitive swimmers can generally begin with a Tempo Setting between 1.0 and 1.10 sec/stroke. Newer swimmers should begin with a setting between 1.20 and 1.40 seconds. In some of the examples below, I use a setting of 1.2 seconds; SPL=Strokes Per Length.TT-Pro

Task #1 Explore Your Stroke

When using the TT, you synchronize the beep with a key body movement present in the stroke—most commonly the hand entry. Swim several 25s, getting accustomed to timing your pushoff to synchronize first hand entry with 4th beep. Adjust tempo to one that feels quite comfortable. For now this is your Tempo Sweet Spot. Then try this set:

  1. Swim 4 rounds of (3 x 25). In Round 1, synchronize beep to hand entries. In Round 2, synchronize to hips movements (we call them hip ‘nudges’). In round 3, synchronize to feet (toe ‘flicks’). In round 4, you have two options: Cycle through one 25 of each; or stay with your favorite.
  2. Did you feel anything new or different as you moved synch point from hands to hips? When you synchronize beep to feet, for an effective 2BK, take note of any foot movements between beeps.

Task #2 Examine your Breathing

  1. Set TT at most comfortable tempo. Swim 4 rounds of (3 x 25) In each round, cycle through: 25 Breathe Right, 25 Breathe Left, 25 Bilateral.
  2. Do you notice any variation in your ability to stay with the beep as you change breathing side or pattern.Breath 2

Task #3  Constant SPL and Tempo (means constant pace).

Swim 8 x [25 or 50] @ ‘Tempo Sweet Spot.’ Rest 10 beeps between swims. Count strokes per 25 or 50. Your basic goal is to keep focus and SPL constant. If you keep SPL constant, your Pace is teady. A great outcome is to reduce stroke count by end of set. This means your pace has increased—as a result of strong focus leading to improved efficiency. This demonstrates that focus is usually the key to faster swims.

Task #4 Tempo Pyramid

This is my absolute favorite set. It is enormously effective at helping you pinpoint your personal ‘Green Zone’ range of efficient stroke counts. While the TI Green Zone chart (download for free here) is a great starter guide , this exercise (after repeating many times over weeks or months) tells you your best personal range of efficient SPL with complete precision.

  1. Choose your most comfortable tempo from previous tasks as your starting point.
  2. Swim 4 x 25 (or 50), slowing tempo by .06 (i.e. 1.20, 1.26, 1.32, 1.38) on each. Subtract as many strokes as possible while Tempo slows.
  3. Then swim 6 x 25 (or 50) increasing tempo by half the increment–.03 (i.e. 1.35, 1.32, 1.29, 1.26, 1.23, 1.20). Try to maintain lower stroke counts for as many tempo changes as possible.
  4. Remember SPL on #1, lowest SPL (likely on #4), and SPL on #10. How many SPL did you ‘save?’ How many seconds did you save?

Task #5  Hold Pace; Lengthen your Stroke.

Swim a series of timed 50s or 100s. Set initial tempo at 1.2 seconds. Slow tempo by .01 each 100 (i.e. 1.21, 1.22, 1.23, etc.) For how many 100s (and .01 tempo changes) can you maintain your initial pace or time? Each time you slow tempo slightly, you’ll have to lengthen your stroke slightly to keep your time the same.

Task #6 Swim Faster while Maintaining Stroke Length.

Set Tempo at Comfort Zone. Swim a series of 25s. Count strokes. Increase tempo by .01 each 25. (i.e. 1.20, 1.19, 1.18, etc. For how many 25s (and .01 tempo changes) can you hold your initial stroke count? A good goal is to complete 8 x 25 (.07 sec increase in tempo) without adding a stroke to your count. Repeat this set regularly until you can do this.

The Total Immersion 2.0 Freestyle Mastery Self-Coaching Course teaches ‘Expert’ Pacing/Tempo Training and three other Mastery skills for freestyle. Learn more here.