How I’ve Been Using the Tempo Trainer

Surfing through the Total Immersion forums, I responded to someone wondering how to use the tempo trainer. I thought it would be worthwhile to re-post that here:
I have found that the tempo trainer is one of the best ways to introduce measurability and repeatability into swimming. It’s much more detailed than just remembering how fast you can swim laps; you also gain knowledge into efficiency when you couple tempo and counting strokes per laps. Remember that you can always swim faster by just cycling your arms faster, but you want to know across workouts that you are consistently putting out a certain effort, combined with efficiency, and still keeping to a speed, or going faster/slower. It is not as good to know that you swam the same interval at given speed over two workout days, but one day you worked your butt off because your form was off but the other day you were more rested/better form and you actually had less effort.
I use the tempo trainer both for improving stroke technique and efficiency and then for endurance training.
For improving stroke technique/efficiency, I first setup baseline counts for 25y lengths from 2.6 seconds tempo all the way down to 0.8 seconds tempo. Around 1.2-1.3 seconds is considered cruising, and .8-.9 you’re pretty much sprinting. In/around 2.4-2.6 seconds is almost unbearably slow. Over a period of workout days I would swim 4×25 (or 2×25) at each time and then record that down. Sometimes I would start at 2.6 and work my way down .1 seconds at a time, sometimes I would start in the middle, ie. 1.6 seconds and go to 1.2, sometimes I would start at 1.4 and go all the way down to 0.8. Sometimes I would go directly to 0.8. I usually stop when I feel I am getting too tired and losing concentration and focus.
BTW, writing it down sure beats trying to remember. Bringing paper and pen doesn’t work because they fail when wet. I use a cheap plastic acrylic picture frame and a grease pencil which is better, although it can fail when there is condensation on the acrylic, but it’s still much better than pen and paper.
Once you establish baselines, then you can see if you can figure out ways of beating those stroke counts. Mostly this is about firming up your technique more than anything else. Also, you will notice that at certain points you’ll jump 1-2 strokes per length. These are critical points at which something is happening; maybe your technique is deteriorating, maybe you’re getting tired.
BTW, if you get tired, it may be a good time to just get out of the pool because you don’t want to imprint bad habits!
At some point you’ll find that it’s almost impossible to beat your stroke count at given tempo time. This is now your max and now you can use this to practice against from time to time to know if you’re technique is suffering for some reason. However, I also think it is an interesting exercise to take some time to see if you can actually beat and maintain a lower stroke count for a given tempo time, so play with this.
For endurance, it’s been about figuring how to maintain a tempo in the face of declining resources, and maintaining form at those tempos over a longer period of time and distance. So I use tempo trainer on more continuous sets, starting with 50, 100, and then longer, usually by adding 50m every week, or sometimes varying it up with more short 50m lengths, or sets of 200s, or one big 500 or 1000m set. But definitely start low distance in lengths and give yourself some rest, even upwards to 30 seconds rest. The object is to slowly increase lengths, and reps, and lower rest between reps (ie. 20 sec, down to 10 or 5 seconds rest) gradually such that you do not ruin your ability to maintain optimal swimming form by getting too tired. If you find that at a certain interval distance that you are having trouble keeping up or your form is getting messy, I would back off and practice that workout a few more times before increasing the difficulty.
Over time, you will get better and be able to go longer, with your tempo trainer keeping time along the way as a relentless timemaster.
The other thing to do is to practice different tempos with this protocol. Then you will have different speeds to engage, such as sprinting to get in front of a pack and then cutting back to cruise mode and being able to switch cleanly from all that.
A word about training on the slow end. I have found that, while almost unbearable, it has also been extremely valuable as a way to reinforce holding perfect form and practicing balance in the water. I find this translates to helping my form with faster tempos.
Hope this helps…Coach Shinji is going to run me through a “strategic use of tempo trainer” talk soon. I hope to learn more from him on how he is using the tempo trainer to help improve swimming.