Tempo vs. Speed — Why improving efficiency makes a faster stroke feel slower

When I was teaching Week 4 of my Monday night triathlon swimming class for the Chicago Triathlon Club, I had a swimmer ask me why she felt slower after we had started to rework her timing, balance, and vessel shape.  I’ve introduced the Total Immersion Perpetual Motion Freestyle stroke drills as a way of improving her efficiency in the water.  So I had her swim the next 100 yard swim at a moderate pace and I told her I would get her time and count her strokes.  She wound up swimming the 100 yard repeat in 1:23 and took 15 strokes per length — in a good starting range for a triathlete who is 6 feet tall.  We compared that swim against the results from the Swimming Golf efficiency test that she did in the first week of the class.  As it turned out, she swam the same speed as in the test but took 6 fewer strokes per length — a nearly 30% improvement in efficiency with no loss in speed.  Here’s how I explained the situation to her.

You can understand your speed in the water using the equation, V= SL x SR, or your speed (V) is equal to the product of your stroke length (SL) and your tempo (SR).  As you get more efficient in the water, you will travel further on every stroke and increase your stroke length (SL).  If you maintain your speed, what will go down is your stroke rate (SR).  Since most of us associate our arm turnover or cadence with speed, it feels like we are slowing down when actually we are just going the same speed with less effort.  In my triathlete case, we improved her stroke length by 30% so her cadence or tempo would need to go down.  That’s why she felt slower not because she was slower.

This paradox is actually the most difficult thing to convince competitive swimmers of because the culture of most swim teams is about cranking, swimming hard, and turning it over to keep up with the pace clock.  What helps us make the case is our Endless Pool.  The Endless Pool allows us to fix speed so any improvements that we make in the swimmer will either force us to make the current faster or they will simply slow their cadence to fit into the old speed.

To give you the Endless Pool visual, I’ve included a two part video clip of a swimmer that I gave some lessons to in December 2013.  She is a local 15 year old club swimmer who is close to breaking 5:00 in her 500 yard freestyle.  So she’s pretty fast.  The first part is from a lesson on December 26th and the second is from the next lesson on December 30th.  In the first clip she is swimming with a tempo of about 0.84 seconds/stroke.  In the second clip, she is swimming with a tempo of about 1.10 seconds per stroke.  The difference is about a 25% drop in stroke rate.  It might be hard to believe but she’s going faster in the second clip.  She’s even exceeded the maximum speed on the machine (i.e., she’s running into it), and we needed to move her to a faster current.  Unfortunately, my DVR overwrote the first of my clips from December 9th when we did our first lesson when she swam slower at a tempo of .68 seconds/stroke as the contrast would be even greater.  In this situation, you can see that she’s swimming longer and more smoothly in the second part.  When she could see that she was going faster, she made the connection that turning her arms over is not always the best way to go fast if she adds more efficiency to her stroke.

For those nay-sayer’s ready to jump and say that I’m just making the swimmers slow by prioritizing efficiency over swimming hard, realize I added some of the tempo back into my December swimmer to find a SL and SR match that made her go even faster.  For my triathlete, we’ll still work on cementing the changes and then we’ll talk about adding more tempo/strokes back in to make her go faster.  In either case, they will have more headroom to add tempo back in to go faster on their more efficient stroke.  What both of them need is more time learning how to manage that trade-off than time swimming back and forth and doing hard intervals.

It’s rare that I find swimmers coming in with too little stroke rate (SR).  That’s why we Total Immersion coaches focus so much on adding stroke length and efficiency first.  Our strategy is “take out the tempo and then put it back in” as a way to make swimmers fast with the least effort possible.

I hope you found it useful.

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