Finding Your Optimal Tempo - It Matters! - Learn THREE ways you can find your optimal tempo and begin to train the way you want to race.
As swimmers, we’re constantly working to improve our technique, speed and overall fitness. It’s a complicated equation, but we all have the same bottom line...we want to swim faster. Since understanding what optimal tempo means and how to train for it can unlock another level of speed and efficiency, SwimLabs is here to break it down for you.
Simply put, tempo in the swimming world refers to how fast your arms and legs move. It’s your stroke rate. It’s a straightforward definition, but its execution can be much more complicated.
Thinking about tempo reminds me of some advice I once got in college after prelims in the 100 free. I asked my animated New Yorker coach how I could drop time at finals and he threw his hands up and yelled “Just move your arms faster!” Although sarcastic, the man had a point. I needed to tap into a faster stroke rate, but just wildly moving my arms and legs as fast as possible wasn’t going to cut it. We all know there’s a fine line between turning over at your maximum speed and just spinning your wheels. Learning how to toe that line means mastering your tempo.
For more advice, SwimLabs asked former national level swimmer and coach Trever Gray for an explanation of tempo. “Accuracy goes down the faster we move our bodies, so there’s an optimal tempo for everything. If you throw a baseball too fast, you’re not going to get it into the catcher’s mitt. If you swing your golf club too quickly, you’re going to slice it or miss the ball entirely,” explains Grey. It’s the same thing for swimming; if you move your arms too quickly, it creates more bubbles and splash. You won’t catch enough water and you’ll tire yourself out. I think we’ve all witnessed someone try to hold a 50 free stroke rate for a 500. It gets ugly. Fast. Successful swimmers have to learn what their optimal tempo is when they’re racing.
Tempos will be different for every race. In general, the longer the race, the slower the tempo. Gray says, “Because of physiological constraints, humans simply cannot maintain a high tempo for very long. That’s why it’s critical to find the optimal tempo for each race: too fast of a stroke rate and the swimmer will fade and finish poorly; too slow of a stroke rate and the swimmer is out of the field.” It’s also important to understand that, except for the 50 free, tempos can change within the race. Gray explains, “In a 200 free, stroke rates are usually quick for the first 25, ease into a rhythm for the next 100 and tend to pick up a faster tempo at the end of the race.”
So how can swimmers learn more about their optimal tempo? Here’s three easy tips from Coach Gray.
#1 Trial and Error. Like everything in swimming, it’s going to take some practice and experience. Gray’s advice is to feel it out. “If the tempo is way too fast then you will be tired way too soon. If you went way too slow, you need to pick up the tempo next time.” Make adjustments every time you race.
#2 Talk with your coach. Your coach is knowledgeable and can give you feedback on where your stroke rate should be. Gray explains, “There are general tempos for the 100 free, but everyone will be a bit individualized.” Your coach can help you find the ideal turnover based on your stroke.
#3 Work with a tempo trainer. This gadget uses beeps to help you maintain stroke rate. The lower the setting, the faster the tempo. Gray recommends doing a set of 25s. Start the tempo trainer on 100, which should be a nice and easy pace to start at. Count the number of strokes you take for a 25 at that tempo. Let’s say you took twenty strokes. Rest 30 seconds and turn the tempo trainer down to 95. Even though it is a faster tempo, you should be able to still take twenty strokes. On the next 25, turn the tempo trainer down to 90. Let’s say on this one you had to take 23 strokes. Gray says, “When you add strokes, that’s when you have a problem. You are becoming less efficient in the water.” At that point, take a few weeks to practice at that tempo. Don’t move on to a new tempo until you can do 20x25s on 30 seconds rest where you are able to hold your stroke count at the setting that gave you trouble.
Tempo training will improve your self-awareness and make you more confident when it's time to race. It takes time and practice, but SwimLabs is here to walk you through it. Let’s get faster by swimming smarter!
Trever Gray is a high performance consultant on human physiology, biomechanics and nutrition. He was a former world class 200 backstroker as well as an elite level coach. Trever holds numerous masters swimming records and lives in Washington State. If you have more questions, you can reach Trever at firstname.lastname@example.org.