Tempo Trainers for Swimming
At a time when the new family of Garmin watches have raised the bar further than ever, with tons of new functions (more on this in a coming blog), the tempo trainer from FINIS seems to be an antique with its outrageously basic function: it does ‘beep’… but it’s a useful beep.
There are two functions attached to tempo trainers:
a Beep for Pacing or a Beep for Stroke Rate.
The pacing beep function
Before I go further on pacing, I need to digress a bit. The Critical Swim Speed (‘CSS’) is the equivalent of threshold (OK, I know that some people will cringe at this as the topic of threshold always feeds divergence of views). It is estimated by doing a test over 200m and 400m (again, there are divergence of views), the result being your estimated pace over 100m during a 1500m all out swim race. So a 1’30 CSS, or 1’30/100m, corresponds to a 22’30 1500m swim race (not a triathlon). That being said…
The pacing beep function helps you stay on your CSS pace and is extremely useful for repetitions of 200m and over. If your CSS is 1’30, you can arrange the Tempo Trainer to beep 4 times for each 100m to give you a pacing beep so that every 25m or so, you know if you are ahead or behind pace (in a 50m pool the beeps obviously occur around the middle of the pool and around the time when you touch the wall). Honestly, when your main set exceeds a total of 2000m or 3000m, it does help a lot to have this reminder several times per repetition, as slacking off is just not an option.
You can also decide to aim at, say, 1 sec/100m faster than your CSS, by changing your beep time. If your CSS is 1’25/100m, you would normally input 21.25 (85 sec/4) into your trainer, but if that day you feel like trying to swim at a 1’24/100m base, you input 21.00 in your trainer and here you go, with no way to drift off pace as you get the beep every 25m.
Another ‘fun’ way to experiment is to try and beat the beep, a day when you feel good and you aim at touching the wall a tad in advance. Whatever your choice -adjust the trainer or beat the beep- the race against time is very precise (the trainer is adjustable to the hundredth of second) and the feedback live.
For repetitions over 200s, when you know you will have trouble maintaining your threshold speed, you can tweak the tempo trainer to add one or two seconds per 100m. For example, if I want to swim 400m repeats knowing that maintaining CSS + 2 sec is good/hard enough, you just add 0.5 sec per 25m (2 sec over 100m) and here we go.
The stroke rate function
While I know that one way to get faster is to have a faster stroke rate, I naturally tend to have a low stroke rate and this pattern worsens with distance and fatigue. The stroke rate function beeps at a rate of, say, 75 times per min, and once I set it up and start swimming, I just have to adjust my arm stroke to the sound without thinking about it, just like a metronome. It’s a pretty efficient function and just like with the other one, you can’t ignore it (always this same nagging sound, just much more often!).
Can all this be replicated on your watch? Maybe, but what I like with the tempo trainer is that it is close to my ears and I can’t mistakenly take someone’s else beep for mine.
As an athlete
Using tempo trainer once a week in my longer sessions have made a big difference in my training. Slacking off is not an option. While it always helps to be surrounded by other swimmers, I can really swim in my bubble playing catch up with the beep. It also helps me ingrain a certain pace into my mind and body. Proficient ‘native’ swimmers already naturally have that sense of pace, but they are a minority. Hence, I could also get feedback from the
clock on the deck at the end of each repetition if there is one, but the only way to get this livefeedback while swimming is the sound. I am undeniably faster than I was (as I can swim with a pace that is faster that before) but I also started to swim more often, I joined Masters’ swimming and I have focused more on swimming lately (with cycling and running put a bit into parentheses for a while). That being said, the intensity of tempo trainer sets and the focus and concentration it provides me are something I have never experienced before. I finish every session completely drained but happy and proud of my accomplishment.
As a coach
I have recently started incorporating Tempo Trainer sets into the training plans I design for my online athletes. The limitation of online coaching is obviously not being there to see what is going on. The athletes’ pace may be drifting and they may just let things drift. Sometimes if they don’t check their watch often enough, they don’t even know it. With the Tempo Trainer, there is no hiding, no cheating, no voluntary slacking. If the athlete is off target, there is this nagging reminder every 25m that he’s not doing well. As a coach, the tempo trainer acts as an extension of me on the deck (the nasty me, the one that would say ‘go faster, you’re slowing down!’).
I warmly recommend the tempo trainer. The only one I know is from FINIS. I know Swimsmooth uses it a lot (I’m not affiliated to them but their website is full of interesting stuff). In fact, a lot of what I learnt comes from swimming with Swimsmooth certified coaches in HKG. But anybody can benefit from it. From swimmers with pacing or motivation problems, to those who want to get faster but don’t know where to start, the return on investment -provided you understand the concept of CSS or threshold per 100m and how to use it, or provided you have a coach who does- is just great.