Tag Archives: stroke rate

Review: Finis Tempo Trainer Pro

Finis Tempo TrainerThe Finis Tempo Trainer, the original (and still available  in some outlets) model, was another interesting idea from Finis that, as usual with said company’s electronics, wasn’t particularly well executed.

I first bought one back in 2008 or ’09. It’s most obvious flaw was that you couldn’t replace the battery. So it was random luck when you bought one just how long it would last. If it was sitting in a shelf for six months, your use was shortened commensurately. To illustrate, my second unit lasted only three months. And since I only used it irregularly, this represented a poor investment so I didn’t buy a third. The case was heat sealed, and while I’m a tinkerer (model-maker) who likes to try to fix things that aren’t designed to be fixed, despite the wide range of micro tools and adhesive substances at my disposal, I couldn’t replace the battery more than once and guaranteeing a seal was almost impossible once the case was split.

TempoTrainerProA couple of years ago Finis released an updated model, ridiculously called the “Pro” (TTP). I guess though they couldn’t call it the “here’s how we should have made it first time“. Of  course what adding Pro to the title really meant of course was that Finis increased the price. I was not willingly to spend more money on a new Finis  product that would likely fail.

A couple of years on I hoped that their usual poor initial product quality would have improved, and I hit it lucky on Amazon UK (£25 over the usual price of £31.49), I finally bought the new version.

The Pro has had two major upgrades: The first and most important is the ability to allow the user to replace the battery. The second upgrade is the addition of a third timekeeping mode which can be used to set stroke rate or tempo, meaning it can be used to set strokes per minute, which could be useful for developing open water swimmers.

The battery compartment takes a CR 1620, (not the most common Li-ion coin battery), which is screwed into the unit. The threads are quite narrow. Narrow thread improves water seal but when the material is ABS or a hard plastic, it also means that the threads are easy to misalign, which will result in stripping, which will of course degrade waterproof ability. A widely-spaced deep thread with less rotations might have worked better, and still ensuring that the unit is sealed. As usual I wonder about Finis’ commitment to manufacturing quality. Regardless, you better be very careful closing the battery compartment, and make sure it’s flush with the case to ensure the threads are aligned.

As with the TT, the TTP comes with an utterly useless clip, which may have more utility in other sports. But it’s not that important as you simply put the TTP under your swim cap. The beep is loud enough for the wearer to hear (and not anyone else), with two, three or repeating beeps depending on mode used.

I typically use the Tempo Trainer (TTP) twice a week for the past couple of months. Once when doing a weekly reducing ten repetitions of 400 metres set. And second for my weekly time trial, which this winter is three consecutive kilometres, slowest through to fastest (not deliberately, it just takes me longer every year to hit maximum speed, my third kilometres is always my fastest). Last winter I was doing a three kilometre continuous time trial but I don’t have that in me this year apparently.

My most common use is in Mode One, which goes from 0:02 seconds to 99:99 seconds in hundredths of a second to set a target time for a lap (two lengths).

The Tempo Trainers are regularly used and touted for improving fitness and consequently speed. And yes, they are good for that, is you can stomach listening to that beep all the time and if you can get the setting right each day. (Maybe my speed just varies too much over a week).

All negatives aside the most unexpected benefit of using the TTP, and what has made it a valuable purchase for me, has been to see how the effect of small stroke changes during a swim affect my speed.

The TTP is a relentless target. You can start how ever you like, fast or slow, but the timer will always beep the target you must hit. It promotes consistent pacing, ideal for an open water swimmer.

I have found, entirely separately from shooting video of my stroke a every year, and usually left feeling disconsolate and frustrated, that the TTP actually allowed me to find stroke improvements that weren’t accessible via my own video. One length of poor concentration is enough to slip your target. Two lengths of poor stroke is enough to build an almost insurmountable gap to be chased. The TTP demonstrated, in a way I’d never really felt previously because the feedback was available every single length, that I needed to rotate and reach more on my weak (left) side. The improvement was immediate. It actually still feels like an exaggerated stroke to me, but with the TTP I went 11 seconds faster over my best kilometre time this year (but I still have to take another nine seconds off to hit last year’s time!). I also was able to measure the effectiveness of my “good” stroke versus my 200 to 300 metres unilateral “sprint” stroke and even to improve that.

I didn’t find Mode Three (stroke rate) as useful. My open water stroke rate is pretty consistent from years of swimming at 71 to 72 SPM (strokes per minute) normal pace (up two spm over the past two years). In the pool Mode Three really needs a long (50m) pool. An SCM or SCY pool is a bit too short, once you come out of your flip turn, if you are even a fraction out when you start stroking as adjusting takes away some of the benefit. I did do an eight by one kilometre set one day just testing this, varying each kilometre starting at 68 spm, going through 69, 70 and 71 before dropping back to 70. My open water rate is one or two strokes faster. All of this was only confirmation for me, but for someone with a too-low stroke rate, it may be useful to help develop a higher rate . I haven’t yet used it during an open water swim, as winter swims are too short. I’d prefer to use it for at least five kilometre to determine any possible utility (which I expect to be minimal).

Contrary to the advertising and Finis’ poor manufacturing and quality record, while the TTP is a useful tool for fitness, it’s especially useful for stroke improvement, especially for people like myself who don’t have anyone against whom to swim.

Amazon US link, $33 + shipping. (As with everything, the US is at least 25% cheaper than Europe).

Amazon UK link. £31.49 ($53) inc. shipping.

Checking my Stroke Rate during a swim (including poll)

We’ve spoken before about the importance of stroke rate in open water swimming, especially in cold water to maintain body temperature through thermogenesis and to help in rough water, where a slower stroke rate can be overwhelmed.

It’s also the case that realising that stroke rate was important was something that didn’t happen immediately for me, and though I had been swimming open water for four years, the first time I became aware of it was during my participation in a two-way English channel relay in 2008. Even then I only realised because the Official Observer was checking stroke rates. (As an aside, we had two Official Observer’s, being a two-way. For one of them it was her first Channel trip in choppy water and she was utterly debilitated for the entire twenty-four hours, leaving the other to carry out all Observing duty).

My solo English Channel reports shows I was 70 strokes per minute., +/- , with most right on 70. Consistent. I sometimes check my rate, but usually only after about an hour. So I decided to do a three-hour swim for a more comprehensive check as those occasional observations had led me to believe it may have changed this year, especially as two recent two-hour swims hadn’t gone well and I needed to regain a bit of confidence.

The conditions for the day were cloudy, with very light Force Two breeze, mixed water surface and swim direction, both against and with the small swell, and water temperature of 14.5 Celsius. Good conditions for requiring a consistent stroke. The route was the Guillamene to the Beach to 300 metres outside Newtown Head. I had one feed at two hours at the Guillamene, then swim to under Doneraile Head and back to the Guillamene.  I planned to check stroke approximately every 30 minutes.

Billy Kehoe, President of the Newtown & Guillamene Swimming club.
Billy Kehoe, President of the Newtown & Guillamene Swimming club.

Stroke rate at 10 mins: 74. I waited until I’d settled down before the first check.

At 30 mins: Just after turning back into waves from Tramore beach; 72

At 60 mins: Passing Comolees, in almost glassy water for next fifteen minutes; 72

At 85 mins: Three hundred metres past Newtown head, just before turning back; 72. Swell had risen from half a metre to two metres and gotten choppy also.

At 90 mins: Swimming back with 2 metre swell behind; 72

At 115 mins: Just before feed; 72

At 130 mins: 10 mins after feed, swell dropping while swimming across waves to out int he bay; 74

At 150: Doneraile Head, heading back out, one metre choppy; 74

At 180: Swimming across swell to Guillamene, just before end of swim; 76. I nearly always up my rate at the end of a swim.

Newtown head from the sea
Newtown Head from the sea

So this did seem to confirm my suspicion that my stroke rate has shifted up by two strokes per minute. A point that may arise is my observational bias or confidence in the readings, but I before each measurement (full 60 second count on my watch, rather than ten second count multiplied by six) I would become more aware of my stroke, and make sure I wasn’t adjusting tempo.

The relevant question would be as to why it has shifted upwards.

Seeing my stroke on video during the SwimSmooth clinic back in February was a shocking. I hadn’t seen any video of myself in a couple of years, and there are speed and technique downsides to swimming by yourself most of the time. My stroke looked terrible. For the next two weeks I reintroduced a lot of technique work and after that I went back to basic principles and make sure to that one day most weeks is mostly technique and drill work. There has been an improvement.

When having my stroke filmed I asked Paul Newsome to shoot both my cruising stroke and my faster stroke. My cruising or open water stroke is a bilateral-breathing stroke and it was fine. But the most significant discovery was just how much technique I was sacrificing in the faster stroke for not a lot of time benefit. A crossover had crept into my left arm, and I was losing a lot of pull in my catch and pull phase on both arms. I’d also developed a slight thumb-first entry on my right hand. And all this was only gaining me maybe one to two seconds per one hundred metres. All surprising and disheartening developments when I didn’t think I exhibited any of these problems. I made a common swimmer’s mistake of being sure I was in tune with my stroke.

So I began working on all these problems with various drills, the toolbox of all swimmers. I might go over the drills I have been using just for general interest in a follow-up post. Along with drills I have stayed in the pool this summer, whereas in 2010 to 2012 I abandoned it for almost four months for open water, (not just for this reason). This has led to me retaining a higher anaerobic capability or threshold capacity.

Finally, within my pool work I have reduced the number of repeat 100s, so common to distance swimmers, and I am instead doing more repeat 200s and 400s (well, every distance swimmer loves 400s anyway, so that’s no sacrifice). And I’ve been doing more timed 1000′s. Not so much 1500s. All this has led to a (currently) improved stroke. The biggest change has been that I am retaining my bilateral stroke while swimming closer to my threshold.

Following all this, I need to reiterate that 70 or 72 strokes per minute is my rate. It’s not a target. We all have our own rate and you should seek to establish that rate and determine from there whether it is your normal rate, or whether you may wish to increase it. It’s even possible that if your are just wind-milling your arms with a poor stroke, if you address stroke issue you may actually even decrease your rate.

What’s your stroke rate?

Total Immersion in marathon swimming

I mentioned T.I. in an email to a well-known record-setting swimmer and we thought I might write a post on it. When someone who has set a new record thinks it’s a good subject, you write!

Many of you will be aware that Total Immersion, (T.I.) is a method of teaching swimming developed by Terry Laughlin, which focuses on long strokes and gliding through the water. Swim like a fish, is the motto of T.I..

When I’ve occasionally helped swimmers, especially triathletes, I’ve used some drills that apparently have come from T.I.. T.I. is particularly popular amongst triathletes worldwide, because of its focus on energy efficiency and gliding, so triathletes can use T.I. to finish the swim leg having expended as little energy as possible to be more ready for the cycling leg (triathlons are rarely won or lost on the swimming leg). (T.I. got some extra attention last year in a TED video by Tim Ferriss.)

With triathletes especially it’s best to reduce the flailing, to try to get them conscious of gliding through the water and of relaxing, rather than fighting the water. Pretty much what all swimmers learn, but in a more compressed time.

But one consequence of T.I. is a reduced stroke count, which is imparted, it seems to me, as the most desired result, at least this is how those people I’ve met who have learned T.I. impart it to me. Having read some of Terry’s many thoughts on T.I. and this subject, it seems that he himself is not as rigid as many of the people who go through T.I. training here seem to be, when he himself advocates having a quiver of responses ready for varying open water conditions, something I’ve said myself previously about for example, breathing patterns.

It should be remembered as very important that many or most triathlons (all here in Ireland and the UK) require the triathletes to wear a wetsuit. Indeed Alan Smith, Waterford local multiple Ironman triathlete and Channel Aspirant told how just a couple of weeks before his Channel attempt he was forced to take the black and wear a wetsuit for a paltry short swim of about 1k because the rules required them.

Some months back I discovered (too late) that one EC Aspirant, whom I was occasionally advising through email, was actually using T.I., as the athlete had come from a triathlon background. With very little time left I had to stress they dump the T.I. approach immediately.

Why? Simply, it would not keep them warm in the Channel. Let me give an example, again I think I this mentioned it before.

Guillamene steps from the rocks below

Some months ago I was walking down the steps at the Guillamene, when I saw someone coming in from the Pier, rare enough. And I immediately noticed they had a very low stroke count, so low that I stopped to count (which I’ve never done before). I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was in the 40s. I was concerned for whomever it was, because a stroke rate that low, unless they were a large person with lots of experience, was looking at getting cold very quickly. And it turned out to be a friend, whom had been advised to reduce their stroke count to extend the glide on the extension. Someone experienced who never previously got cold, got really cold that day and it was a warmish summer day (by Irish standards). it was incorrect advice from someone who didn’t know, whose open water experience came from a book. It wasn’t exactly T.I. but quite similar.

At the weekend, indeed I was talking to the swimmer who had given that advice, who was wearing a wetsuit, and in winter pool training was focusing exclusively, as I expected, on stroke count reduction by increasing distance per stroke.

Oh, I just remembered, Penny Palfrey, probably the best (non-FINA) marathon swimmer in the world right now, apparently has a stroke rate of 80.

Triathletes using T.I. have a wetsuit to cushion this effect of slower stroke rate to keep them warm. Removing a wetsuit and keeping a low stroke count is a recipe for hypothermia in cold water. More than anything else in cold water you must be able to maintain a steady consistent stroke rate. A 10% variation in a marathon swimmer is a big variation. Most of us won’t vary by more than about 5%. I’ll use again the example of my E.C. I was 70 strokes per minute almost every measurement , never dropped below 68, never went higher than 74. An old S.I. article on Doc Counsilman’s EC solo in 1979 (from Evan) mentioned his metronomic pace of about 64 (same for example as Ned). Gábor stayed at 68 if I remember correctly, after he settled down after the first two hours (he was up toward 80 at the start, excitement and the effects of tapering priming him for a nervous muscular explosive start).

I don’t actually have a problem with T.I., it has its uses, I like what I’ve seen of the drills and some of its ideas, and when I read it, I also like Terry Laughlin’s own blog and his thoughts on the mindfulness of swimming, something I think any distance swimmer can appreciate. I like his meditative frame of mind and consideration of swimming, after all many times myself I’ve compared the purity of night swimming in particular to meditation or how we operate mentally on long swims, something I have a post planned on again.

After years of open water, I know my stroke is 70 +- 4 spm. Anytime I check it in the water, it’s 68 to 72, unlikely to outside that unless I am increasing speed or slowing down. I can just feel the rate by now. This is a vital skill and very different from pool swimming. I know people who have come from a competitive pool background and never once thought about stroke rate. Your SPM might be 58 or 64 or whatever, it’s your stroke rate, the one that works for you as a consequence of your fitness and size and training and background. I’ve noticed bigger people tend toward lower stroke rates but I don’t think that’s a rule or anything.

T.I. might teach you to monitor your stroke rate very closely, but it won’t teach you to increase it to keep your internal heat production high enough. Maybe it’s fine in warm water, but at any water temperature lower than about 28 degrees, you are losing heat. You must combat this by internal thermogenesis.

By the way, in winter pool training, (oh, I’m later going back to it this year than ever before, I’m still in the sea), I do actually work on DPS, distance per stroke.

I’m personally wary of any absolutes when those absolutes are just opinions, like one particular swimming style. That’ll come as no surprise to long-term readers here.

Separate from the heat retention aspects, what I find myself is that there are consequences to my stroke that come from open water swimming. If you watch most OW swimmers, you will see that they have a high hand recovery, quite different to pool swimmers, which comes about as a consequence having to lift the hand higher to avoid it crashing into chop. It’s a rare day in the sea that you can have a high elbow recovery. This is sure to also reduce your rotation, which in turn increases your stroke rate. Then there is the effect of sighting, where you have to lift your head, like you never would in the pool, which again, will change your body position and therefore stroke mechanics. At least that’s how it seems to me.

Maybe it’s different in warm water, (apparently there are places in the world with warm water, it’s been reported), where you don’t have to worry about cold. But remember, at any temperature below about 24° Celsius, eventually, you will become hypothermic. For those  of us for whom 24° C is much warmer than we ever get, we tend to forget this.

But in cold water you must swim to keep yourself warm, because you are literally swimming for your life.