One Tool – and Five Sets — That Will Transform Your Swimming

By Terry Laughlin


There’s only one guaranteed way to swim faster. It’s not training for more yards, harder repeats, nor to build ‘limbs, lungs or muscles.’ It’s to build a long, efficient stroke, then hardwire your brain to maintain that stroke as you patiently, incrementally increase your rate or tempo. The Tempo Trainer is a tool that allows you to do that with precision and in stages tiny enough to maximize your chances of success. These five sets provide a template for doing that on your own.

I’m known as a minimalist when it comes to training tools. However, there’s one tool I value so highly that if I were forced to choose only one item to be available when I swim it would be the Tempo Trainer (TT). I would even choose the TT over any timing device. Here’s why: 

The TT focuses you. The audible beep keeps your attention on each stroke you take and helps banish distraction.

The TT improves your rhythm. Consistent rhythm is an essential skill of successful swimming. It’s also the quality that harmonizes the various elements of the stroke.

The TT teaches unerring pace. Sense of pace is usually thought of as a trait you just have or acquire through endless repetition. The TT is a fast, and almost effortless, way to learn this critical skill. Just keep strokes per length (SPL) consistent and synchronized to the beep as you swim farther. If SPL and Tempo remain steady, so does pace.

The TT ‘cracks the code’ on speed. Save a stroke—or a few hundredths of a second in Tempo—you swim faster. Add a stroke to any length, you go slower.  Pretty soon you have a constant, clear awareness that any pace is the inevitable product of a particular SPL and Tempo. Once you realize this you never again make the mistake of thinking that how fast you swim depends on how fast you stroke.

The TT teaches you to stay focused. Swimmers usually leave one end of the pool thinking mainly about getting to the other end. The TT teaches you to experience every length as a series of precisely-timed intervals — each composed of ‘consequential nanoseconds.’  When you feel even a tiny stroke error you know in that instant, it will cost you an extra stroke—and extra second—when you reach the other end.  You also learn that those tiny errors are almost always the result of a moment’s inattention. This is powerful motivation to stay focused.

The TT lets you choose your speed with mathematical precision.  First it gives you the physical ability to choose and improve your speed or pace. And that leads to the psychological sense that you do control that, which is priceless to confidence and motivation.

The TT emphasizes the benefits of training the nervous system. When practicing with the TT, you learn how quickly your nervous system can adapt to the right stimulus. Often you experience noticeable adaptation to a particular task (e.g. holding 15SPL @ 1.0 sec) in as little as 10 or 15 minutes. When you begin using it, you find yourself making thrilling progress in a week’s time.

Five Sets that will Transform Your Swimming

These five sets are from a single practice I did in a 50m pool on Feb 23, 2010, and include my stroke counts.  You may do them in a 25y/m pool so your stroke counts will be lower (and you’ll be able to substitute 25y/m repeats for my 50m repeats). If you’re a “TT Rookie” I recommend you set initial tempo @ 1.30 or slower.

Set #1: Constant Distance, Constant Tempo

Swim 10 x 50 @ 1.10 sec/stroke. Rest 10 beeps between swims. Count strokes.

This set offers three possible outcomes: 

SPL increases. Adding strokes as you swim farther signals you’re moving the water around, instead of moving your body forward. This means drag is increasing or propulsion is decreasing.  And every added stroke (or beep) slows your pace by 1.1 sec. This set gives the clearest explanation for why swimmers gradually lose pace to distance: More strokes = more seconds. Learning to think in those terms motivates you to focus on executing each stroke effectively.

SPL is constant. This signals even pacing, which is the ‘secret’ to successful distance swimming. By keeping SPL constant in this set, you teach your brain (‘hardwire’ is not too strong a term) to keep stroke length and rate consistent as you swim farther, and therefore to maintain steady pace.

SPL decreases. This is a NINJA-level outcome requiring truly rare skill.  Hundreds of hours of mindful swimming and stroke counting with a TT have given me a neural system that’s tuned for steady-to-progressive pacing.  When I swim farther, rather than fatiguing, I usually feel better and stronger. This is because the more strokes I take (i.e. ‘fire the effective-stroking circuit’ more times) the more my brain becomes attuned to that task and performs it more efficiently. Practicing regularly with TT transforms you from a physically-oriented to neurally-oriented swimmer, creating the potential to improve pace as your swim farther.  On my first 50 it took me 41 strokes to reach the other end. By the end of the set I was consistently crossing the pool in 38 strokes.  In terms of time, 3 fewer beeps @ 1.10 yields a time savings of 3.3 sec.

Here’s the best part: Though I swam faster, I was focused feeling relaxed and unhurried.  During sets where tempo remains constant, the longer I swim, the more time I feel I have between beep intervals. I use that perceived gain in time to increase precision. Consequently each stroke moves me slightly farther. I receive confirmation of what I’ve felt when I cross the pool in fewer strokes.

Set #2: Constant Distance, Reduce Tempo

Slowing tempo over the course of a set is an option that has proven its value in: (i) increasing efficiency and (ii) discovering easier ways to swim a particular distance or pace.

Swim 10 x 50 @ 1.11-1.20. (I.E. Slow tempo by .01 each 50.) Rest 10 beeps between swims. Count strokes.

Increasing SPL or keeping SPL constant, as tempo slows, would result in loss of pace: 40 SPL at 1.11 = 47.7 sec.  40 SPL @ 1.20 = 51.6 sec.  So my goal here was to decrease SPL. I did this by using the increased time between beeps to stroke with more care. I began the set at 38 SPL (45.5 sec @ 1.11) and finished at 35 SPL (45.6 sec @ 1.20). My time was slower by .1 sec but my sense of ease was considerably greater.  While I don’t swim races at a tempo as slow as 1.20, practicing at slow tempo builds efficiency that is reflected at faster tempos too.

Set #3: Constant Distance, Increase Tempo

Stroking faster is the nearly universal response when swimmers try to swim faster. The problem with this response is that most swimmers mainly move the water around more – rather than propel their bodies faster – as Stroke Rate increases. They get more tired; they don’t get faster.

Elite swimmers have the rare ability to keep Stroke Length far more stable as they increase Rate. This set teaches that pattern to your brain! The key is to focus keenly on minimizing increase in SPL as tempo increases.

Swim 10 x 50 @ 1.19-1.10. (I.E. Increase tempo by .01 each 50.) Rest 10 beeps between swims. Count strokes.

On this set I took 35 SPL @ 1.19 (45.3 sec) and 37 SPL @ 1.10 (44.0 sec). If I added one additional stroke, I’d have swum essentially the same time. If I’d added two more strokes I’d have swum slower – an all-too-common result when swimmers stroke faster.

At 1.19 I had a pronounced sense of leisure in each stroke. As I increased tempo on each 50, I gave my full attention to feeling I still had plenty of time and ease on each stroke. The tiny .01 sec increment makes that easier to do. The change is considerable over 10 x 50, but by doing it incrementally, your nervous system can easily adapt.

Note: As I did in this practice I often sequence the two preceding sets. Each time without fail, I’ve finished the set with a lower SPL (at my initial tempo) than when I began the set. I did this by ‘subtracting’ SPL faster as tempo slowed, than I added SPL as tempo got faster again.

Set #4 Constant Tempo, Increase Distance

This is a particularly valuable exercise for distance swimming. The desired outcome is to minimize change in average SPL. When I do this, I try to limit increase in SPL to +1 over my count on the first pool length.

Swim 50+100+150+200 @ 1.10. Rest 10-15-20-25 beeps between swims. Count strokes. I started at 38 SPL and never exceeded 39 SPL. This means that my pace was almost the same on the 200 as on the 50. Here’s how the TT imprints a valuable habit. When you swim for a while with a particular count – say 40 SPL in a 50m pool – you know the feel of 40 SPL. An SPL of 41 or 42 feels different.  On sets like this, your focus narrows to two objects: (i) the feel of each stroke at your desired SPL; and (ii) the beep. Regardless of whether I’m swimming a single length, or four or 20 lengths in a row, my thoughts are only to maintain the efficient-stroking sensation and match it to the beep. The result is that I swim unerring and unvarying pace yet my thoughts never stray from the stroke I’m taking. The end of the set arrives. I haven’t tried to maintain pace. And yet I have. Any swimmer who can program him/herself to swim this way for a mile or more has a powerful tool. That can start with a relatively short set like this.

Set #5 Constant Tempo, Decrease Distance

This is highly similar to Constant Distance, Decrease Tempo. One metric remains the same. The other gets easier. When either variable eases, the desired outcome is to save a few SPL (i.e. increase Stroke Length) along the way.

Swim 200+150+100+50 @ 1.10. Rest 25-20-15 beeps between swims. Count strokes.

This was a mirror image of the previous set. My SPL average as I increased distance had been 39. Though the distances are all the same, by starting with longer and progressively shortening reps, I hoped to be able to save a stroke or two along the way. Starting at 200 I would need particularly acute focus from the start. If I keep focus at that high level, while distance decreases, I hope to be able to cut a stroke off here and there. In fact I did save two strokes along the way, over the total I had going up.  In this case I was trying to avoid increasing effort as repeats got shorter so any reduction in SPL – i.e. increase in speed – would need to come from increased precision.



Terry Laughlin is Founder and Head Coach of Total Immersion Swimming. He used the Tempo Trainer to ‘crack the code’ on speed, winning 6 USMS Long Distance titles and breaking national age group records on three occasions since turning 55 in 2006. Read more articles like this at