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by Tim Elson

September 3, 2010

As a former swim coach, I would say that one of the most fundamental functions a coach serves is to give immediate feedback to an athlete after a swim. The process goes something like this: “As soon as you finish your swim, make sure you loosen down then come look at your splits.” That immediate feedback is dominated by numbers. After all, we race to achieve the lowest numbers.

Inevitably what happens during this little conference is that the coach will say, “See this first 50? WAY too fast, that’s why you died all over the place.” Next time around it may be, “See this first 50? WAY too slow.” Competitive swimmers everywhere have agonized over this seemingly impossible demand of the coach from the very beginning of competitive swimming until now. The problem is that first 50, sometimes 25, and sometimes even the first 12 and a half dictate the success or failure of the entire race.

Go out too fast, you die like a dog. Go out too slow you’re never in the race. OK, we get that. Now, how do you find that perfect first 25, 50 etc? Many coaches swear by the use of a swimming metronome. There are different types of swimming metronomes: a coach blowing a whistle or clapping their hands on the pool deck incrementally, having your waterproof MP3 player play music that has a certain BPM (beats per minute) or an actual waterproof metronome.

A small waterproof metronome fits under your cap. Some have waterproof buttons to scroll it up or down by hundredths of a second and emit a beep at whatever setting you choose. For instance if you set it at eight tenths of a seconds, you’ll hear a beep every eight tenths of a second. Put it under your cap, every time you hear the beep your hand hits the water. This ensures a very consistent cadence, tempo, pace, etc.

There are countless ways you can use a metronome to help you find your perfect pace. In fact I would say you are only limited by your own creativity. Perhaps the easiest way to develop that perfect first 25 is to learn to find the optimum combination of your stroke rate with your stroke length. Learn that and you’ll learn how to find that sweet spot in your pacing. The below drill will help you find that perfect combination of rate and stroke length.

Getting Started:

10 x 25’s with lots of rest, 2 minutes is good so to ensure high intensity and a minimum of cheating. In the first two 25s, establish opposite ends of a continuum. At one extreme you have max rate, at the other end you have max distance per stroke. Start with the metronome setting of .40 or four tenths of a second, which is very fast, in essence that’s a spin drill for the first 25.

When finished, you may think, “Wow great turnover, but I’m not pulling any water.” That’s ok -- you’re going to put that up on the far left of your continuum representing max rate.

On the next 25, scroll the metronome up to .70 or seven tenths of a second. On the surface the difference between four tenths and seven tenths doesn’t sound huge but it is dramatically different in the pool. Listen to what .70 sounds like. It really is almost twice as slow, and you will have to reach more on the front end, pull under your body harder, even roll your hips a little, and it feels great; but it’s just not fast enough. This is ok though, because that is going on the far right of your continuum, representing max distance per stroke.

Here’s where it gets fun, on the far left you’ve got four tenths on the far right you’ve got seven tenths. On the third 25, instead of four tenths (.40), set it at .42, then on the next one instead of .70, set it at .68, then .44 then .66 then .46 then .64 so we’re working our way toward the middle and trying to find that sweet spot, and at some point you will say, “Yeah that feels good,” and your coach will say “that’s it!”

The final authentication of this drill will be the stopwatch, because when you find the optimum combination of stroke rate and stroke length, you will be swimming as fast as you are capable of swimming. You can do that with every stroke, every distance. That is just one example of how to get started. The most popular waterproof metronome is the Tempo Trainer by Finis and retails for $40.