Aim For Stroke Length Ease

1403 Stroke Length Ease

This is related to the previous and following posts:

Here is a comment I received from a swimmer recently (and asked permission to repost):

My usual SPL is around 17/18. On really slow tempos–1.6 and up, I can do 16. but as soon as I increase the TT, I usually can only save 1 stroke as I reach the beginning setting (usually 1.4) So the calculations for my SPL (15 to 20) were in my ballpark.

What I really find hard is the exercise where you establish “N” and then either try to go N+1 or N-1. Haven’t got the feel yet. My stroke needs a lot of work and I also need to work more with the TT. I find it tenses me up and takes a lot of focus for me to relax with it.


To clarify above, she had been doing the math, from the previous post, to estimate her appropriate Strokes Per Length (SPL) range (15-20 SPL). “N” refers to what would be her lowest appropriate SPL. If, for her, N = 16, then N+1 = 17, and N+2 = 18. This would be her 3-point SPL Sweet Spot that she would use in her practice: 16 to 18 SPL.

Here is my comments on her situation:

I suggest that she spend less time with the TT right now, and keep this objective – solve the puzzle of making 16 SPL feel easier.

To make it feel easier she needs to reduce drag outside the body and reduce resistance inside the body. By using TI drills and associated focal points to direct attention outside the body and inside the body she can isolate points of drag, points of tension, and areas of poor core control in her 16 SPL stroke. And by addressing those one-by-one, it will, by design, get easier and easier to hold 16 SPL. The focus of the training is to lower drag and resistance, not lower SPL. SPL will get easier (or lower) as a result of that focus – ‘SPL + Ease’ is simply a way to measure that drag and resistance are decreasing.

For a while, until control over SPL becomes well imprinted in her neuro-muscular system, I recommend she train for SPL without the Tempo Trainer on this project. It is possible that she is creating a distracting level of stress by challenging both SPL and Tempo at the same time and this will hinder her progress. Tempo work will come later.

It would be better to take the time to build comfortable control over the SPL at whatever natural tempo allows her to do it. Once it gets ‘comfortable’, then pick up the Tempo Trainer again and use a Comfortable Tempo. After working with that for a while, she can gradually challenge that 16 SPL stroke at both fast and slow ends of her Comfortable Tempo Zone. This will expand her sense of ease at 16 SPL further.

For this swimmer, she is already capable of achieving 16 SPL, so she can work at that  right now. But what if a swimmer calculates that his SPL should be 16, but he is only capable of 22 right now? Good question! He will follow the same process, but at incremental SPL improvements. If 22 is already his tested best SPL he may first aim to hold 21 SPL until it becomes easier. Then he will aim for 20 until it becomes easier. Then 19, then 17, then 16. By solving the puzzle of ease from 22 SPL to 21 SPL, he will be developing the skill and sensitivity he needs to lower it further. This process may take days, weeks, or months. His own body and brain will reveal how much time this transformation requires.


Why not use the Tempo Trainer?

If I can use an analogy: Using a Tempo Trainer takes up bandwidth in the brain. You’ve only got so much at any given moment (like your computer or internet can only handle some many apps running at one time). The more challenging the Tempo the more bandwidth it takes up. Even the act of just focusing on an easy Tempo beep itself takes up part of the concentration, and is sometimes more disruptive to performance than helpful. If you are also taking up bandwidth with an SPL challenge then you may not have enough left to add the beeping Tempo Trainer on top of it. This may either cause too much stress or cause failure in the exercise.

But keep this in mind: the brain wants just the right amount of challenge, not too much and not too little, in order to expand its abilities. At some point, when that stroke gets to a certain level of ease, your brain will ask you to increase the challenge. And this is when it is time to add the Tempo Trainer or some other complexity multiplier to the equation. This understanding of the brain is central to neurologically-oriented training methods.

Do you have to slow down?

If a swimmer feels any pressure to keep up the speed while she works on lowering her SPL then she may be feeling the common mythical fear that ‘slowing down to imprint this stroke skill will make me a slower swimmer’. She must call the bluff on this myth. By slowing down to build a longer stroke by means of lowering drag she will, in fact, become capable of higher speeds with less effort than she could before. Only by calling the bluff and letting herself slow down to increase concentration will she discover the power of this well-established neurological process.

But then, when that 16 SPL stroke starts to feel easier, she can take up the Tempo Trainer at a Comfortable Tempo and then practice not just holding that 16 SPL, but relaxing at 16 SPL x Comfortable Tempo. Given some imprinting time it will start to get even easier.

It could take 6x 50 meters to relax into that 16 SPL x Comfortable Tempo. It could take 3x 6x 50 meters to relax. It could take 2 practices. It could take 2 weeks until it feels normal and natural to swim that way. The point is, be faithful to the process and not to your expectation for a certain result in a certain time-frame. It takes time and your body will tell you what it needs to reach your goal. By being more patient in the beginning you will experience more consistent improvement later on. That is the promise of this method.

If you want to speed up the imprinting process you can: as much as possible, increase mindfulness, improve the feedback loop, and increase frequency in your training (with proper rest in there of course) – in that order of importance.


9 responses to “Aim For Stroke Length Ease

  1. Hi Coach Mat

    Just read your post and at last I feel as if I have some direction in my practices. I value your advice and am committing to boxing up the TT and work towards imprinting an easier (and more consistent)stroke skill. Thank you so much for this post and I will keep in touch with you as I progress.There is one hitch here tho, my husband and I are celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary and going on a 1 week cruise. Will try to do as much as I can in the ship’s pool or at a beach. When we get back I will try to add more swim sessions to speed up the process. but I am committed for whatever time it takes.

    Thanks again.


    p.s. I don’t swim in a lap pool, it is roughly 70 feet long and I am 5′ 3″, so I feel the SPL charts of 16 to 21 spls are correct

  2. Matt,

    I’m really pleased to read your ideas about this post, as my own TI experiences strongly support the idea of doing without the TT until you have a solid grasp on form and balance. When I re-started TI a couple of years ago, I spent three months (1.5 to 2 hours at a time, 5 days a week) working without a TT, simply doing short repeats (often no longer than 25 yards) and focusing on ease and relaxation, and FEELING what my body was doing. I didn’t even have any particular goals in mind other than developing awareness and enjoying the silent time in the water all by myself–very peaceful, yet extremely mindful in a strangely passive, non-judgmental observer way.

    With no idea how fast I was going (I never looked at a pace clock either), I was able to pretty consistently swim 50 yd repeats with flip turns at 12 SPL (I’m 6′ 2″ and it was a 25 yd pool). On 25 yd repeats I could often hit 11 SPL, sometimes 10, and a couple of times, 9. Granted, this was all much slower than optimal swimming speeds, with an excessively low stroke rate–but I’m convinced it’s exactly that which built my foundation for what happened later. You can’t swim that slowly without getting most balance issues right, I suspect.

    Eventually Terry Laughlin responded to some of posts on the TI Forum, suggesting I should really be thinking about optimal SPL for the situation (meaning SPL was a variable meant to be consciously contolled), not absolute minimum SPL. He encourage me to get a TT and start experimenting with values of 14-16 SPL. When I finally bought a TT and started using it that way, my progress was startlingly fast.

    Suddenly I felt like I had to consciously choose to put in MUCH less effort to fit in those extra strokes. I often found myself running out of room before I could get to stroke #14, for example. And when I learned to shorten it up so I could fit all those strokes in, I was cruising along doing long repeats (500-1,000 yds) all at 14 SPL with very little effort, and going FASTER than I had been doing 50 yd repeats before. When I experimented with 15 and 16 SPL, I found even more speed. Right now it seems like 14 SPL is my favorite cruising mode for longer repeats, while 16 SPL works great for high speed short repeats. I was feeling like I wasn’t working (aerobically) at all. It was amazing. Within a week I was able to CRUISE a 500 yd swim (flip turns) 30 seconds faster than I had been able to RACE it 10 years earlier, when I was the fittest I had ever been. (My present cruising speed is a 7:30 for 500 yds, so I’m not particularly fast and never have been–but it’s fast for me and I’m really enjoying that).

    To sum it up, I really encourage readers to play around with the idea of prioritizing SPL–even excessively low SPL values–for a long time without letting anything else interfere. Then when they return to the TT and other focal points, they’re going to be surprised how quickly they progress.

    I’d be really interested to hear if you have any thoughts about my experience starting TI this way–it has really worked well for me. Thanks again for your post.


    • Yes, I had the luxury of no pressure to perform or race when I first picked up TI. I was naturally keen to measure its affect by regular 1500 time trials (1 or 2 a month) and this convinced me within weeks that I was on to sometime. But I spent a few years doing a lot of drills, not for drill-sake, but to isolate each part and get my stability and my streamline refined to a high degree, which I now enjoy the benefits of. That refinement happens in slower work.

      And yes, we need to stress (because some distort this misunderstanding about TI) that we are aiming for optimal SPL, not absolute minimum. But working out our threshold minimum SPL really strengthens that stability and streamline – so it is very important work to include in one’s training. We reach our optimal SPL zone and then we expand our comfort zone and control within it by working on the uncomfortable edges.

      7:30 for 500 yards is not bad at all. That may be too slow to be called ‘fast’ but it is also too fast to be called ‘slow’. It is a respectable speed especially if you can cruise comfortably at that for several 500s. If you could come join me in the Med I am sure you would be surprised how much farther or faster you could go comfortably with uninterrupted strokes.

  3. One more thought:

    During those 3 months of TT-free swimming, I would usually do a pyramid set aimed at maintaining my best SPL. So after warming up, if I hit 11 SPL at my super-slow 25 yd repeats, I’d try for:

    4 x 25 at 11 SPL
    3 x 50 at 11 SPL (flip turns)
    2 x 75 at 11 SPL (flip turns)
    1 x 100 at 11 SPL (flip turns)

    Then back down (not repeating the 100) if I made it that far. It was pretty common NOT to make it; at that point I would try once more, then re-start the whole thing at the 25 yd repeats for one more try before moving back to short repeats with a general mindfulness/awareness focus. Some days I made it all the way up and down, some days I didn’t. But I never compromised SPL–if I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t finish the cycle, I’d just try again the next day.

    I think that was a big part of building my foundation. It’s pretty rare that I would do the same thing day after day for so long (3 months), but it seems to have really worked well. These days my TI sessions have much more variety, but I think there’s real value in beginners, especially, concentrating on the most important stuff (balance and ease at minimal SPL) and leaving everything else out until they have strong fundamentals.


    • When we restrain ourselves to a certain objective and boundary in a practice set, like you describe above, and we repeat the practice several times, we set up a very fine laboratory to discover finer details about our own condition and skill, and notice the affect of our health, our attitude, our day, etc on the performance that day. If we accomplished the set a previous day under the same parameters, but then did not succeed as well today, then we can look for and discover other factors that play into our performance. Having very specific objectives and being disciplined to the parameters of the set (not forced against what the body needs, but disciplined to stay focused on it, and not distracted by external pressures) allow us to test details in a more objective way – by this we build greater understanding of how our performance works, and a greater ‘dashboard’ of gauges and dials regarding our own body that we can keep an eye on while practicing. It is enriching for the mind and body.

      Good practicing Tom! Keep it up.

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  7. Hi coach Matt.
    This is such a timely blog for me. I stopped using the TT a week ago as I found myself tuning it out after about 20 lengths anyway and then trying to re focus became quite disruptive to my swim.I understand and agree with your analogy about the TT taking up bandwith in our brain.Today without it I have swum a comfortable 2 miles in a 25m pool at an average of 16/17 spl. It took me 55 mins. My best swim so far in my TI journey. A few weeks ago I really struggled on the last 8 or so lengths of the same distance with the TT and my spl was19/20. Spl was less than that when i first started using it 3 months ago so I am putting it away for the moment to focus on relaxed quiet lengths again.

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