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I started training for triathlons 3 years ago and have completed one Olympic distance race each year (in addition to 2-3 half-Marathons per year). I train year-round because it helps me stay in shape. I don't train for races and I mainly compete against myself, but doing a race helps me push my limits. I spend most of my training time with running because it gives me the best workout and I can do it in the winter, but I do enjoy riding and open-water swimming as soon as I can get out. I am in the pond from late April through late October. I am having knee trouble right now and stopped running. As a result, I swim more than in previous years and I pay more attention to how I am doing in the water.

When I began with triathlon training at the age of 48, I initially struggled with finding a freestyle rhythm. I kept switching back to breast stroke. My breathing technique improved quickly, though, and I can now do 2400 meter freestyle swims in open water comfortably without stopping because I have to catch my breath or I swallowed water.

I usually start with a 3-2-3-2 breathing pattern but can sustain a 3-3 pattern as well if I pace myself a little. I can switch between patterns as needed. I pay attention to my form, try to be streamlined, stretch my arm forward, pull back strongly all the way, minimize body roll, look down and keep my neck relaxed. I really feel comfortable in the water at all times. I have books about swimming techniques for triathletes and I seem to be doing everything they say.

But - no matter what I try, I can't swim faster than about 2:30/100m, which appears fast to me but is abysmally slow in comparison and puts me into the bottom 5% in the swim in every race. My biking and running is more middle-of-the-road, so this is not a general physical limitation of my body. Clearly, I must be doing something wrong in the water.

Based on other forum posts, it appears that most people who start out swimming struggle with breathing or fear or other "minor" barriers. Once they overcome this, they can swim a competitive pace. In my case, I don't experience the typical beginner's problems. I am just slow, and I can't find much direct advice that would help me figure out why.

I realize that I could take lessons, do laps in a controlled environment (pool), etc. I am concerned that I will end up spending time and money on a trainer and pool lessons that may not help me because I am swimming already at the ceiling of my abilities. I am not ready for this. On the other hand, I am so much slower than where I think I should be (at least 20% to 30%) that there must be an obvious cause. I am not just looking to fine-tune my form.

What should I do?

  • Get a coach. We can't tell you what's wrong with your swimming, but they will be able to. – Philip Kendall Jun 15 '15 at 18:00
  • Look for a Masters swim program in your area - they often have a good-sized triathlete contingent. As @PhilipKendall says, a coach is a good idea, and really the only way to observe and diagnose issues. Swimming laps may allow you to focus on speed without needing to navigate. – Jon Custer Jun 15 '15 at 22:46
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I used Triathlete Magazine's Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide: Plans, Scheduling Tips, and Workout Goals for Triathletes of All Levels. The author maintained that developing speed in the swim portion for triathletes comes from improving technique. Most triathletes begin triathlons after becoming competent runners or cyclists first. Very few begin triathlons already being a competent swimmer. He was saying (nicely) newer triathletes could stand to learn how to swim better.

Lessons with a coach/swim instructor will improve your technique. Then you can gain muscle memory in a controlled environment, that is, a pool.

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If you didn't swim competitively as a youth, you likely need to start from the beginning to build a technically correct stroke. Because water is so much more dense than air, drag from the water is the main thing keeping people slow when trying to swim fast. Without seeing your stroke I wouldn't hazard to coach you other than to say it is very likely your technique that is holding you back, not your strength or fitness. I would recommend getting someone to video you in the pool them compare what you see to some Olympic level talent, only from a stroke mechanics standpoint. I would bet every aspect of your mechanics from simple body position on to the fine points of your catch, pull, breathing, kicking, etc. needs improvement.

If you do a YouTube search on "swimming freestyle progression", you will see lots of instructional videos with specific drills to help you improve. The answer recommending getting coaching is absolutely correct, but seeing yourself on video will help you come to the same conclusion. It's very difficult to swim correctly without an external set of eyes to evaluate you and give feedback.

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OK, even if triathletes who have not been swimmers are notoriously crappy at swimming, and even if you are almost 50, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to do a sub 2'00" per 100. My suspicion is that it mostly has to do with technique, although cycling and running will leave you lacking in upper body strength too.

The advice you got in the comments is good: find a local masters team, or a triathlon club with a good swim coach. Also, definitely train more in the pool to gain speed and correct technique. Open water swimming is too different from pool swimming to really be able to give the same benefits.

The most common technique flaw in non-swimmers trying to swim is lifting the head. As you lift the head ever so slightly you make your legs sink. That increases drag a lot, since drag depends on the cross-section area you present to the water. That's probably why "total immersion" is so popular with triathletes ans swim-runners.

Another technique flaw you might have gained by not swimming enough pool swimming is lack of reach and finish, and lack of rotation, either as a consequence or cause of the former. In a wetsuit it is easy to swim too flat, not rotating properly, and as a consequence not reaching far enough to catch the water. And when you don't reach, you automatically don't finish, missing the last part of the stroke that would have given the most speed. To gain this technique you require strong core muscles and lats, delts and pecs, so don't cheat out on some gym exercising in addition to the running and cycling.

And good luck!

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