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Frustrated with slow swimming – do I need a coach?

posted over 2 years ago | Report

About 15 months ago I could not swim more than one lap before I ran out of breath. Once I started going to pool 2-3 times a week, 6 months later I completed m first Olympic distance triathlon. Now, swimming a mile is not a problem at all, but after getting excited with the initial progress, about 8 months ago I reached a plateau. Now, I can’t seem to make a dent in my swims. I can do a mile in 38-39 minute range, but would love to do fewer than 35 and would kill for fewer than 30. What are the changes that I can improve by 3-5 minutes after few private 1 hour sessions with a swim coach? Can anybody speak from experience?

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  • My guess is that your previous swimming progress was done via brute force - going with the idea that the more time you put into the activity, the better you will be, but without a whole lot of attention as to precisely *how* you were going to improve. So, as a result, you probably gained a good deal of arm/shoulder/back muscle strength and endurance, and also improved form to some degree (but probably without knowing it, or at least without realizing little tweaks that were happening over time to improve form).

    Swimming is far less about 'building the engine' that is so common with running and cycling, and virtually all about form and streamlining. So that is what needs to be worked on - how to streamline through the water more efficiently, as opposed to powering through it. Especially in triathlons - sprinting 50m in the olympics assuredly has a lot more to do with dumping of raw power as quickly as possible. That is not to say form doesn't come into play - I'm sure Michael Phelps has impeccable form - I'm just saying that the balance for him of form to power is probably far closer to 50/50 than average joe triathletes like you or I.

    Anyway, I was in a similar boat as you - when I started swimming again a couple years ago, I had to rest after each 50 yd lap. I looked into form a bit, toyed with it, and got myself into the same range as you - about 39 minutes for the mile long Oly tri swim distance. Then I discovered Total Immersion, and completely reinvented my swimming. Now I can go for 1.5 miles in 45 minutes, and have plenty left in the tank for more (honestly, the biggest reasons I stop is because either (1) the pool is closing or (2) it gets boring and I know that right now, for what I'm training for, I'm better off spending my time on the bike or improving my running).

    What I did was this:
    1) Picked up the Total Immersion book (ISBN-13: 978-0743253437). Worked on the drills contained within for a few months until I got to the point where I wasn't sure what to work on next
    2) Found a local TI coach for an hour long session to find things to tweak. I was able to learn a lot from the book (some people can, some have a harder time) - but there are always things you can do to improve that you can't self-diagnose. Worked on specifics that were discovered from this session. One week after this session, I did an oly tri and dropped my time from 39 minutes to 35-36.
    3) Picked up the Total Immersion DVD (ASIN: B001GBIOTG) as a supplement to the book. Having video helped me visualize things better. Continued to work on drills and items found from the coaching session. This got me down to the 31-32 minute range for a mile.
    4) Had a second coaching session once I felt like I reached another plateau and wasn't sure what to work on next. Spent the next several months working on things such as switching from 4 or 6 beat kick to a two beat kick, getting comfortable breathing from the left side so I could begin bilateral breathing, head positioning, extended arm position, etc. Currently at the 1.5 miles in 45 minutes I mentioned before.
    5) At this point I figure it's good enough for my goals right now, and I've put swimming on the back burner in favor of improving my cycling and running again. Once May or so hits, I'll start going back to the pool for some quick refresher swims, and then just do a couple 2 mile swims in late June/early July in prep for the Ironman at Lake Placid in July.

    (I dont say any of this to brag - plenty of people do the 2.4 mile swim in less time than I do - I just mention my numbers as a point of reference for what is achievable by looking exclusively @ form)

    So, thats my story. I've done maybe 3-4 sessions in the pool where I do any sort of intervals or anything like that - and most of the reason was just to change things up a bit. I found that the real secret is to concentrate on form as priority #1. I worked on one aspect at a time until it became part of muscle memory, and then found something else to work on. I may not have gone the most efficient route - perhaps starting all over from scratch and going through all the drills progressively instead of cherry picking them as I felt like I could work on them would have been more time efficient - but it all eventually came together.

    To get a taste, go to youtube and google 'total immersion perpetual motion freestyle' for a six part series from a lecture. That'll give you a real good idea of the approach.

    Good luck!

    posted over 2 years ago

  • Holy crap that ended up longer than I thought it would. Sorry :)

    posted over 2 years ago

  • Ryan,

    I really appreciate you taking the time to share your experience and tips. Almost nothing can be more convincing that the right technique is the key than seeing the results you described. I am encouraged. Maybe there is a hope for me, that focusing on the developing technical aspects (one at a time) as opposed to strength will bring the desired results.

    I have seen few TI clips on youtube and even watched one video (once), but did not really try to systematically go with the program. After reading your post, I will approach TI seriously and work on one aspect at a time. I will get the book you posted. There are also 1day TI workshops in different cities (Chicago has one in March). I am contemplating if I should drop $450 and participate.

    Again, thanks for the response and I hope that others swimmers in my situation benefit from it.

    Marcin

    posted over 2 years ago

  • I've thought about one of those weekend TI seminars as well. I mostly want to see what I look like while swimming, and watch myself in a video as opposed to imagining what I look like. I never quite found the extra $450 to drop on something like that, though.
    I did, however, have my wife get some 1 min clips of my swimming in a lake (she was tailing in a boat for safety) a while back, and that was useful as well - I could tell right away I was bringing my head up to breath. So if you decide that $450 is too rich for your blood as well, something like that can be a nice compromise.

    Best of luck to you! A couple of my DM friends recently had their swimming 'click' - and their posts are hilarious - commenting on how they can now actually swim, feel like they could have continued all day long if they needed, and they keep pinching themselves to make sure it was real. They usually can't wait to hit the water again to repeat the experience.

    posted over 2 years ago

  • Hi Marcin and Ryan M.
    I have just recently joined DM and am concentrating on running at the moment but my background is in swimming. I would agree with Ryan in relation to terry loughlins total immersion approach to swimming. The Drills make you think about every aspect of your stroke and "feeling" both the water and your body position. There are in my opinion two ways to improve your swimming, 1. Reduce your resistance through the water 2. expand your stroke length . Total Immersion will certainly improve your times but you have to persist with it. Stroke counting per length over 10 x 100m f/c set is a good way of giving you a marker of your improvement. Break your mile swim down over 100m pace and after each hundred give yourself 15 seconds and on each hundred concentrate on keeping the stroke count consistent throughout the set.

    posted over 2 years ago

  • I got the book and now I am "forgetting" everything I know about seeming and starting out with the T1 drills. I know I have to embrace myself with patience and create a good muscle memory before I focus on speed.

    posted over 2 years ago

  • I got the book and now I am "forgetting" everything I know about seeming and starting out with the T1 drills. I know I have to embrace myself with patience and create a good muscle memory before I focus on speed.

    posted over 2 years ago

  • Hi Marcin,

    I've been swimming for years the 'wrong way'. I could swim for hours and not get very far. Took me over 3 hours to do an 8 km / 5 mile river swim one year. In the last month, I've been adjusting my swim sessions just by watching a few videos on TI. Just type in 'total immersion perpetual motion freestyle' on You Tube and you'll get a few coaching videos.
    By self coaching, I'm slowly but surely getting the hang of it as I litterally feel myself moving through the water. Yep! That feeling is great. Still working on it.
    Best of luck in your swimming endeavors. Actually, luck has nothing to do with it. Practice! Practice! Practice! Tweek! Tweek! Tweek! Keep on looking at those videos, reading the books and getting time in the pool doing the drills, until you FEEL it.
    Future Irongranny here!

    :+)

    posted over 2 years ago

  • Thanks for the response and encouragement. It got the TI book and now the video. I realize that for me the key at this point is patience with the drills. I want so badly swim again when in the pool, but I know that drills first. One step at a time and hopefully the results will start to come. I am slowing staring to get the same sensation of "moving through the water" :-) Feels good indeed.

    posted over 2 years ago

  • in reply to what Marcin B. said:Thanks for the response and encouragement. It got the TI book and now the video. I realize that for me the key at this point is patience with the drills. I want so badly swim again when in the pool, but I know that drills first. One step at a ti... read more

    Thats great to hear!

    Peter mentioned something I forgot about - stroke counting. Basically, as you get more efficient, it takes fewer strokes to cross the length of the pool. Every so often I count strokes at various points in my swim. Inevitably, I am much more efficient in the beginning, when my 50yd time is around 42-43 seconds as opposed to 1/2 way through my workout when I am looking at closer to 50 seconds per 50 yd (I still start out way too fast, even when I think I'm going slow!). In the beginning, it may only take me about 15.5 strokes to go 25 yds, and usually when I settle into the 50 seconds per 50 yd pace, I'm closer to 18 strokes. From what I gather, people can get down below 15 on a consistent basis.

    So long story short, counting strokes for a set distance is a really good way to determining your level of efficiency through the water.

    posted over 2 years ago

  • I would google some basic drills and watch videos of them online first. Try that. Time a mile and apply your new skills. If you don't have any improvements, THEN seek a coach. Mind as well try and save the money if you can.

    posted over 2 years ago

  • Marcin, I don't know if you are still reading this post or not. But, I've been thinking about your question. I just completed a sprint tri, my fourth one, and my swim time was three minutes faster than ever before. Here is what I focused on this year:

    Keeping my chin closer to my chest for better rotation during my breaths, taking frequent breaths and alternating sides, lifting my elbow out of the water first and focus on the re-entry with BENT elbows. (No one that swims with straight arms will ever have an efficient stroke...and I can outswim them every time) Also in my practices, I always go for distance...shorter sprints are ok, but not more than 4 X 100 or so. In my experience it's better to go for an efficient stroke for a longer distance when training for a tri than for the opposite.

    I hope this helps and good luck with the training!!

    posted about 2 years ago

  • Yes, I still follow this thread and thank you for responding and great tips. After practicing now for about 4 months the TI drills, I can see good improvement in the pool. Some 4 and 3 weeks ago I had my first TRIs this season and my swimming did not improve as much as the pool times would suggest. I guess every TRI swimming course is a little different and there is just too many variables in OW swimming to compare events. The bottom line is that I still need to focus on those drills and add some speed work. Any tips, including those from you April will be added to my " training portfolio". Again, much appreciated and good luck with your training as well !

    posted about 2 years ago

  • in reply to what Marcin B. said:Yes, I still follow this thread and thank you for responding and great tips. After practicing now for about 4 months the TI drills, I can see good improvement in the pool. Some 4 and 3 weeks ago I had my first TRIs this season and my swimming di... read more

    As far as OW Swimming, I find that the "seasoned triathletes" try to line up in front of me at the start, but 9 times out of 10 I'm passing them. So, I've taken a new strategy...I go as far to the left as possible (I breathe predominately left so they don't splash in my face) and I just blast past them. It's better to get out in front than get stuck in the pack...but, if they are being ego maniacs...just let them go and pass them on the sides--but try to stay in a straight line!!

    In my experience there are not many good swimmers that do the tris--they count on their bike and run to get them through. Which makes it easier for me to outswim them and negate as many "variables" in the open water as possible!

    posted about 2 years ago

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