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Why do I have a hard time to swim fast if I am so fit in running and biking?

Every Saturday or Sunday morning somewhere in Canada, Europe or else triathletes or fitness people come together on a pool deck to experience swimming. Some of them can ride 180km, run 42 km, when it comes to swimming they have a hard time to stay on the surface of the water. Their frustration is simple and widespread.

You bike regularly for some time and sooner or later you become a better biker.

Runners can do some hill repeats on a regular base and you become a faster runner.
Why does not swimming work in the same way?

One most foremost answer is that water is a complete different medium than air, and swimming is a completely unnatural activity for most dry-land living humans.
In water the rules of physics are the same but the approach to carry them out are different.
If you want to improve swimming by harder training (more distance or weight training a training principle for biker and runner), you will make your struggling skills in water more permanent.
The solution is some knowledge and a willingness to practice swimming in a different way how to train cycling and running.

A quote from the book Total immersion by Terry Laughlin:
Running and Cycling are sports, Swimming is an art.

If you intend to do a triathlon and do some math how much time you spend during the swim, bike and run you will figure that the swim part is actually the shortest one. The question is: Why worry about the swim? I will put all my strength into the bike course and on the run and do just fine. Right.

If you struggle during the swim and use up a lot of energy during the first 25 to 40 minutes because you swim like a tug boat rather than a speed boat you are already tired while entering the first transition from swim to bike.
The remaining energy level for bike and run depletes very fast because the bike and the run course need more time to complete and both sports demand a lot of energy.

What about a more efficient swimming. Not necessarily a faster swimmer but more efficient so the energy consumption during the swim part is less and you go into the first transition easy and refreshed. In biking you have the option to shift gears depend on the situation. Why not in swimming having different strokes available that depends on the situation in the water. Short and aggressive at the beginning, long during the middle, short and / or medium while at the turn-around and a different one when you pick your landmarks.

Let us start swimming

The water is our problem in swimming. Humans are connected via gravity to the ground. Therefore, we are fighting the water, basic instinct is not to drown rather than work with it. There are only a few people on this planet who have almost solved this problem. I will give you some names, Sheila Taormina, I saw her swimming in Florida, Ian Thorpe, Michael Phelps, Alex Popov, Mark Spitz....because these people have a very rare gift, and coaches call it: the feel of the water. We can learn it to a certain extend, the feel of the water.

First, what holds us human back for doing it?

We think we sink. Fighting the sinking feeling. Every stroke we do push us up to the surface of the water to catch air. Rather swimming in a straight line we are doing push ups instead moving forward only.

We fight the water. Water is 800 times denser than air. Virtually it is a wall. Try to walk in water (water walking is an excellent exercise for runners, low impact), try to run in water. Whoo!! That is close impossible, so what you feel is drag. We usually overcome the drag by pushing harder but that increases our drag and we slow down again.

We churn the arms. Runner move through air and they propel forward by pushing off solid ground, swimming is similar as running through jelly matter. Since we do not have any traction control in water, our response will be churning the arms.
We experience that action every winter in Canada. The spinning car wheels when they hit ice. That additional energy produces extra turbulences and therefore drag.

The solution

Learn to balance yourself in the water.
Avoid struggle
Learn to rotate from one side to the other side (180 degree, 90 degree each side)
Learn to pierce through the water
Learn to coordinate the movements
Learn to swim with your body as whole not with your arm and legs.