Someone asked me what I thought about swimming and why they seemed to swim many times a week for months on end and never seem to improve. So here is what I've learned, and what has been told to me. Also some useful resources:
1. I think that swimming early, or doing any sport for that matter early, is a plus. People who have swam competitively while in high school/college definitely have a leg up. They already have built up key muscles which you or I do not have not...yet.
2. Definitely genetics has something to do with it. I am a butt dragger. I need to really work at bringing my butt up higher, whereas others with different body shapes and compositions seem to ride higher naturally, and thus can focus on other things. This just gives me one more thing to worry about and when I get tired, my butt starts dropping and I get slower. There are other things like size of your hand, length of arm, body proportions (ie. do your proportions look like Michael Phelps'?) that just make you more capable of swimming faster with more ease, rather than working at it.
3. There seems to be a upper bound to swim speed for most people. I think this has more to do with body shape and composition, but also there is a training component as well.
4. My ART doctor told me he works on this competitive swimmer. He's got this muscle in his armpit area that is as thick as my bicep. That comes from swimming 10,000m PER DAY, 5 days per week. It would be amazing if I crossed 10,000m in a week, which usually happens but depends on whether I make a 4000+ swim on Saturdays. To get there, this guy must have been swimming for years, if not a decade or two. I would not recommend doing this next week without proper preparation. So two things here:
a. You need to get to a certain level of volume which implies a certain level fitness and strength. That gives you strength and endurance to power through a race which is much shorter than your training regimen.
b. Where in the world do we working people find the time to swim 10K meters a day? We can barely get through two workouts of two disciplines each day. So just time limitations of life make it difficult to achieve such status. By the way, my coach once worked out with Chris McCormack, the pro Ironman guy. He said this guy's typical day is go to the pool and swim 7000m, then ride about 4 hours at pretty high speed, then run for about an hour, and then jump back in the pool for another 4000m. these pros have the time and motivation to get their bodies primed for such punishment, which equates to incredible excellence during a race.
5. Swimming is a highly technical sport, more so than biking or running. Maintaining strict form is really important for efficiency and speed. People tell me it takes years to do this through an entire workout. When you get tired, your form starts sucking and then you slow down. So here I thought that a video analysis of my swimming at Marc Evans' flume was really valuable in figuring out what I was doing wrong. One of my major focuses is to keep working on the form so that it is neuromuscularly burned into my brain and muscles and I don't have to concentrate on maintaining form. This may be something you'd want to work on in more detail.
6. Last year, I managed to swim 2000m straight at a less than 2:00 pace. It was an amazing thing for me. I even did IM NZ swim leg at 1:55 pace, although it was with a wetsuit. But then I had this nerve pinch thing and it atrophied my right tricep, so now im building my strength back up. I think that after a winter break, we tend to slow down anyways and then we speed up again with base building and moving into build phase of training.
7. To me, if I can sprint at a speed, at some point i can achieve something close to it for long distance. At least that's my goal. Of course I can't keep a threshold pace the whole way, but I should be able to get close to it.
8. I got see saw days too. It happens a lot with triathlon. Yesterday, I ran long and hard, about 12 miles in 1:49 which is very close to my race pace by about :30/mile. It wiped me out for today's workout and I really tanked on the 5x100 drafting round robin and I really died on the 800. So I think a previous day's workout can definitely affect your swim workout. And sometimes I jump in the pool and can't get a proper rhythm down so I'm slower. I suppose if you really wanted to get better at something, you'd want to focus solely on it and forget other sports. I find I like to run a marathon at the end of the season, after getting all the other triathlons out of the way. It allows me to focus solely on running faster, and it has really helped my marathon speed. I don't get drained by long/hard bike sessions as well as long swim sessions. My body can recover from damage better as well.
9. By the way, we're getting older. Perhaps we're past our prime on some kinds of sports. We get more prone to injury so we need to be careful. When i train for triathlon, I find I can only run 3x /week. When i marathon train alone, I run 4-5x /week. But I did manage to up my bike training to 5-6x /week by varying the duration and intensity of the workouts, and allowing for recovery. So we can still build some adaption to higher volumes even at our age! But since our growth hormone levels aren't anywhere near when we were in high school, can we build these massive swim muscles needed for fast, long distance swimming at lightspeed?
10. I think that swimming at Master's workouts is tough from the perspective of preparation for races. If I could, I would have an individual program setup to peak at my races, using periodization. For example, it was really hard to come off the winter break and jump into speed sets. That was definitely not the right thing. I should have had at least a month of endurance base building before really starting speed workouts. There is none of that with most Master's swim workouts. It seems very random. So I started doing some of my own planning around Master's workouts. I started adding 4000+ swims to build endurance. I also added one day of speed training on Mondays when I am down in LA - shorter total length, but lots of sprints. Then on Wednesdays, I usually go to Master's and swim whatever he gives us. On Saturdays I do the super long swim. definitely I think one way for you to improve is to get on a well developed progression versus swimming semi-random workouts. You might do better with stanford - they post the type of workouts for each day of the week ahead of time, and do a rough periodization. so if you could vary the days you go to hit the certain types of workouts, for a given periodization/peak you are trying to reach.
11. Btw, swimming is the least impt sport. Why worry about improving this for only a few minutes more off your total time?
12. You can also try weight lifting. I have found stretch cord workouts to be very beneficial. Lots of tricep work helps.
13. i have a great book called Swimming Fastest by Ernest W. Maglischo. $45 retail, $29 at amazon. Iit's a huge hardcover monstrosity but also has the latest in swimming research from a science point of view. Very cool stuff. explains a lot on how to get faster.
By the way, I have also read many books on swimming. No two coaches agree on anything. It's very confusing as coaches will say what they think is important, and also which tools help the most or least. My take on all that is that everybody needs to find what works for them, given their age, body composition, and fitness level.