The art of swimming well “without” the use of a pull-buoy and wetsuit!!
If I had a penny for every time I saw or heard of a triathlete “suffering” from the same problem you are having, I would be running a very well stocked triathlon store.
Your problem is indeed a very common one amongst some triathletes who would gladly buy a wetsuit were it available, that came with a pull-buoy built into it to aid their flotation. I would classify a swim triathlete as either a “natural” swimmer or a “sinker”. From what we have seen over the last few years as the sport has grown, the “sinker” seems to be pretty prevalent – ie someone who cannot stay afloat easily without extra buoyancy that say a pull-buoy or wetsuit can provide.
Certain triathletes do not possess the natural ability to swim on top of the water but rather, tend to drag themselves through the water. The legs and hips drop significantly in the forward freestyle position which then causes a huge amount of drag through the water as they struggle to remain afloat. When using a pull-buoy or wetsuit, this problem tends to be minimised as the legs are then elevated thus allowing the triathlete to swim on top of the water, rather than through the water. Speed will certainly increase in this case and that is why you swim faster when using the wetsuit and the pull-buoy. How do we fix this? Easier said than done!
Kicking Drills would be a great place to start. You need to develop a stronger kick where the feet and ankles are forced closer together and the power generated from the kick is significantly increased. Incorporate more kicking drills into your swim programs on a weekly basis. A stronger and more technically sound kick (ankles together as opposed to a wide split scissor kick) will help elevate the legs and improve your current predicament.
Swim Drills where you concentrate on lowering the head position in the water will also assist with this problem. A lower head position through the water will naturally lift the buttocks and that will cause less drag on the legs. Some catch-up drills (single arm power pulls with lots of kicking) incorporated into the swim program will contribute to fixing this problem.
Dry-land weight training that increases ones upper body strength may also contribute to fixing the problem. Stronger arm, back and shoulder muscles will give you some extra power in the water which may help elevate those droopy legs and minimise the drag.
There is no quick fix or definite answer to the problem that you are experiencing. Hard work in the pool as well as diligence and patience in your swim training will certainly go a long way to improving your swim speed without the aid of the wetsuit or pull-buoy. That is the true beauty of triathlon and a sport that requires mastering three different disciplines. You may never quite reach the “Holy Grail” of swimming much faster without that wetsuit or pull-buoy but it will keep you motivated to come back for more.