Drafting is a technique that’s well understood in race car driving and cycling. In swimming, the effect can be just as big because water is 800x more dense than air and there’s significantly more resistance in the water than on land.
Open water swimming is a fun and exciting sport. One of the reasons it is very different from pool swimming is the concept of drafting. This is where you align yourself with another swimmer(s) to reduce the overall effect of drag due to exploiting the lead swimmer’s slipstream.
Interested in learning how drafting works and how it can make you swim faster in an open water race?
Check out this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday!
Why Draft in Open Water?
Drafting saves energy and makes you swim faster! A study on cyclists found that drafting saved athletes up to 38% energy expenditure, meaning they could ride their bikes just as fast and use significantly less energy that means you can go longer at faster speeds and have more energy at the end of a race.
In an Olympic Distance Triathlon, this could save you 1-2 minutes, and in an Ironman swim over 5 minutes. You also have to factor in the amount of energy you’ll save by swimming in the draft of another swimmer(s).
How to Draft
There are two positions to draft in. One is immediately behind the lead swimmer. This ‘follow feet’ method is relatively simple and requires you to simply swim directly behind another swimmer without touching them. The challenges with this position are it’s harder to spot and you face the turbulence and bubbles of the swimmer in front of you.
It’s always best to ride the bow wave of the lead swimmer. Swimmers displace a lot of water and essentially serve as a displacement vessel. The lead swimmer creates a wave that is optimal to draft off of. This draft does not interfere with your own stroke and allows you to sight less often.
Related: How to Swim in Cold Open Water
What Impacts The Draft
There are a number of different factors that impact how much draft potential you have. The most controllable is your position relative to the other swimmer(s).
- Speed – the faster you move, the more draft there is.
- Size – the larger the swimmer, the more water they displace and the bigger the draft.
- Position – where and how close you are to the draft. The closer you are, the more draft you can take advantage of.
Open Water Drafting Tips
- Match the speed of the swimmer you’re drafting.
- Stay in the draft zone as long as possible.
- Swim parallel to the lead swimmer – ride their bow wave.
- During the middle of the race, swim behind (follow feet).
- Beware of a false sense of speed by drafting a slower swimmer.
- Don’t follow a swimmer who is going off course.
I hope this video was helpful in understanding how drafting can dramatically improve your open water swimming performance. Until next time, happy swimming!