How much time does drafting save when swimming?

A heck of a lot, actually – we reveal how to maximise the gains on offer


Wondering how much time you can save by drafting off another swimmer? Multisport coach and Ironman veteran Mark Kleanthous explains what’s in it for you…

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>>> Three steps for practising your swim drafting until it’s perfect

Drafting can save you as much as 70secs in an Olympic-distance triathlon and as much as 3:15mins in a 3.8km long-distance swim.

There are many benefits to drafting in swimming, and the faster the speed of the swimmer in front the greater you’ll benefit. During cycling the energy saving is exponential as it’s much quicker, whereas swimming pace is obviously much slower as water is much more dense than air.

First of all you need to establish what type of swimmer you are and look for slightly faster/similar swimmers to follow. This can easily be achieved in the warm-up just by chatting to other race starters. If you’re aware of your competition beforehand then even better!

With practice you can learn to feel the ‘wake’ of the swimmer in front (the disturbed flow of water caused by them moving forwards), and then know the exact location of the swimmer from the feel of the bubbles/movement of them in the water. You can then choose to either draft behind or at the hip of the swimmer in front.

The first place to draft effectively is directly behind and slightly to the side of your preferred breathing side. So if you breathe to the right, get your head in line behind the swimmer’s right leg. Swimming immediately behind produces around a third less drag, compared to drafting at a swimmer’s hip.

The second best place to draft is on the same side as you breathe on, but with the lead swimmer on that same side. So you need to make sure that your body is close to theirs, and inside the wake and dip that they create from their torso movements.

A common drafting mistake is tapping the lead swimmer’s feet. This has a negative impact on both your performances. It distracts their rhythm, which results in their, and your, pace slowing, not to mention irritating them! They can lose concentration, go off course or worse – they slow down to let you pass.

You not only need to overcome the fear and anxiety of drafting, but you also have to make technical stroke adjustments when swimming in open water and using a wetsuit.

Don’t fight against the suit and avoid forcing your stroke, because if you do you’ll simply fatigue very quickly. Instead use a slightly straighter swing recovery arm and combine this with drafting, so you can save as much as 15-25% of your energy.

Remember, drafting needs to be practised well and it takes a lot of getting used to!

(Images: Jonny Gawler)

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