Open Water Skills: Drafting 



One difference between swimming and racing in open water vs swimming in a pool is that you’re often surrounded by other people (and clash into them) during your swim. Although this may make for a more physical swim, it also has it’s upsides. Positioning yourself correctly in relation to the swimmer ahead of you during a swim means you can benefit from sitting in their slipstream resulting in:.

  • Going faster than you could on swimming in isolation  or
  • Swimming at the same speed as usual but expending far less energy.

The benefit from drafting is so significant, it can save over one minute per 1500m. So if your swimming an Ironman distance swim of 3.8km you could be looking at a time saving of 3.5minutes.

There are two main types of drafting:

  1. Swimming directly behind a faster swimmer (the most common)
  2. Swimming to the side of a faster swimmer.

Drafting Directly behind a faster swimmer

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  • The aim is to position your self so you are directly behind the swimmer in front.
  • Be at least one arm length behind them so you don’t swim over the top of them.
  • Keep you extended arm as close to their feet as possible without touching, if you hit their feet you will slow them and yourself down.
  • Watch out for the wash they produce from kicking, it may cause you to swallow water when you try and breath, so adjust your breathing pattern accordingly.
  • Sight regularly, do not rely on the swimmer in front to be taking the correct route.
  • Stick behind the faster simmer for as long as possible, then use your conserved energy to pass them in the final part of the swim


Drafting to the side of a faster swimmer

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  • Position yourself either side of the faster swimmer in front of you.
  • Make sure your shoulder is adjacent to their hip
  • Breath towards the swimmer in front so you can keep an eye on where they are in relation to you. it will be is easier to breath the opposite side, however this will cause you to drift off their draft zone.
  • Sight regularly, do not rely on the swimmer in front to be taking the correct route.
  • Learn to adjust the rhythm of your stroke so your arms don’t clash.
  • You may touch swimmer in front from time to time, this is ok but too often will slow you both down.
  • Don’t swim on top of them as it will slow both of your swim speeds down.
  • It takes constant focus to ensure you don’t drift apart from the swimmer in front.
  • You should be able to feel the wake of the lead swimmer and notice the increase in speed (or decrease in energy)

Practice makes perfect.

  • Find a swim partner who is willing to let you practice drafting with and alternate being the lead swimmer.
  • Become comfortable with swimming in close proximity to another swimmer and understand how you need to adjust your stroke and breathing timing.
  • Practice both drafting potions and find which is most comfortable.
  • If you practice enough then on race day you’ll find yourself naturally entering a draft zone without the need to really think about it.
  • Being familiar with the feeling of drafting will help reduce anxiety on race day.