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Drafting: An Open Water Swimmer’s Best Friend

It took me about three years and six or seven open water swims before I discovered drafting. Sure I knew about it, but holding a good stroke, sighting and pacing took all of my attention. Then on about the fourth leg of a 6-leg swim I noticed that I have been seeing the same person all the time. The cap color was the same as mine--so she had started at the same time as me--and I recognized the suit.

Time for a free ride, I told myself. I hitched up to her feet, mindful not to disturb toes. Suddenly I was swimming a recovery lap. I was going the same speed as my leader, but I throttled back about 10%. Damn!

You're well into the race, and there's the same color cap as yours. Time to catch a free ride!

Even since, I’ve looked for situations to draft. It’s trickier when you don’t know the leader, and don’t have “permission” to catch a ride. You’ll need to do sighting to make sure the leader isn’t zig-zagging down the course. If they are, drop the draft and look for someone else. Same goes for big kickers who foam up the water. Bye bye.

Most of the swims I do start in waves with colored caps for each wave. After I’ve settled into the swim, maybe on the second leg I start looking for partners. If I see someone with the same color cap, I’m on. I’ll hold the draft for ten to twenty minutes. Ideally you want to move the side of the swimmer and set up in their bow wave. If I’m rested, I’ll push out to try to gain some time. But I don’t know how many times I’ll see that same person near me after the next turn.

Near the end of the race I’ll look for swimmers in the wave that started behind me. They’re going faster and maybe I can catch onto their pace. Sometimes it works, sometimes the pace is too much. Even you get an extra 5 seconds of speed until you break it off, you’ve gained 5 seconds.

I feel a little guilty that I’m exploiting someone else’s effort, but I don’t know what to do about it. I know that top open water swimmers know the game and acknowledge the strategy. They take turns leading and following, similar to bike riders. A couple times I tried to take the lead, but swimmers being swimmers when I tried to sprint out, my “partner” started to race and not let me pass.

If you train with someone who's times are near yours, and you in the same event, make a agreement to partner up. In fact you should train with drafting if you can. Even in the pool, if you share the lane side by side, stagger yourself so that you take turns drafting. In an open water training, agree to practice drafting for at least part of the swim.

In the pool if you and your partner lead the lane in a circle swim, work on this: Draft off the leader's feet. On the last lap the leader keeps to the side of the lane, and the chaser moves up to be beside the leader’s torso, which is positioned in the leader’s bow wave. With about 15 yards to go, the race is on.The drafter should have the advantage of more energy and should touch first. It’s fun way to train.

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