Written By: Dan Bullock
Drafting is a skill that can help or hinder your swim and requires practise so you can decide whether it is something you wish to add to your skill set or not. When introducing drafting to swimmers in open water sessions, creating an ideal draft is not always easy because the group of swimmers are unlikely to be of similar speeds. From the not too scientific tests I have conducted during my years coaching I have observed the following when it comes to drafting positioning.
1. Foot Draft
When swimming directly on people’s feet it is hard to sight over them and leaves you to rely on them to swim straight. Swimming in this position will also leave your pulling arm initially catching disturbed water which ultimately upsets stroke technique. Despite a winter perfecting a great catch position in the calm pool environment it will now be less effective because of the reduced density of water it is holding. Drafting right on someone’s feet is perhaps the most hydrodynamic position of all with reductions in heart rate by up to seven per cent according to some studies. This leads to an easier swim providing the person in front knows where they are going.
2. Side Draft
An alternate to foot drafting is to tuck in close to someone’s side. In this position it will be easier to check if you are heading in a head straight direction because you can sight independently. You will also be starting your pull in a denser mix of water with less of air or bubbles. This leaves you catching less disturbed water allowing a stronger anchoring of the hand which improves your feel for the water. This position is a relatively vulnerable position if you get close enough for it to really work. Ideally you need to be able to breathe left and right depending on which side of the person you’re tucked in on. If you can only breathe to the one side comfortably then you could have a less than pleasant experience. If you are at hip level then take care because if the person you are drafting is a good swimmer their hand exit will be below hip level lining it up nicely with your face.
Some coaches suggest breathing towards the person you are drafting. I think this works better when you move higher up alongside the swimmer in front. In this higher position it leaves you tucked nicely into their armpit, which many swear gives the best advantage. If arm cycles are in synch you may also have a more sheltered breath by breathing towards the person you are drafting.
When I observe swimmers practising drafting in open water, regardless of position alongside, invariably the biggest issue is that they are not close enough for the benefits to take place. Until you race and find someone who is slightly faster and pulling you along it is hard to recreate in training without a large group of potential draftees. As mentioned we often try to create the reverse situation in training so that some effect can be felt. If two people are sitting either side of the
lead swimmer’s hips they will feel just how much more work they need to do pulling the other two swimmers.
3. Shoulder Draft
If you choose to swim next to someone’s shoulder then it’s likely you’ll get clobbered by your neighbour’s recovering arm. In this position it is essential that you can breathe away from your tow. Swimming this high effectively leaves you outside of their bow wave, so probably isn’t the best drafting position. You will also experience less of the suction effect helping pull you along. On the upside this would be the best position for conducting your own sighting because you will be able to choose your own swim path.
With all this onboard you might feel that if something is so hard to get right is it really worth the effort to learn drafting? That depends on you and your goals. If you are confident you can swim reasonably straight, love the sensation of being out on your own and not overly competitive then why bother. For some this would spoil a perfectly good swim. Spending 20 plus minutes with a face full of foam for 1500 metres is not for everyone.
Conversely if a good result, qualification or team selection are at stake then it could be. After a few races you will know who are the swimmers to follow and you will need to position yourself accordingly. I have enjoyed some draft free swims but also raced tactically sharing the lead and working well as a group keeping the pace high. Since an open water swim will often end with a sprint then drafting and tactics are more vital.