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In last week's blog we reviewed the swimming legs of the Commonwealth Games Triathlons. As we saw from the healthy discussion in the comments thread of that post, many swimmers are initially sceptical about the benefits of drafting before they've properly developed their own drafting skills and experienced the time and energy savings on offer first hand.

In this week's post we're going to look at a further example of successful drafting, see what the scientific research says and give some practical tips to help you develop your own drafting skills. If you are currently unconvinced about how much you have to gain from swimming effectively alongside and behind other swimmers then this post is for you!

Medal Winning Drafting By Richard Murray

Without Richard Murray's drafting skills (third from left) the
 Aussies (right) would have beaten South Africa to the silver medal.

If you watched the Commonwealth Games Triathlons you will have noticed all of the medalists in the field drafting extensively both in the swim and on the bike. Silver and Bronze medallist Richard Murray from South Africa knew when he dived into the water at Strathclyde Park he must hang onto the feet of Australian Ryan Bailie during the final leg of the team relay in order to secure the silver medal for his country:

In the individual medal event Richard lost nearly a minute to Ryan over 1500m. Over the shorter 300m team relay swim he was laser-focused in staying on Ryan's feet for the whole swim, allowing South Africa to go on and trump Australia for the silver medal by just 3 seconds at the end of the race. Richard showed impeccable drafting skills but it's important to appreciate that they weren't god-given to him, he developed them through hard work and persistent practise with his coach Joel Filliol:

Richard Murray (top left) drafts Ryan Bailie (right) during
the Team Relay race.

Swim Smooth's Head Coach Paul Newsome: I have worked with both athletes on their swimming and can categorically state that Ryan is a significantly better swimmer than Richard and yet we placed massive emphasis on Richard being able to draft well. Technically he’s a good swimmer and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone fitter than him, but could he draft when I first met him? Not very well at all - in fact he even actively avoided the 'rough and tumble' and sought out clear water. The events in Glasgow show he's completed the transformation - great work Richard and Joel!

If you are in the UK or Australia you can watch the race here:

UK: BBC iPlayer
Australia: Ten Play

The final swim leg we are discussing starts at 56 minutes race time.

What The Science Says

If you enjoy a scientific approach to your swimming, here's our round-up of the conclusions of six key studies into the benefits of drafting:

Chatard & Wilson (2003)1 found: “Oxygen uptake, heart rate, blood lactate, rating of perceived exertion, and stroke rate were significantly reduced …in all drafting positions compared with the non-drafting position. Optimal drafting swimming distance was at 0 or 50 cm behind a leader reducing by 11–38% the metabolic response of the draftee."

Delextrat et al. (2003)2 found that "Drafting in swimming results in a demonstrable improvement in subsequent pedalling technique and efficiency in cycling."

"Drafting in swimming and cycling may result in a better tactical approach to increase the overall performance in elite Olympic distance triathlons." (Bentley et al., 2002)3.

Novices practising drafting at a recent Swim
Smooth Open Water Training Day
It’s also been shown that "Drafting continuously behind a lead cyclist allowed triathletes to save a significant amount of energy during the bike leg of a sprint triathlon and created the conditions for an improved running performance." (Hausswirth et al. 2001)5.

Additionally, "Fast runners seemed to benefit most from drafting during cycling." (Hausswirth et al., 1999)4.

"For the running split in short-distance triathlon, appropriate pacing appeared to play a key role in high-level triathlon performance." (Le Meur et al., 2009)6.

The studies measure energy consumption and performance improvement in a variety of ways but all show a significant benefit from drafting whilst swimming (and of course cycling too).

Drafting whilst swimming is perfectly legal and ethical in triathlon and most open water swim races so whatever your swimming ability give this important skill a go - once you've cracked it and felt the difference you'll wish you'd tried it sooner!

Developing Your Drafting Skills

Drafting is a skill that anyone can learn and become comfortable performing. The key is to practise it often in training so that when races come around it feels natural and comfortable whatever the conditions.

Get together with some friends or training partners and try these methods, you'll be amazed how simple drafting is when you've got a feel for it. If you don't have good access to an open water venue the good news is that you can practise these skills very well in the pool too.

In-Line Drafting

• A simple way to draft and an excellent place to start.
• Swim as close as you can - no more than 50cm behind the lead swimmer’s toes.
• Try swimming with a slightly wider arm entry and catch if you find you keep tapping the lead swimmer's toes.
• Stay in a nice rhythm and feel the draft.
• Don't rely on the lead swimmer - regularly sight forwards yourself to make sure you're staying on course!

Arrow Head Drafting

• A more advanced skill.
• Shown to have a greater energy saving than drafting on the toes (Chatard & Wilson, 2003)1.
• Allows you to keep an eye on your direction and competitors.
• Breathe in towards the lead swimmer with your head in line with their hip so you can accurately judge the gap between you. This is a time when breathing to one side only can be strategically advantageous.
• Stay as close as you can get to keep within the lead swimmer's wake.
• If possible, synchronise your stroke with the lead swimmer to avoid clashing arms.

Of course if you have a group of three or more people in front then jump on the back of the group in the middle. Get it right as we seen Rick and Lisa doing here and you get a draft from several swimmers at once and gain an even bigger advantage:

When you practise these skills you'll immediately notice how stochastic things feel as you need to adjust your own pace and position continually to stay in the draft. Drafting requires constant focus and concentration but it is well worth the extra mental effort due to the huge performance gains on offer. So next time you’re competing and you spot some fast feet passing you, surge and jump on their hip or toes and watch your race times improve with no extra effort!

Swim Smooth!

1 CHATARD, J.-C., and B. WILSON. Drafting Distance in Swimming. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 35, No. 7, pp. 1176–1181, 2003

2 Delextrat A, Tricot V, Bernard T, Vercruyssen F, Hausswirth C, Brisswalter J. Drafting during swimming improves efficiency during subsequent cycling. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003;35:1612–1619. doi: 10.1249/01.MSS.0000084422.49491.2C.

3 Bentley DJ, Millet GP, Vleck VE, McNaughton LR. Specific aspects of contemporary triathlon: implications for physiological analysis and performance. Sports Med. 2002;32:1–15. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200232060-00001.

4 Hausswirth C, Lehénaff D, Dréano P, Savonen K. Effects of cycling alone or in a sheltered position on subsequent running performance during a triathlon. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1999;31:599–604. doi: 10.1097/00005768-199904000-00018.

5 Hausswirth C, Vallier JM, Lehenaff D, Brisswalter J, Smith D, Millet G, Dreano P. Effect of two drafting modalities in cycling on running performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001;33:485–492. doi: 10.1097/00005768-200103000-00023.

6 Le Meur Y, Hausswirth C, Dorel S, Bignet F, Brisswalter J, Bernard T. Influence of gender on pacing adopted by elite triathletes during a competition. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2009;106:535–545. doi: 10.1007/s00421-009-1043-4.


Robbie said...

I'll often get caught behind a lane swimmer who infuriatingly won't pause at the ends to let me pass so I feel forced to swim slower behind him. When I get the opportunity to overtake he suddenly puts his foot down, the b*****d! I then struggle to overtake.

At least, that's what I used to think!

Now, I realise we are probably both just doing my normal pace but with less effort on my part. And when I pass I simply lose the benefit of drag and he hasn't sped up at all!

Of course I still think some macho men do speed up if they think someone is going to pass!

I'm really tuned into the sensation of drafting now. It is harder to feel or judge in open water but I do have faith it is still working in my favour.

Unknown said...

Hi Robbie,

Lol- maybe one day you could try pushing off the same time as him from the opposite end and see who really ends up on who's toes!

Anonymous said...

I'd like to know what affect being drafted has on the lead swimmer. I know it's legal but surely pulling all that extra weight around must have a detrimental affect. This subject is often discussed over coffee at our club but no one knows the answer.

Unknown said...

You may even help a small bit. This is just a guess but you movement may cause turbulence around their lower body or a small wake with a slight push. Drafting on bikes and vehicles has a positive effect on the lead.

Unknown said...

Hi Anonymous,

Drafting won't have a detrimental affect on the leader- except that the draftee will have more energy left than the leader!

Anonymous said...

I am 99.999% sure that drafting on your bike during a triathlon will put you in the penalty box.

jim said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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