Wednesday, January 30, 2013

In defence of drafting

Apart from open water swimming, drafting is considered a legitimate tactic in many sports, including cycling, running, speed skating, cross-country skiing, kayaking, horse racing, and motor sports. Studies in several of these sports have proven its efficacy and have looked at the reasons for the energy savings achieved by drafting and the relative positions between competitors that provide the best place to draft.

Studies of swimmers have shown that drafting reduces the metabolic cost of swimming by between 11-38%. One study of swimmers (Bassett et al, 1991) conducted over 450 metres at 95% of maximum speed found that drafting reduced oxygen consumption by 8%, blood lactate by 33%, and perceived exertion by 21%. Factors such as swimming speed, body shape, direction of the current, water viscosity, distance between and relative position of the swimmers, will all alter the magnitude of the advantage.

Perhaps open water swimming’s greatest asset is that it is much more interesting than swimming in a pool. There are so many variables in an open water race that can influence the result, especially in ocean swims. A competitor’s ability to select an advantageous position at the start, to choose the best route through the shore break, to spot a rip and take advantage of it, to keep calm in a pack, to draft effectively, to use the direction of the prevailing current to time a ‘surge’, to round a buoy efficiently, and to ride a wave into shore -- all of these require knowledge that might allow an astute competitor to outperform a faster swimmer. Good open water coaches try to impart this knowledge to their charges.

It is hypocritical, on the one hand, to laud a swimmer for being clever enough to utilise a rip, yet on the other hand describe someone who has utilised a draft as “dishonest”, “disrespectful”, or “bludging on someone else’s efforts”. Both tactics are ‘part of the game’; neither are cheating.

Part of the problem is a misconception that, if a person drafts off a competitor, the lead swimmer has to work harder than if swimming solo. The erroneous rationale behind this is that the lead swimmer effectively has to tow those drafting like a truck and its trailers.

In fact, drafting works by utilising the reduced drag forces encountered when swimming in the leader’s slipstream. The disruption of these drag forces by the leader occurs irrespective of whether anyone is drafting behind them, so the energy cost to the lead swimmer is no greater than if the leader was swimming solo.

Ocean swimming should be playing a greater role in developing Australia’s young open water swimmers. The huge number of exciting ocean races scheduled each summer ought to provide an opportunity for young distance swimmers to practice their open water skills, and to receive rewards for the countless hours of hard training needed to be a distance swimmer. But if this is to develop further, Australian ocean swimming has to conform to the open water rules and codes of conduct that are accepted world-wide, and that includes acceptance of drafting as a part of the sport.

Ken Thorley


  1. Yep, cyclists slipstream each other. The key words being "each other". They work as a team, each taking a turn at the lead. Have never seen a cycle race where one person slipstreams another for the almost the length of the course and then pulls out and goes past at the end. If anyone did that in the Tour de France, the rest of the peloton would make short work of them in the following stages. And that's in a sport where more than one of the leading competitors considers taking performance enhancing drugs to be a "legitimate tactic".

  2. Does anyone seriously think that the problem here is a "misconception that ..... the lead swimmer has to work harder than swimming solo"? I find it hard to believe. I suspect the problem for most of the anti-drafting contingent is centred on a well-founded reality, which is that the lead swimmer has to work a lot harder than the drafter, and may not particularly appreciate some pain in the bum constantly tapping their toes while they're trying to swim.

  3. WHOA...... as said in an earlier post, in cycling you take turns, if a swimmer is willing to take a turn on the front then draft away! Sadly this is not generally the case and that's why people see drafting, without taking a turn, as unfair. Cheating no, unfair yes.

    If someone is going to draft the whole way during a race, touch toes, keep their lactate down (major reason for feeling flat at the end) and sprint past after the last bouy then it's going to be a colourful conversation, Spot Anderson style, on the beach!

  4. Its not about toe-taping. Thats a separate issue. This should be a sport for all people, of all ages, not just a few old fogies in a particular part of the world who wish to ram their interpretation of moral correctness down the throats of everyone else. Lets stick to the internationally accepted rules of open water swimming, and stop ostracising the young kids coming through who want to learn how to compete in the open water.

    Some of you guys will bitch about anything. Wake and live in the real world people. There are plenty of worse ‘vices’ than drafting. Come on!

    1. Anonymous, not even sure where to start with this one... firstly, it is a sport for all people of all ages didn't make any mention of age at all!

      If younger swimmers want to learn ocean swimming go ahead and draft, you will not be making yourself a stronger swimmer or learning much from drafting. If you want to win, you better practice being at the front, there's only one Steve Bradbury guys.

      Ram interpretation of moral correctness? I'm tempted to ask you the moral equivalency of drafting as it's a slippery slope once you're on that path. As I stated it's not cheating but it's unfair if you pip someone on the line. You may win the swim, but you will win no friends or accolades from anyone and displaying poor judgement.

      Drafting is my bete noire, other than that no compliants from me! sorry one more... people who hide behind the anonymous tag...

  5. Apparently, if you don't like drafting, you're old. And a fogie, whatever that is. If you express an opinion about drafting, in a forum about drafting, then you're ramming it down the throats of everyone else (presumably, that's everyone who is neither old, nor a fogie, and therefore must love drafting).

    You're also clearly ostracing the young kids (really?) and don't live in the real world. Because you don't like drafting.

    Clearly a breathtaking intelligence at work.

  6. In open water swimming, drafting is legal. It's a tactic. A swimmer who takes the lead is attempting to increase the pace, pull the other swimmers out of their comfort zone and see if they can break away.

    I'm female and in the last few ocean swims, I've had guys drafting off me the whole way. I don't care, as long as they don't touch my feet. If I were a slower swimmer trying to keep up with a slightly faster one, I'd draft off them too (and I have done plenty of times).

    You won't see any of the top swimmers complaining about drafting, and for us weekend warriors, isn't the great thing about this sport the ability to focus on your own achievements and not others'?

  7. Drafting - If you don't like it, you have two choices: Put on a sprint and lose the drafter or slow down and make them go past (then draft off them if you choose).

    Constantly touching the feet of the person in front though is another matter entirely!

    The last point in the article, about some clearly defined rules for local Ocean Swims as opposed to Open Water Swims organised by local/state swimming associations under FINA rules, is a fair one.

  8. Out of interest, and not being an expert on the subject or anytin, but the act of swimming creates a vortex of delaminated flow - moving water behind the lead swimmer - which is exactly what the bludgee (drafter) seeks to take advantage of.

    There are a few attempts in blog entries above at dissociating the efforts of drafter and draftee but I'd be inclined to suspect that anyone pulling in that vortex (as a following swimmer) is in fact creating more turbulence (and hence I would suspect more drag - again though from my incomplete understanding of fluid dynamics) on the lead swimmer

    Not to mention the bloody distraction from them touching the person in front's toes every 5 seconds. I hate this. If you're going to follow me, don't touch my toes. If you get a minor bit of swell and see my toes getting closer in front of you, please just place your next stroke wide to avoid touching me. Then I won't try to kick you and swim left and right until you stop bludging.

  9. Just to test it out, I had a few shots at drafting at Bondi today. My technique must be poor, as I really couldn't do it - I just ended up with a face-full of splashing water every time they kicked. I was careful not to touch toes as that bugs me also.

    I'd be interested to learn more about this. In the waves and swell, and with the general chaos of the peloton (what do you call this in ocean-swimming? The pod?), I wonder if it actually works. Most of the people I swam with also don't swim a constant speed, which makes it difficult to draft.

  10. Yep main problems with drafting is not only that you need to trust the swimmer in front & be ok with getting bubbles in your face constantly, but also that you end up with your head up (and legs down) watching their feet the entire race - so unless you know they're going slightly faster than you it can be more effort than it gains you.

    The most effective technique (I've managed to do this in two swims, ever) is either to go out fast and try to catch a superior swimmer from your wave or to get on the wake of the leaders in the next wave and try to keep with each of them for 20-30 strokes as they pass you.

    All in all I've stopped trying to draft as you not only don't swim your own race but also finish feeling slightly sneaky, as though you don't really deserve to be there - and probably will be disappointed when you won't be able to reproduce it next swim.


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