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by Terry Heggy

September 21, 2020

Let somebody else do the hard work

If you take macho pride in suffering alone and refusing any help in your quest to achieve goals, then read no further. This article is not for you; it’s for those folks who don’t mind taking a competitive advantage when it’s offered.

As a well-documented slacker myself, I have been a lifelong fan of letting other people do the work while I reap the benefits. Therefore, I am a huge fan of drafting (in swims done when there’s not a global pandemic that necessitates social distancing).

How Drafting Works

When an object moves through a fluid, it creates a traveling zone within the fluid that enables nearby objects to move at a greater velocity for a given amount of propulsion. Examples include geese flying in a V formation, cyclists in a peloton, or racecars riding seemingly glued to the bumper of the car in front.

Known as a slipstream, this area of “free speed” includes the area directly behind the lead object, as well as a portion to either side. A swimmer’s slipstream extends roughly from near the hips to about a body length behind. When you follow another swimmer closely enough, you’ll gain one of these two advantages.

  • You swim faster for a given level of effort, or
  • You use less energy to swim the same speed.

From a pure physics standpoint, a good slipstream could be worth as much as 10 seconds per 100 meters. Other advantages may include:

  • Navigation economies—Following another swimmer may relieve you of the task of navigating, which also means you don’t have to lift your head (and therefore increase drag) to find out where you are. All you have to do is follow.
  • Motivational incentives—Keeping the lead swimmer’s feet close provides an incentive to work hard and possibly even a distraction from the discomfort of your effort. If you commit to staying in the drafting zone, you may find the courage to push harder than you’d find if you were on your own.
  • Increased focus on form—When pacing and navigation are handled by the lead swimmer, you become free to think about your own efficiency. You can keep your head down, your stroke long and powerful, your breathing regular, and your kick efficiently in line.


In any draft-legal race, the only time you would not want to draft is when you are the fastest swimmer in the race. And if that’s the case, you should think about your strategy for dealing with drafters who seek your slipstream. All it takes is a separation of a few meters to either dissolve the slipstream advantage or discourage your pursuer. Strategies may include:

  • Zig-zagging—Repeated radically direction changes to confuse and/or annoy your drafter
  • Burst sprinting—Sudden acceleration of a few dozen strokes to break away
  • Slowing down—Also known as “Dude, c’mon, it’s your turn to lead!”

A testimonial

In 2018, I competed in a 5K open water race of three laps around a small lake in a gorgeous setting. I stood near the likely winner at the start and immediately got in his slipstream as the race began. Navigation seemed easy; the buildings on the nearby shore provided targets that were easy to line up with the buoys to ensure straight swimming. But this guy was all over the place, zigging and zagging and altering his course from moment to moment. I don’t think he was trying to shake me because I don’t think he considered me serious competition; I think he was just a bad navigator. I had a decision to make: Do I stay on his feet to take advantage of his superior speed and associated slipstream, or do I opt for swimming a shorter distance by navigating better? I chose to stay behind him, knowing that I was adding yardage by doing so.

Near the end of the second lap, he caught me napping with a sprint burst. By the time I recognized the move and accelerated in response, I was no longer in the slipstream and he was uncatchable. For the rest of the race, I was on my own.

“OK,” I thought, “at least now I can swim straight.” And sure enough, when I reviewed my GPS track the next day, my gut feeling was verified. The first two laps looked like Zorro signing autographs, and the last one was smooth as silk. The distance tracker also verified that I swam significantly farther to complete each of those first two laps, but despite the extra distance swum, those laps were faster than the straight one I completed without the benefit of the draft. Drafting does make a difference.


You already know the prime directive of competition, right? Don’t do anything new on race day!

Just as you practice in the goggles you’ll wear in the race, take the time to prepare for everything you’ll face when you get to the start line. Practice drafting in swim practice. Learn how to sprint to catch a draft and how to relax when you’re in it. Test yourself to determine how much of a catch-the-draft sprint you can tolerate before damaging your ability to swim the rest of the race hard. Practice breathing to both sides.

If you have training buddies of similar ability, get them to sign up for the same race so you can compete with a drafting conga line. The leader sprints for a predetermined interval (100 strokes, five minutes, etc.) and then drops to the back of the line for recovery while position number two takes over with the lead sprint.

Determine your drafting strategy. If the fastest possible swim is your goal (open water swim race), then draft off someone faster than yourself. If you’re a triathlete, on the other hand, you may want to exit the water feeling fresh—so picking someone close to your own ability will allow you to achieve your normal time without exhausting yourself.

Talk to other swimmers to figure out who might be a good rabbit. Decide whether you are better off fighting for the lead in the main scrum or whether it makes more sense to swim in the less-crowded water off to the side. Of course, the chaos of the start will mess with the best of plans, so be prepared to adapt once the race is under way.

In the thick of it

It may be worth it to immediately expend extra energy to catch a draft from your target swimmer. If you are a back-half pacer, it may make more sense to start a little slower and build your speed as you go, drafting off increasingly faster swimmers as you move your way up through the pack. Regardless which draft you catch, remain aware of the other swimmers, using alternate breathing to keep tabs to both sides. If a larger/faster pack or a group of superior navigators comes into view, feel free to abandon your current conga leader and make the sprint over to join the better group.

When you’re in a draft, focus on efficiency and drag reduction. Don’t waste energy sighting if you don’t need to. Conventional etiquette suggests that you avoid tapping the lead swimmer’s feet, but if it happens, just keep swimming. And likewise, if someone is drafting you, don’t waste energy being annoyed if you get tapped. Focus on your own business.

When you decide it’s time to exit the slipstream, do so decisively. As you follow, watch the leader’s breathing strategy. If your target breathes only to one side, pass on the opposite side to avoid being noticed until it’s too late for your competitor to latch onto you. It might even be wise to swim away at an angle to get that all-important space between the two of you before resuming your quest for the next buoy or drafting pack.

There is a large psychological component to a successful breakaway. If you sprint away with authority, your competitor may well conclude that you’re simply too fast to follow and drop back without a fight. If your competitor continues to chase, on the other hand, it’ll come down to who can sustain the effort level the longest. If it appears the other swimmer is the stronger athlete, it might make sense to relent and move back into the drafting position, especially if there’s still a long way to go. Save your juice for the finishing sprint.


  • Open Water


  • Races
  • Racing
  • Triathlon