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by Terry Heggy

February 17, 2020

Drafting is an important open water skill that can be practiced in the pool

Most of the technique coaching we provide our swimmers centers on reducing drag. Every square inch of body surface that pushes forward against the water slows that swimmer’s progress. But directly behind that body, there’s a slipstream zone that allows a following swimmer to avoid much of that resistance. Swimming within that slipstream is known as drafting, and allows the trailing swimmer to follow a faster swimmer at a pace they couldn’t achieve on their own; or follow a swimmer of similar speed with greatly reduced effort.

In the Wild

Drafting is allowed in most open water races and the swim portion of triathlons. Drafting inevitably makes your time better, unless your swimmer does one of the following:

  • Follows someone who navigates poorly
  • Follows someone who is too slow
  • Loses form and efficiency trying to hold the draft; or
  • Expends too much effort trying to keep up with a faster swimmer.

The way to avoid those pitfalls is to learn through practice. But coaching swimmers in the pool to draft effectively in open water takes careful planning.

Before assigning drafting sets in workout, make sure the swimmers understand drafting fundamentals, in other words, how it really works in the wild.

  • Drafting advantage diminishes with distance. You can draft at the swimmer’s hip (think geese flying in a V) or directly behind, but it’s easiest to hold position if you get right on the leader’s feet.
  • Keep your head down and stay relaxed and streamlined. Let the leader navigate, except for an occasional peek to ensure you’re on course—or to find a better pack to join.
  • When you exit the draft, do it quickly (sprint!), so the former leader won’t latch onto your slipstream. If the swimmer you’re passing breathes only to one side, pass on the swimmer’s nonbreathing side—it’s less likely you’ll be noticed leaving that swimmer behind.

Start With Safety

Drafting requires proximity. When multiple people try to occupy the same space, they’re more likely to smack lane lines, walls, and each other. Emphasize that safety supersedes all other concerns and make sure everyone understands your etiquette rules, especially about safe execution of circle-swim turns. Explain that drafting practice will likely result in a bit of bumping and touching (which facilitates acclimation to open water race conditions), but that each swimmer must avoid behaviors that risk injuring anyone.

Be sensitive to the fact that some swimmers may have existing injuries or issues with physical contact, etc., that exempt them from drafting sets. Be prepared to provide alternatives for those individuals.

Assign the Sets

Any regular workout set can be made into a drafting set by eliminating the traditional five- or 10-second interval between swimmer starts. Other drafting set ideas include the following:

  • The Snake—Named for its serpentine route across the pool, the snake set proceeds down lane 1, back lane 2, down lane 3, etc. until your swimmers have swum one length in every lane. Have swimmers line up from fastest to slowest and start right on the feet of the person in front, trying to stay close enough to continually benefit from the draft. This set challenges swimmers to think about efficiency off the walls as they must duck under each lane line to execute their turn. It also offers strategic challenges for passing quickly to establish position before encountering the next wall. You can extend the set by having swimmers exit the pool at the end of the final lane and walk around to the starting point, continuing for a specified time interval or number of repeats. Increase the challenge by adding push-ups or lunges on the deck after the swimmers exit the pool.
  • Paceline—Ideally, three to five swimmers of roughly the same ability draft each other in a tight pack, changing leaders at specified intervals (every 50 or 100 or each time the coach blows a whistle). The leader sprints as the drafters try to conserve energy while remaining in the slipstream. At the end of the interval, the leader pulls over until the group has passed, then latches onto the back of the pack. If the athletes aren’t well matched, have faster folks swim something other than freestyle as a speed equalizer. This set works better in a long course pool and, if you have access to open water, this is the best training set to do, with each leader taking 60 or 90 strokes before dropping back.
  • Ketchup—As with the paceline, the leader changes after each 100. In this case, though, the leader holds a strong and consistent pace while the followers start five, 10, or 15 seconds back and try to catch up to the leader and then settle into the draft for the remainder of the 100. (This is great training for joining a breakaway pack in open water.)
  • Slingshot—In groups of three, a designated leader swims one length at a strong pace. The other two swimmers start at the leader’s hips (or completely behind if they’re significantly faster) and use the draft to try to sprint past on either side. Trade leaders and repeat until everyone is exhausted.

Even if your team doesn’t race in open water, drafting sets are a fun way to add variety to practice. Drafting workouts seems to go by quickly and keep swimmers engaged. For those who are serious about their open water skills, encourage some sighting and navigation practice during these drills. You may also remove the lane lines and have them practice drafting around scuba buoys in the pool. Be creative, and have fun!


  • Open Water


  • Coaches
  • Coaching