No Swimmer Is An Island…The Advantage of the Draft


Open Water Swim Practice

Open Water Swim Practice

When I swam my first Open Water race it was as if the 20 years I had spent swimming melted away. I panicked. I couldn’t breathe. I got hit in the face. I swam too close. But not close enough to other swimmers. It was a mess. And six years later it was still a mess.

It got so bad that I turned into a swimming hermit. I would wait on the beach until every one was in the water and then I would swim. But my swim times were abysmal. I mean super slow. Which was frustrating because swimming was the only skill I thought I know how to do in triathlon. All that swimming alone, by my myself was making the swims long and boring and more than a little tiring.  This is what I call “Swimming in the Abyss.” You’re swimming. You’re swimming a long time. But you seem to be going so slowly that you’re swimming uphill. This is what swimming alone can do.  During races, I found out I was swimming like miles extra cause I was out there alone.  I was wasting a lot of energy.

Then I signed up for Ironman Cozumel. And the first thing I learned was that it was a non-wetsuit legal race. This means it was a race that I couldn’t wear a wet suit. A wet suit is like a security blanket to triathlon swimmers. It’s to keep you warm during cold swims but it’s made out of neoprene a material that also keeps you buoyant in the water. With a wetsuit you don’t have to kick as hard to maintain a parallel position in the water and that means you can usually swim faster with less effort.

But I wouldn’t have that advantage. I had to do my 2.4-mile swim on my arms and legs alone. So my coach said straight up, “Learn to draft.” I had to pick between two evils: Swimming next to people. Or missing the cut off swim time. I chose A. It was the BEST DECISION.

I learned, that If you time it right, you can swim without a scratch when you draft and not have to swim alone. Swimming alone is the hard way. Drafting is better. Research shows drafting saves a swimmer between 18 to 25% on energy. That’s like the free speed you get on the bike when you’re going downhill. (You work those downhills too but that’s another blog.)



What does it mean to draft?

Drafting is swimming in the shadow of another swimmer. You swim in their slipstream, reducing the drag on your swim and thereby making you faster. When you draft you literally float in the bubble that a swimmer makes that carries you swiftly across the water. Drafting is the closet thing to flying in the water. Legally, in most triathlons you can draft on the swim. As long as you do it without disturbing the other swimmer. This is the best swim etiquette and also least likely to get you kicked in the face. 🙂

So just how do you draft without getting injured? You learn to do it properly.

Drafting is also a skill. Just like breathing, kicking and arm stroke. You have to learn how to draft and then practice it.

Generally, there are three drafting positions that can help you swim faster but avoid injury or disrupting the other swimmer:

  • Swim on the lead swimmer’s hip (So your arm doesn’t go past their hip flexors)
  • Swim in between two lead swimmers (also on their hips)
  • Swim in a straight line behind the lead swimmer (on their feet…this is the best position to get the most effect)


Here’s some tips on how to practice drafting:

  1. Grab some friends.
  2. Jump in one lane.
  3. Swim together without hitting each other.

Watch the video above for the demonstrations on all the different ways to draft. But keep this in mind…just like a car don’t follow too closely.

When I trained for IMCoz, I trained with a group. I was the only girl doing an Ironman. All the guys did theirs before me. But they woke up and came to my last 5 a.m, swim practice and all four of them jumped in the same lane with me. We swam like that for an hour, one guy swimming slowly in front of me, another swimming next to me one behind me and one underneath believe it or not. I learned I can swim fast when I wanna’ and that I can navigate. Swimming in the pool has its drawbacks because you don’t learn navigation skills. Learning how to navigate around slower swimmers, or even fast swimmers who overtake you is an excellent skill to have. 


Yes when drafting you can get hurt if you don’t do it right. That’s why it’s all about timing and practice. I spent years swimming on my own island. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a great place to start especially for the nervous swimmer. But what lessens anxiety in the water? What’s the number 1 thing that helps you relax? 

I call it being in the know. When you first swam in the pool putting your head in the water was weird because you hadn’t done it before. But once you got “in the know,” you hardly think about it.

Same with kicking. Stroking. and Drafting.

When you practice swimming with other folks I guarantee you, you learn how not to get hit in the face. (Unless someone is being a jerk then you learn how to hit back…LOL) When you swim alone you don’t learn. It’s like any skill. It’s amazing I swam my Ironman without a scratch and drafted the entire way using timing and being aware of what’s around me. I’ve been hit plenty but you learn how to avoid it or swim through it. But you can’t learn those things swimming alone.

Drafting at the hip is a great way to start to learn that skill…but it definitely reduces the draft advantage.

As time goes on you’ll get more adventurous because you’ll become more accustomed to it. Like I said I didn’t start drafting until I did my first half Ironman back when horses and buggies were out. I wish I had learned that skilled right away my swim times would have been a lot better. But it’s an acquired skill.

Don’t get me wrong…I love swimming…but the longer you’re out there the more risk you take. You don’t have to be a fast swimmer…just a smart one. I am not the fastest swimmer, but I pay attention and that’s what’s made the difference. Learning to find lane lines, slip streams, drafting lines and navigating buoys will help you 10x more than swimming long, arduous hours in a pool. 

Learn the tricks of the trade and you’ll be great on race day and beyond.