Drafting is the technique of closely following another swimmer so as to take advantage of his or her slipstream and swim faster with less effort. I have swum many open water races, and I have read about drafting, and once I even went to a one-day clinic on open water swimming where we discussed and practiced drafting. I have one key piece of information for you about drafting:
Don’t draft off me.
In all that I have learned about drafting, theory and practice, I have never heard anyone explain how to do it without being annoying as hell to the person you are drafting off.
In theory, when you are drafting, you are simply following behind (or beside, for side drafting) a slightly faster swimmer. But in my experience, when you are drafting, you are repeatedly poking my feet.
Look, if you are an Olympic athlete swimming the 10K in Rio for the honor of your country or if you’re a pro competing for huge monetary prizes, then go ahead and draft (also, hey, thanks for coming by the blog). But if you’re in races with me, you’re just swimming for fun. There are no big awards. The last race I swam, a race in which someone tried drafting off me, I won the old women’s division (I didn’t know that there was an old women’s division — they called it “masters female”). My prize was a drawstring bag, a tube of Body Glide, and a $15 gift card. It was nice to win a prize, but there was nothing there that made me think, “I’d be a jerk to a fellow swimmer to win this stuff!”
Most articles I have read on the topic (see this one) emphasize that drafting in swimming is “100% legal” and “something ALL the pros do.” In contrast, drafting is not always legal in the cycling portions of triathlons, and one online commentator suggests that drafting in swimming should be considered cheating too.
I don’t know that drafting is a form of cheating. Open water competitions are not like pool competitions: in a pool we endeavor to make sure that the competitors in a race swim in nearly identical environments, but in open water we cannot control the conditions. The swimmers take different routes. They hit different waves. The varying conditions are part of the joy of open water swimming.
What I do know, however, is that drafting is annoying: it’s annoying to have someone hitting your feet while you’re trying to swim.
Deep in the core of my being, I am a ten-year-old swim team kid who swam packed in a lane with four or five other swim team kids. Swim team kids are taught to space themselves out in a lane, leaving five seconds or so between each swimmer and letting the fastest lead the lane. But kids don’t always do this. Sometimes a swimmer goes first, and the next swimmer doesn’t wait; instead, he leaves right after her and pokes pokes pokes at her feet until she outswims him or kills him with her bare hands. Ask any swim team kid: repeatedly poking at someone’s feet is an act of aggression.
And I don’t just hate people drafting off me; I also hate drafting myself. Why would I want to swim with someone kicking bubbles in my face? In the beginning of a race, when people are often boxed in, I’m most interested in getting out of the pack and swimming clear. I want to swim in open water, not on top of your feet.
If you know how to draft in such a way that you enjoy your swim and don’t annoy others, please tell me in the comments; I’d love to know. In the meantime, I have learned how to take evasive action when someone is drafting off me. I can get you off my feet if I need to. But why should I need to? We have a great big body of water to swim in.