Swim drafting: So it's legal, but is it sportsmanlike?

Credit: Nick Wilson/Allsport
Virtually every sports-advice column or article on triathlons and open-water swimming extols on the virtues of "drafting."

Also known as dragging," drafting involves the somewhat unsportsmanlike activity of swimming closely behind someone slightly faster than you, allowing you to coast on their wake and go along for the ride.

While extremely popular and even legal in ocean swimming and the swim portion of triathlons, drafting is an offense (in amateur competition) in the cycling portion of a triathlon, punishable by disqualification. This hypocrisy is baffling, and I am going to go out on a limb here and undoubtedly ruffle a few wet feathers by lambasting the practice and hopefully shedding some light on why it may NOT be the most beneficial way for you to rely on a perceived competitive advantage.

The biggest and most obvious reason to avoid drafting is that its extremely unpleasant to swim behind the whitewater churned up by a lead swimmers feet. Swallowing sea foam with each breath is not the most enjoyable (or efficient) way to race, and complicating matters further is the likelihood of a foot connecting with your face in the spastic throes of competition. One heel to the eye socket, and a goggle can dig into your eye and cause serious damage.

Stroke technique
Another disadvantage to drafting is that it directly hinders your stroke technique, and in some cases your efficiency. A swimmers wake creates patterns and pockets in the water, and if you are coasting on that swimmers wake, your hands are slipping through these swirling currents and pockets instead of grasping still, steady water to propel yourself forward. By slipping through this water with your arms instead of catching it and pulling through, your stroke is less efficient and your hard-earned technique falls apart, battered by the rough undertow left by the swimmer in front of you.

Drafting also hinders your ability to "sight" during an open-water race. Every few strokes, its necessary to look up in front of you and gauge your direction based on landmarks or guide-boats or paddlers. If you are drafting, all you can see when you sight is someones kicking feet, and the whitewater they churn up. You should never trust the swimmer in front of you to know where he or she is going, and depending on them to sight for you is a big mistake.

False sense of speed
Drafting makes it seem easier to swim, and indeed there are benefits to coasting on someone elses wake. However because you are exerting less effort, it may not be possible to differentiate between getting a free (and easy) ride, and simply swimming slower because you are exerting less effort. If you are drafting and the leader in front is actually slowing down, you may not realize that you are swimming slower than your potential because youre under the impression that it's just the benefit of the drag.

OK, call me old-fashioned, but one of the reasons drafting is illegal in the cycling leg of most triathlons: because its cheating! Its no different in swimming, although for some reason the governing body of the sport, FINA, has been reluctant to draft rules about the controversial strategy. If you are coasting on another athletes prowess in the water and using it to your advantage, in competition, where is the honor in that? I have lost many races to competitors who draft, and as frustrating as it is I have never succumbed to the pressure of doing so myself. I figure the only worthwhile way to win a race is on my own, without relying on another swimmer. I may win fewer races (especially if Im competing against draft-loving Australians), but I sleep better at night, thank you very much.

I have seen swimmers get into fights during and after open-water races due to drafting, or what was mistaken to be drafting at the time. When two competitors are racing for a victory side by side, elbows will collide and there will definitely be contact; that is part of the sport. However if a swimmer has drafted off another, banging his feet with every stroke only to overtake him at the finish of a race, there will be ill will and a sense of You physically hindered my performance in the second-place finisher. Someone who has worked hard all season only to end up feeling like their race was sabotaged will not be a happy camper, and it can result in unpleasant altercations at the finish line better suited for the boxing ring ...

Of course, no matter what, there will always be advantages to drafting. But hopefully, the breakdown above sheds some light on the less-favorable aspects of the practice, and if it convinces just one swimmer to stay off my own feet, I will have done my duty!

Find and register online for a swim event in your area!

Ready to catch the swim-bike-run bug? Check out our Give it a Tri section

Discuss This Article