The Triathlon Swim: 3 Key Insights Part 3 - Drafting

Our previous discussions of the three key insights within the triathlon swim established an understanding of how and why start position and sighting in an open water race are both influential to your overall triathlon swim success. While sighting is an especially invaluable skill, it (sometimes) loses its necessity once you’re drafting behind a competent swimmer. And that’s only the beginning of the advantages.

Yes, indeed, the benefits of drafting are substantial.


Ever been on a group ride with a litter of road cyclists and led the pack? What happens when you fall into the middle of the group? Suddenly you’re coasting, yet the pace hasn’t dropped. Until you’ve experienced group drafting on the bike for yourself, you might underestimate the potency of such a phenomenon.

Drafting in the triathlon swim is a lot like drafting in cycling except – wait a minute – it’s perfectly legal! The amount of time you could potentially save by effectively drafting will be eye opening for those who find themselves in such a situation. You could be finishing the swim leg minutes faster than normal simply by drafting.

In Key Principles of Open Water Drafting, an article on Active.com by esteemed USA swimming competitor and coach Steven Munatones, we learn that all swimmers, essentially acting as displacement vessels, create bow waves, which have both forward and lateral movement.

In other words, a swimmer creates a small wave in the water, which pushes forward and to the side along with his/her initial wake. Ever swam toward the beach with the tide pushing you in? Surfing a wave takes less energy and is always faster.

Similarly, placing yourself in the right position of a swimmer’s bow wave means you will literally be surfing a tiny wave as you swim.

There are a few key principles true to drafting, many of which are pointed out by Munatones:

  1. The bigger the lead swimmer is physically, the more beneficial his/her wake will be for you.
  2. The faster the lead swimmer, the better your draft will be with all other things equal.
  3. The best draft you can get is by being as close to the lead swimmer as possible.
  4. Drafting in a pack is more beneficial than drafting behind one or two swimmers.
  5. If the lead swimmer is veering substantially off course, drafting is more harmful than helpful.

The first four points are obvious once you’re thinking in nautical terms. Imagine a boat cruising across a lake. The bigger the boat and the faster it’s moving, the bigger/faster the bow wave following immediately behind it. Additionally, the farther behind the boat, the more the bow wave dissipates.

Bigger and faster are the key words here. Drafting in a pack is more beneficial because multiple swimmers are essentially creating a larger displacement vessel (i.e. a bigger boat). It’s the same reason the peloton in cycling is the best place to be. The bow waves build off each other, creating a larger forward movement of fluid.

With that said, it’s easy to understand why being as close as possible to the leader creating the wave is so important. But where exactly should you place yourself behind the swimmer you’re drafting?

There are actually a couple strategies to drafting in the triathlon swim. You can draft directly behind the swimmer – on his/her feet. Or you can draft slightly to the side – between the ankles and hips. As Steve Munatones points out in Key Principles of Open Water Drafting, the perfect position is taking the latter strategy.

Munatones gives seven reasons why this is the case. Basically, the maximal location of the spreading bow wave is at near mid-body of the lead swimmer. In this spot the drafting swimmer is surfing on the bow wave.

While the forward movement of fluid is still present directly behind the leader, the bow wave cannot extend beyond the length of the swimmer’s body. Therefore, being directly behind means you’re missing out on the most optimal part of the wave. Also, the leader’s kick will create eddies in the water that you’ll have to battle against.

Moreover, swimming alongside the leader’s body offers less necessity for sighting by way of looking forward. The most optimal and efficient head position is looking straight down. The less you’re required to look forward, the more energy you’ll conserve.

Obviously if you’re not a bilateral breather you’ll want to be on the side of the leader where you can see him or her upon each breath. Stay as close as possible without unnecessary contact in order to obtain the maximum portion of the bow wave.

However, it must be stated that if the leader or the pack you’re drafting behind is veering substantially off course, you may need to forfeit the position and regain alignment with the course buoys. This is a judgment call you’ll have to make based on the severity of the drifting. If the leader is only slightly off course, it’s probably best to stay with him/her.

So much more could be said of the nature of drafting but these insights should be enough to think about and practice before your next triathlon swim.


As we’ve seen over the past few days, start position, sighting, and drafting are invaluable insights/skills you’ll want to bring with you to the open water as part of your triathlon swim arsenal. A strategic start position will serve to benefit you based on your own personal ability. Effective sighting will reduce the amount of energy you could be wasting on swimming unnecessary extra distance. And not only will drafting allow you to conserve more energy, riding behind someone’s wake potentially could drop minutes off your overall swim split. Become adept in all three of these insights and your confidence in your next triathlon swim will be through the roof!


How competent are you at drafting? Have you seen the gains by drafting in a race? What part of the drafting strategy has impeded you in the past?


"Key Principles of Open Water Drafting."

Munatones, Steve. Active. Active, n.d.  Web. 3 Nov. 2015


JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.

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