Essential Skills for Open Water Swimming Part 3
Train these open-water skills to reap the benefits of your pool training in the open water.
By Scott Wrigley, MSc, CSCS, CPT, FNS, PN1, USAT Level 1 Coach, USA Cycling Level 3 Coach, US Masters Swimming Level 2 Coach
Training the essential open-water swimming skills that I discussed in part 1 (mass starts and bilateral breathing) and part 2 (sighting and buoy turns) is a prerequisite before participating in an open-water race. In part three, I discuss two skills that will save you time and energy on race day:
As I outlined in a previous article on freestyle swimming body position, swimmers expend the majority of their energy overcoming hydrodynamic resistance which is composed of three different types of drag (1). Therefore, by decreasing drag you decrease both hydrodynamic resistance and the energy cost of swimming. In addition to optimizing body position in the water, one other way to decrease drag is to learn how to draft.
Drafting is the skill of swimming in the wake of another swimmer. Research has shown swimming in the draft zone of another swimmer can decrease drag by 10-26% (2). Additionally, drafting during the swim has been shown to reduce blood lactate levels, oxygen uptake, and the rating of perceived exertion (RPE). Drafting has also been shown to lead to a faster swim (3).
So, how do you draft?
First, as I discussed in part 1, it is important to talk to the other athletes in your swim wave to identify athletes that are of the same ability or slightly faster.
Swimming in the draft of a swimmer with the same ability level can allow you to cover the distance with greatly reduced output. If competing in a triathlon, this tactic can leave you fresher for the bike and run. If competing in a stand-alone open water swim, this tactic can leave you with the energy to outpace your competitors at the end of the swim.
Swimming in the draft of a slightly faster swimmer (:05-:10 seconds faster/100) can allow you to sustain a pace you would be normally unable to sustain without drafting, leading to a faster swim time.
Once the race starts, you want to choose one of two positions relative to the swimmer you are drafting:
Behind the feet
To the side
Behind the feet:
Research has shown that drafting directly behind the feet of another swimmer conveys the greatest advantage. Compared to drafting to the side or swimming on your own, drafting directly behind the feet of another swimmer resulted in less muscular fatigue and increased swimming efficiency (4).
In addition to the decreased muscular fatigue and increased efficiency, I prefer this method due to the decreased sighting required. When drafting immediately behind the feet of the swimmer in from of you, the bubbles created by their kick allow you to follow without sighting as often, saving you additional energy.
However, as I mentioned in part 2, you should never completely forgo sighting. When initially drafting off another swimmer, you want to sight more frequently to make sure they are swimming straight and on course. If you are confident that they are swimming on straight and on course, you can sight less often by following their bubbles.
Research has shown greater decreases in drag the closer you are to the lead swimmer, with the optimal distance from 0 to 1.6 feet (19 inches) behind the lead swimmer (5, 6). I have my athletes draft 1-1.5 feet behind the feet of the lead swimmer. At this distance, you are in the optimal draft zone and can still respond to pace changes so that you don't get dropped.
Additionally, this distance gives you a cushion to make sure that you are not hitting the lead swimmer's feet. Hitting their feet will distract the swimmer in front of you, breaking their rhythm. This can cause them to slow down (thereby slowing you down) or cause them to swim off course, losing even more time for you. Additionally, if you keep hitting their feet they may intentionally slow down to force you to pass and you lose the benefit of the draft.
Drafting to the side:
While drafting directly behind the feet resulted in less muscular fatigue and increased swimming efficiency compared to drafting to the side, drafting to the side was still shown to be more efficient than swimming on your own, making it a viable option (4).
As I noted above, research has shown greater decreases in drag the closer you are to the lead swimmer. Similar to drafting directly behind the feet, when drafting to the side of another swimmer you want to swim approximately 1-1.5 feet to the side with your head at the hip level of the lead swimmer (4, 5).
When drafting to the side, you want to breathe to the side the lead swimmer is on. This will allow you to easily gauge distance and positioning with little effort, helping you stay in the optimal draft zone to get the greatest benefit of swimming in their wake.
Drafting is an essential skill for open-water swimming due to the significant benefits it provides including decreased drag, decreased muscular fatigue, and increased efficiency. You should practice drafting both at the lead swimmer's feet and hips prior to race day so that you are comfortable with both scenarios.
While some races start with athletes treading water, such as the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, a majority start on land with athletes running into the water to begin the swim. Once the water reaches approximately knee height, running is no longer efficient and you'll start to lose momentum. However, at this point, it is also not deep enough to swim efficiently.
So, what do you do in this scenario? Dolphin dive.
How to dolphin dive:
Take your first dive when feel yourself slowing down as you run into the water (the water will be approximately knee height for most when this happens).
As if diving into the pool or executing a wall turn, get into a streamlined position.
As you reach the bottom of the body of water, grab the bottom with both hands and use the bottom to pull your legs forward as if doing a burpee.
As if doing a squat jump, use your legs to drive you up and forward into another dive.
As you breach the water, swing your arms in a butterfly recovery for extra momentum to increase the distance covered by your dolphin dive.
Repeat as needed until you are in deep enough water to swim efficiently.
Dolphin dives can give you a competitive advantage on race day giving you valuable meters on your competitors who try to continue running or start swimming too early. Practice dolphin dives in the shallow end of a pool or at your local beach prior to race day to master this skill and confidently leave your competition behind.
Athletes competing in open water need to train numerous essential skills including mass starts and bilateral breathing (part 1), as well as sighting and buoy turns (part 2). For my athletes, I consider drafting and dolphin dives essential as well as they can save you valuable time and energy. Train drafting and dolphin dives as I describe above prior to race day to give yourself a competitive advantage.
Zamparo, P., Cortesi, M. & Gatta, G. The energy cost of swimming and its determinants.Eur J Appl Physiol120, 41–66 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-019-04270-y
Bentley, D.J., Millet, G.P., Vleck, V.E. et al. Specific Aspects of Contemporary Triathlon. Sports Med32, 345–359 (2002). https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200232060-00001
Chatard JC, Chollet D, Millet G. Performance and drag during drafting swimming in highly trained triathletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc (1998) doi: 10.1097/00005768-199808000-00015. PMID: 9710869
Puce L, Chamari K, Marinelli L, Mori L, Bove M, Faelli E, Fassone M, Cotellessa F, Bragazzi NL, Trompetto C. Muscle Fatigue and Swimming Efficiency in Behind and Lateral Drafting. Front Physiol. 2022 Mar 3;13:835766. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2022.835766. PMID: 35309050; PMCID: PMC8927722.
Chatard JC, Wilson B. Drafting distance in swimming. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Jul;35(7):1176-81. doi: 10.1249/01.MSS.0000074564.06106.1F. PMID: 12840639.
Janssen M, Wilson BD, Toussaint HM. Effects of drafting on hydrodynamic and metabolic responses in front crawl swimming. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Apr;41(4):837-43. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31818f2a9b. PMID: 19276849.