Drafting. You Can And Should Do It. Legally.

Drafting in triathlons gets a lot of coverage for the negative aspects and typically only during the bike portion.  Unfortunately, there are two issues that triathletes do not do well.  One is draft on the bike in a legal manner and the other is to draft during the swim, and yes during the run.  Obviously, during the bike portion of the race there are rules and no matter what race you are in, including 140.6 mile races, there will be athletes in a pack breaking the rules.  This year while racing 70.3 San Juan I heard what sounded like a million bees coming at me.  Within a few seconds of first hearing it a pack of riders went by and try as I might to not get caught up in the draft I was pulled in.  As quickly as I could I got out of it and raced my race using my own engine and not the effects of the pack.  Clearly, this was breaking the rules but there is a way to draft on the bike without breaking the rules and I'll get into that in a moment. [caption id="attachment_8967" align="alignright" width="146"]drafting - swimming - triathlon - ironman Drafting In The Water Has To Be Developed
Source: Triathlete.com[/caption]

Drafting: Swimming

You can type in triathlon swimming drafting into Google and you will get lots of articles explaining how and why you should do it but how many of us actually practice this skill?  How many of us just hope to jump on feet in the race and hang on?  Go ahead and shake your head yes because I know that is what I have done and it has never worked.  As I am swimming and holding onto feet the following thoughts/questions go through my head:
  • Am I swimming too hard?  Am I swimming too easy?
  • Gosh I hate these bubbles going up my nose.
  • Man, I hope I don't slap this person in the feet more than once.
  • Is this person swimming straight?
When you draft in the swim you can end up swimming longer, slower, or faster than what you are capable of and a lot of this is because you have not practiced drafting in your training leading up to the race.  In order to practice drafting you obviously have to have another person with you but this isn't as hard as it sounds.  Every Friday morning a group of 5-8 friends jump into the lake and we do a 1.1-1.2 mile swim.  I typically let them go out in front of me and then I swim to catch up and draft off of their feet.  I deal with the bubbles.  I deal with slapping them on the feet.  I figure out if I am going to hard or too slow. I try to position myself in one of two areas.  Either directly behind their feet or with my head at their hip.  If I feel them passing me I will slow down so that I fall into that spot.  If I feel as if I am going to be swimming faster than them I will do just that and then push my paces to make it a tempo swim. When it comes to getting into the pool I will ask to share a lane.  I will also let them know that I am going to be swimming right off their hip as I practice my drafting.  As long as they know what I am doing there is typically not an issue.  Since I go to the same pool all the time I have learned who swims at what paces and can work that into my training. [caption id="attachment_8965" align="alignright" width="275"]drafting - illegal - triathlon - bike Illegal Drafting Lands You In The Penalty Box
Source: Triathlete.com[/caption]

Drafting: Cycling

As I wrote earlier we all know about the illegal drafting on the bike.  The packs go by and people are barely pedaling at the back of the pack and yet they are passing you.  This is beyond frustrating to see, but that doesn't mean that you cannot draft in the legal sense and use the rules to your advantage. Typically there is either a 15 or 20 second passing rule once you enter the draft zone.  Use this time to your advantage to help save your legs during the bike and prepare them for the run.  When you enter the draft zone you can get on the back wheel of the athlete in front of you and ride for a few seconds before passing them.  In that few seconds that you have you can save some energy and because of the draft you will/should be able to pass without exerting too much extra energy.  Do this throughout the race, especially a 140.6, and you can really save your legs for the run to come. One area I do not suggest leveraging the rules to your advantage is on a climb.  Trying to pass somebody using a drafting slingshot will take a lot out of your legs as you are climbing and thus may do more damage to your energy reservoir than you might save.  Throw in the fact that if you cannot pass on the climb and the referees pass by you could be hit with a 4:00 penalty thus completely negating the time savings from trying to draft. [caption id="attachment_8968" align="alignright" width="275"]drafting - triathlon - ironman - run You Can Draft On The Run As Well.
Source: Slowtwitch.com[/caption]

Drafting: Running

I am sure there are a lot of people out there that are laughing at this headline and questioning how in the world you draft while out on the run.  The same process that you use for swimming can apply to running as well.  If you are in a race with lots of wind getting on the hip of an athlete that can hold a pace that you are comfortable with can be a blessing.  They will act as a shield against the wind while also being that carrot for you to hold onto.  You will not gain speed from running off their hip but you will not deal with the annoyance of the wind hitting you in the face.  Same thing can be said for rain. Now, let's say that it is a perfectly fall day with little to no wind.  What do you do now?  You do the same thing but this time you aren't gaining an advantage of having the wind blocked for you instead you are gaining a psychological advantage of not worrying about anything but sticking to the hip of the athlete you are with.  For example, at Ironman Texas this year where it was as hot as the sun I wound up on the hip of Chelsea Tiner who is an elite age grouper here in Dallas.  By saying to myself that I had to stick with Chelsea as long as I could I developed a one note mentality.  Staying with her stride for stride as long as I was not cooking myself.  I would check my heart rate every now and again but we were running at a crisp pace that was not above a 5 or 6 on my RPE scale.  This was ideal because I knew that Chelsea could run and I did not have to worry about my pace and just had to stay with her stride for stride. Bike drafting is quite often abused in triathlon but if you stay within the rules you can still draft to your advantage.  In addition to that learning and executing a drafting strategy during the swim and on the run can be terrific performance enhancers as well.
TAGS: triathlon , bike , run , swim , drafting
Jason Bahamundi

About the Author:

I grew up in New York and lived there for 34 years until I got divorced and moved 1600 miles to my new home in Texas.  I love New York and miss it but that does not mean that Texas hasn’t been great to me because it has.  It was here that I discovered endurance sports and specifically the sport of triathlon.  Triathlon has given me new life through all the challenges it presents.  I no longer look at life the same way and I can say that is in part due to my endeavor into this sport.

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