Maximising Performance Through Drafting in Triathlon

Maximising Performance Through Drafting in Triathlon

Triathletes and cyclists will be very familiar with the term, ‘drafting’. It is a well known fact that sitting directly in the slipstream of another cyclist can save up to 30% of the effort required to go the speed we are travelling, were we pushing our way through the air ourselves. This effect is multiplied when we are sitting in the middle of a large pack, effectively surrounded by other riders. Anyone who has had the pleasure will attest that travelling on a flat stretch of road, in a big peloton at 50kph+, requires almost no effort at all. In fact, it is more often the case that we need to keep feathering the brakes in order to not be pulled into the wheel in front of us.

This effort and energy saving result of drafting is why it is not allowed in most triathlons. Pretty much all races, apart from elite level International Triathlon Union events, enforce strict non-drafting rules and apply penalties to those that are caught transgressing. Most of these events will stipulate that we need to stay at least 20m behind the rider in front of us in order to avoid their slipstream. That is a very long distance in which drafting could be beneficial.

So, the advantages of drafting on the bike are undisputed but could there be similar benefits in the swim and on the run? Well… the short answer is no. We will definitely not feel the same effect in the other two disciplines of a triathlon as we would on the bike and that is largely down to the speed that we are travelling. The faster we go, the harder we have to work to move through the air or against the wind. Running speeds are generally less than half of what we achieve on a bicycle on a flat road and our maximum speed is far, far greater on the bike than on our feet.

That said, there is still a benefit to drafting another runner. The most significant evidence in favour of this was Eliod Kipchoge’s Sub Two Hour Challenge in which he had runners forming a wedge in front of him throughout the run, in order to provide him shelter, thus reducing the amount of work he had to do to overcome air resistance at just over 20kph.

Drafting another runner is not against the rules in triathlon or running races so, it is definitely a technique to be utilised when the opportunity presents itself. It is not going to save us minutes but it can certainly help us to conserve a bit of energy for a strong finish or get us through a bad patch. If there is a strong wind blowing on race day, drafting will be more significant. It may even be advantageous to communicate with runners around us, taking turns to lead so that everyone benefits. Until the finish line of course.

Drafting in swimming fits somewhere between cycling and running. Some may think that, because of the slower speed of swimming, there is less impact from drafting but they are not taking into account that we are not moving through air but rather a much denser medium, water. Overcoming the resistance of the water is the primary focus of improving our technique in swimming. Any slight inefficiency that alters our body position or how our hands move through the water, gives the water something to grab onto, creating more drag. Sitting directly behind the feet of a swimmer in front of us significantly reduces the amount of drag we have to overcome.

Another drafting technique in open water swimming does more than just reduce the amount of drag that we need to deal with but actually provides us with a small wave to ride. Sitting just forward of another swimmers knees, with our hands entering at their hips, puts us in a position where we are still being aided by them ‘breaking a path through the water’ for us but, we are also swimming just in front of the small wave that every swimmer creates that radiates out in a V from their hips. The faster the swimmer, the bigger and more helpful that wave is.

Positioning ourselves between but slightly behind two other swimmers multiplies that effect enormously, and swimming in the middle of a large pack can be very similar to riding in a fast moving pack of cyclists where we just need to tap out a very relaxed rhythm to keep moving at a far higher pace than we would be capable of at that effort, on our own. Unlike in cycling, where riders generally maintain a safe distance from each other, swimming like this will result in the odd kick in the head, a pull on the foot and bumping shoulders and elbows on a fairly regular bass but these are a very small price to pay for that kind of advantage are they not?

Share this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

has been added to your cart.