The Edge Effect And Mid-Pack Draft In Open Water Swimming

The Edge Effect And Mid-Pack Draft In Open Water Swimming

Open Water Source coaches advocate a variety of strategies and tactics in open water swims or triathlon swim legs. Two such concepts include the Edge Effect and the Mid-Pack Draft.

The Edge Effect

For most short-distance open water swims or triathlon swim legs, Open Water Source coaches often advocate navigating the course and crowds by swimming on the edges of the pack.

There are five primary reasons for this advice:

1. Keeping only one competitor at your side is better than being sandwiched between two competitors, one on each side. With competitors on either side of you, the probability of hitting another swimmer or getting hit doubles. Collisions – whether intentional or incidental – are very effective at slowing you down, and that probability increases significantly in the middle of the pack.

2. Because the physicality between you and your competitor is significantly less at the edges of the pack, you are in a much better frame of mind to focus on your pace, technique, navigation and strategy. In the middle when there is contact, it is easy to get frustrated or feel the need to retaliate. Frustration and retaliation are definitely not in your best interests.

3. If you choose what side of the pack you are swimming on with strategic foresight, you can get the inside track around turn buoys around the course. If you are in the middle of a large pack swimming around a turn buoy, you often get squeezed, slowed, pulled back, pulled down and/or hit. If you are on the outside of the pack, but choose the wrong (i.e., outer) side, you will swim further than your competitors.

4. If the pack is collectively making poor navigational decisions and is well off-course, swimming at the edges allows you to correct your course more easily and get back on track.

5. Swimming on the outer edges of a pack allows you to move faster. You not only do not have anyone ahead of you blocking your path, but you also can retain the advantages of drafting effectively on the sides of your competitors. Like birds in a flock or fish in a school, drafting off the sides is an effective means of reducing effort and gaining speed in open water swims.

Research in London shows that movement on the sides of a land-based crowd is easier and faster. The Edge Effect allows people at the sides of groups to move more quickly and navigate the crowds more effectively at the edges. People start bumping into each other when crowd density reaches 7-10 square feet (0.65-0.92 square meters) per person and this hinders the flow in the middle.

While similar research has not been scientifically carried out in mass participation swims or triathlon swim legs, observations of and practical experience in ocean races, lake swims and triathlons shows that the Edge Effect is also true in the open water.

Mid-Pack Draft

Open Water Source coaches, however, also teach that the Mid-Pack Draft has its place in open water swimming, depending on the swimmer and the circumstances of the race.

In a long straightaway or in a point-to-point swim where the course is easy to follow and navigation is fairly simple, drafting along in the middle of the pack enables you to enjoy the draft and the swim by simply following the swimmers ahead of you while sandwiched between those on your left and right, front and back.

You can relax your mind and go with the flow while benefiting from the efforts of those around you.

Extricating yourself from a mid-pack position takes effort and change-of-pace swimming. Similar to navigating your car across several lanes in a crowded highway, you have to alternatively speed up and slow down as you squeeze by the drivers (swimmers).

If you choose to slow down relative to the swimmers alongside you, you only have to slow down for a few strokes. After slowing slightly, do a cross-over move over their lower legs. Ideally, you should initiate this move when your fellow competitor is breathing away from you and their hand closest to you is just about to enter the water. Use the element of surprise to time your move when your competitor gives you the best opportunity. Your cross-over should only use 1-2 arm strokes to slow down and 2-4 strokes to speed back up as you cross over their legs and begin your move towards the outer edges of the pack.

On the other hand, if you choose to speed up relative to the swimmer alongside you, ideally time your move at the same time (i.e., when they are breathing away from you and their hand closest to you is just about to enter the water). At the next instant, you are primed to immediately pick up your stroke count and kick in order to forge slightly ahead of your competitor.

Once you have gained a slight edge and have the faster momentum, you can veer more easily towards the outside of the pack. In reality in open water swims and in competitions where there are experienced referees, the swimmer in the lead has the right-of-way. Once you have the right-of-way, you can more easily veer towards the outer edges of the pack.

[Note: There is always a degree of interpretation if a swimmer is improperly veering another swimmer off-course or if the swimmer in front has established their position and right-of-way to make a directional change that they see fit.]

Photo courtesy of Javier Blasquez at the 2008 World Open Water Swimming Championships where Christine Jennings, Poliana Okimoto, Melissa Gorman and Britta Kamrau clashed in the middle of the pack. Copyright © 2011 by Open Water Source
Steven Munatones