The Etiquette Of Drafting In The Open Water

The Etiquette Of Drafting In The Open Water

Among open water swimmers, there are occasionally discussions and debates about the etiquette of drafting in open water races.

One such question in the US Masters Swimming forum was direct, “In a draft-legal open water swimming race, is it good or bad etiquette to draft off another person for all, majority or much of a race and then swing around and try to take the win?”

The answers can range from “it’s not fair” to “just don’t keep hitting the feet of the person in front of you” to “swimmers should take their turn at leading as well as drafting” to “it’s a race and drafting is a winning tactic.”

While a large majority of most of world’s open water races sanctioned by governing bodies allow drafting, it is remains fundamentally illegal and is widely considered to be unsportsmanlike if you impede another swimmer’s progress whether it is done intentionally or unintentionally. The issue becomes even more problematic because in most races, there are either no officials or inadequately trained officials who are not experienced in observing or judging the subtle tactics used by many. Therefore, impeding another swimmer and acting in an unsportsmanlike manner is often applied differently by different referees.

While impeding another swimmer should be universally judged in the same manner by all referees in all situations, this is practically an unrealistic goal at least in the short term. Among the athletes at various levels, the differences between purposeful and tactic drafting as performed by competitive elite and masters swimmers and incidental and occasional drafting done by individuals who are participating for fitness and a sense of accomplishment are dramatic.

Among competitive swimmers, drafting is an acquired and respected skill. At the competitive level, there are practiced tactics on drafting, pacing and positioning that have been researched and taught by the world’s leading open water coaches. Among this crowd that is always looking for tactical advantages, there is mutual respect for those who draft and position well and then use the conservation of energy to sprint to victory (e.g., The Ilchenko).

The tactics can be subtle or very direct and explicit, even out of the eyesight of experienced referees. Among professional open water swimmers, tapping on an opponent’s feet, pushing down on the soles of their rivals while trying to “get inside the head” of their competitors while drafting is one example an acquired skill that the elite athletes grudgingly accept.

While the British Olympic gold medal favorite Keri-Anne Payne is renowned for leading elite races from the front, her strategy is rare. More likely, Italian, German, American and Russian open water swimmers prefer take the lead only until the late stages of major races. They tend to win at the end by effectively conserving their energy in the first half by drafting and smart positioning throughout the race – and then moving into the lead or near the leader with 5-20% of the race left.

At the local amateur level among the most competitive, this also happens. It also occur among savvy veterans (e.g., masters swimmers) who find themselves swimming next to more aerobically fit age-group swimmers many years their junior. While some individuals might think this is unfair, ANY and ALL swimmers have the opportunity to draft in a competitive environment,

But for individuals who simply want to enjoy a race and the camaraderie of open water swimming while swimming from Point A to Point B, drafting behind or alongside and then “sprinting” ahead “to win” can be viewed as poor etiquette. Certainly, tapping on the feet or constantly bumping into the person ahead of you is in poor taste at any level, but especially in a mass participation race among the slower swimmers where money and awards are not in play.

As a countermeasure in cases where you are being bothered by someone behind you or alongside of you, it is often effective if you swim laterally away from the – even for a few meters or strokes – and the problem often resolves itself. Alternatively – and this has occurred at the professional and competitive levels – you can also simply stop or do some easy backstroke or breaststroke until the offender has passed by and you have effectively switched positions on your drafting opponent.

Photo of swimmers drafting at the European Open Water Swimming Championships by Giorgio Scala.

Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source
Steven Munatones