[Editorial Note: The following is excerpted from Chapter 21 of Terry Laughlin’s 2002 bookTriathon Swimming Made Easy: The Total Immersion Way for Anyone to Master Triathlon or Open Water Swimming]

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Practice Free Rides

Swimming just behind someone else can be worth as much as 10% in energy savings. Just as helpful, you can let your draftees do the work of navigation while you simply follow in their wake– but do check their bearings from time to time. I practice drafting in the pool, as I said, and at the lake, where I sometimes start at the back of the pack to practice drafting. I’ll do my no-look strokes and practice following other swimmers without actually looking for them. I try to sense their proximity by feeling the bubbles from their kick. You can also catch a ride by swimming alongside another swimmer (or between two swimmers) but close enough to stay within their bow wave, by keeping your goggles somewhere between their knees and feet. When drafting that way, you can keep your “rabbit” in view with normal side-breathing.

After swimming “blind” for 40 or more strokes, I’ll sneak a quick peak at my draftee’s cap or for the center of the cluster of caps. Another way to use the pack to stay on course is by swimming to one side. If you know, for instance, that you typically wander to the left while swimming, position yourself to the right of most of the pack. Everyone else will keep you in line. 

Practice with Purpose

In addition to the gear-changing and timed pool sets outlined earlier in this book, in the lake I test and develop my ability to stay smooth at racing speeds with a variety of pacing games. I will generally swim in a range of three “gears.” Silent is virtually effortless. Cruise is a bit faster with some feeling of pace. Brisk represents the effort and pace I’d usually feel in the course of a mile race–but my race is complete after I swim, so this pace may be a bit faster than most triathletes would want to swim. Here’s a sample “lake workout” to show the range of creativity that is possible– each “set” represents one “lake lap” or just under 400 meters:

  • Swim Super-Slow and Silent. I try for the lowest possible stroke count and try to cross with fewer than four “looks” to sight.
  • Speedplay. Alternate rounds of 40 strokes Silent with 20 strokes Cruise. Try to be just as quiet and splash-free as you accelerate to “cruise pace.”
  • SSP (Sensory Skill Practice). Alternate thinking about your head position (relaxing the neck, hanging the head) and timing your switches, with purposeful exaggeration. Count strokes.
  • Speedplay. Alternate 50 Silent strokes–10 Cruise strokes, 40 Silent–20 Cruise, 30 Silent–40 Cruise, 10 Silent–50 Cruise. Be just as smooth for 50 strokes of Cruise as you are for 10.
  • Drafting Practice. Start at the rear and practice “feeling wakes” and not looking very often. Also practice how to advance within the pack by leapfrogging from the “free ride” of one wake to the free ride of another wake further ahead in the pack, like a trout working upstream from rock to rock.
  • Speedplay. Alternate 20 strokes Silent–20 strokes Cruise–20 strokes Brisk. Try to stay just as smooth and fluent at Brisk as at Silent. You can also practice adjusting your tempo in the core, by keeping your arms connected to your faster-moving torso as you cycle through this repeatedly.
  • Pickups. Start at the rear of the pack, give the leaders a bit of a head start, then build your tempo and pace steadily across the lake, from Silent through Cruise, Brisk, and finally to full speed in the final 50 meters or so. This lap is a microcosm of a whole race, distilled to 400 meters.

See last week’s blog post for open water practice and racing tips on SIGHTING AND BREATHING

To read the full chapter on Open Water Practice and Racing, check out Chapter 21 of Triathlon Swimming Made Easy… or our “Outside the Box: A Program for Success in the Open Water” video! See clip below: