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Are Lead Swimmers Negatively Affected By Draftees?

Are Lead Swimmers Negatively Affected By Draftees?

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

A group of competitive open water swimmers got together in Seal Beach, California and had a heated discussion about drafting and swimming in the lead.

Parks Wesson, Dr. Lyle Nalli, Mitch Berro, Ted Gover, PhD, Scott Soleau, and Kellyn Carlson posted questions to each other regarding two competing swimmers in an open water competition:

* One swimmer (trailing swimmer) is drafting immediately behind another (i.e., lead swimmer). Is the drafting causing the lead swimmer to swim slower than he would if the trailing swimmer was not behind him? Or is the lead swimmer actually swimming faster? The theory is the same as the theory that a longer sailboat is faster than a shorter sailboat.

* Could it be that the lead swimmer senses a change in his feel of the water and thus adjusts? This adjustment gives the perception of swimming slower which is reinforced by the trailing swimmer.

The arguments on either side were valid and the debate was contentious. We believe the answers depends on a variety of factors including:

1. Is the lead swimmer fundamentally an Alpha Dog or an athlete with a lower level of self-confidence? An Alpha Dog would not be slowed by drafting swimmers; it would stoke their adrenalin.

In contrast, a non-Alpha Dog might feel intimidated.

2. Is the lead swimmer in the beginning, middle or end part of the race? If the lead swimmer is in the last part of the race, there is a certain amount of confidence and adrenalin that is a psychological and biochemical boost to the leader. If the lead swimmer is in the beginning of a race, it depends on the strategy and mindset of the lead swimmer. The lead swimmer could be trying to push the pace in the beginning and this falls in line with that strategy and, therefore, presents no disadvantage. On the other hand, the lead swimmer could be intimidated by finding himself in the lead and this is naturally a detrimental effect.

3. Where are the turn buoys, feeding station, rock jetties or other obstacles in the race? The leader could be at a significant advantage depending on the next tangent to be swum in the race. That is, if the turn buoy requires a 180° turn (on an out-and-back course), then the leader is facing a navigational advantage and those behind are at a tactical disadvantage. If the turn buoy or obstacle in the race requires anything less than a 90° turn, then the lead swimmer does not have the same sort of navigational advantage.

Natural changes in the race pace like swimming through a feeding station will also change the dynamics of the lead swimmer and trailing swimmers. So a lead in the first half of a 5 km or the first half of the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (for example) is almost immaterial because there is so much more racing to do. For example, a lead coming into the finish at the Dwight Crum Pier-to-Pier Swim or Newport Beach pier-to-pier swim or the Huntington Beach Pier Swim with the surf pumping is significant…unless the trailing swimmers are in a better position to catch a wave.

4. What are the conditions of the course? Are there waves? Are the conditions current-positive, current-neutral, current-negative or current-lateral? For example, if the ocean swells and winds are going in the same direction of the swimmers, then the lead swimmer has a relative advantage because it is more difficult for the trailing swimmers to catch up to the lead swimmer the faster the pace. Conversely, if the ocean swells and winds are going in the opposite direction, then the lead swimmer does not have a significant advantage (and actually facing a tactical disadvantage in my opinion) because it is much easier in this case for the trailing swimmers to catch up to the lead swimmer.

5. Is the trailing swimmer on the hip of the lead swimmer or swimming directly behind the kick of the lead swimmer? Most swimmers would prefer to be swimming off the hip of the lead swimmer, but triathlon publications and the triathlon community generally state that swimming directly behind the swimmer provides the greatest relative draft for the trailing swimmer. However, in research that the World Open Water Swimming Association conducted with Dr. Genadijus Sokolovas, USA Swimming’s Director of Physiology & Director of Sport Science from 2000 to 2008, using the SwiMetrics technology, the greatest relative draft for the trailing swimmer among myriad formations in a race was found to be when two swimmers are swimming at maximum speed and the trailing swimmer is swimming off the hips of a lead swimmer with a 6-beat kick.

All things being equal, we believe a lead swimmer does not swim slowly because of things or people behind him unless there is some underlying psychological reason. Conversely, the lead swimmer does not swim faster because of the hydrodynamic effects of a separate body behind him.

But could it be that a swimmer actually feel a trailing swimmer without actually seeing them? That would also like having a sixth sense or the human equivalent of the ampullae of Lorenzini which are special sensing organs called electroreceptors that form a network of jelly-filled pores found in sharks. Basically, such talented swimmers with a sixth sense who have some kind of perceptive receptors in their brain would literally feel the changes in wave structure and dynamic electric fields in the water behind them.

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