Just over four million athletes participated in triathlons in 2016, and while some of those events were draft legal and some were not, it's a safe bet that many beginner triathletes, along with open-water swimmers, don't know when and how to draft and the advantages offered by proper drafting technique.
What is drafting?
In triathlon, drafting is the overcoming of aerodynamic drag by placing yourself behind another competitor, usually during the cycling portion of the race, to reduce air pressure and decrease wind resistance. Drafting in open water swimming involves a slightly different approach: instead of swimming directly behind the lead swimmer in their wake, you swim alongside, between the lead swimmer's ankles and hips to "surf" on the wave created by their movement.
The advantages and disadvantages of drafting
- Draft-legal triathlons are common events in Europe, and if you plan on doing some traveling for your triathlons, it's a good idea to practice before you go. Riding in a practice pack makes you less nervous during a race, and better when riding alone on busy streets.
- Most USA Triathlon events are not draft legal, so all that drafting practice won't help you in a USAT event, unless you're going for a National Championship; beginning in 2016, those events became draft legal.
- Drafting saves your energy; you use about 40% less energy riding in a draft than riding solo.
- Drafting requires skill and practice; without both, a tightly packed peloton winds up in a pile of parts and injured riders.
- Drafting builds speed, but it also builds trust and confidence in your skills, faith in your fellow cyclists and faster reflexes as you learn to react to the unexpected starts, stops and swerves that happen on a ride.
- Drafting is not an advantage for all cyclists: those riding mountain or recumbent bikes don't gain a significant benefit from drafting.
Is drafting legal in a race?
It depends on the event. Draft-legal triathlons, usually featuring large numbers of elite and experienced athletes, are known for tight packs of cyclists using one another to create drafts and enable riders to reach high speeds. The decision on draft-legal versus no drafting is made clear by the organizers in the event information. There is usually no rule on drafting for the swimming portion of the race. More draft legal races are heading to the U.S.; here is a list of upcoming events with a separate section when you're ready to dare the draft.