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Bubble Leech Extinction

(or Who’s Doing the Work In Your Lane?)

Revised from an article that first appeared in Schwimmvergnügen in 1995.

...Stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke.... Not too fast now — don't wanna to use it up too soon... stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, stroke.... not too slow — don't wanna work that hard... stroke, stroke, stroke... he really took off after that last turn... stroke, stroke... damn, I might have to do some of this by myself... stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe... mebbe I'll just stop and adjust my goggles till he makes it back by here... stroke, breathe, stroke...you'd think he'd have the common courtesy to keep a steady pace, what with the rest of us back here...stroke...I don't even see his bubbles anymore...stroke, stroke...my goggles are just about to leak so I'll stop here for 30 seconds or so...

Drafting. If you don't know what drafting is, stop right here — read no further. Preserve your innocence. Walk away now, untainted.

Now, for those of you familiar with drafting, let me say that I'm not 100% against drafting once in a while. Heck, it's fun to get a free ride from a faster swimmer now and then. And, from a training standpoint, this practice has its merits — it allows you to feel what it is like to get up and down the pool a little faster. It also gives you a different feel for what the water is doing to your body. If you are going to be competing in open water, drafting is part of the game and such skills must be developed. You have to find that fleeting “sweet spot” where the trade—off between turbulent water and flowing water gives you the best “ride.” A little drafting helps you improve your understanding of the water and its effect on your body.

However, this concept is often taken to an extreme. I don't want to go off on a rant here but, I'm sure you know what I mean — the guy who refuses to go first, even though he's the fastest swimmer in the lane, the inconsiderate fellow who swims up on your toes but who wouldn't dream of passing (in fact, touching your toes is his signal for you to speed up rather than his signal that he wants to pass), the bozo who goes two seconds behind you then complains when you stop abruptly in the lane and he runs into your back, the cretin that leeches your bubbles for a long swim with multiple negative splits and when quizzed for his splits merely points to you and says “Same as Joe—Bob’s,” the pusillanimous twit that drafts off you all day long and then puffs out his chest in the locker room about what a tough workout he did.

I'll not mince words. With rare exceptions drafting in workout is cheating. It is a crutch — like training wheels on a bike, like wearing flippers when everyone else has got nekked feet, like pushing food onto your fork with your fingers, like swimming a 400 when other people your speed go a 500, like going to the bathroom and not washing your hands, like leaving 2 seconds early on a timed 50 — need I go on? When you draft you know you are getting away with something, you feel a bit sheepish when it is pointed out publicly and you know it is intellectually dishonest to claim credit for anything you do while drafting.

Yet some of you still insist on sucking foot most of the time, swimming without the aid of a good draft only under duress (or only with flippers or only with the cursed little styro—virus between your legs).

Drafting directly reduces the amount of energy expended to swim at a given pace. You are fooling yourself into thinking you are doing great things when in reality the lane leader is doing the great things.

Because a drafter’s speed is largely dependent on the other guy’s effort it is impossible for the drafter to gauge the amount of effort really needed to swim at any desired speed. A sense of pace eludes this misguided soul. Foggy countenances and pained expressions appear when negative splitting or any other type of controlled pacing is the order of the day (unless, of course, a trusty lane leader is present to do all of the mental and physical work — then the drafter is happy to do his part and mop up the bubbles).

Because of pacing deficiencies, chronic drafters are often the ones who crash and burn during distance races in meets. Onlookers cringe, teammates point and snicker, parents point out the spectacle to their children, admonishing them against the evils of a misspent youth, coaches disavow knowledge of the swimmer's activities.

The problem of drafting would be self—limiting if the drafter’s free ride cost the lead swimmer more energy or slowed him down a bit. If this were the case a swimmer that detected a bubble leech would soon reward the offending party with invectives and physical abuse. However, unless the drafter commits one of the more flagrant lane etiquette fouls or endangers others, peer pressure is rarely exerted.

Of course it all comes down to a question of aesthetics — to the casual observer, does the swimmer who is drafting look more like a sexy European sports car flying along the course, sun glinting off it's freshly detailed chrome — or does he look more like a demolition derby hulk being dragged off the track in a choking cloud of dust and oily smoke? I'll leave it to you to decide.¨

  Copyright 1999–2009, H2Ouston Swims. All rights reserved.

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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