Coaching TipsDraft-LegalSwimBikeTransitionRunTraining Tips

Coaching Draft-Legal Racing

by Brooks Doughtie

Athletes draft behind one another during the bike portion of a draft-legal race.

Draft-legal racing is a type of triathlon that is fast paced and exciting. This is the same format used in the NCAA Varsity Women’s Triathlon movement as well as the Olympics. For that very reason draft legal (DL) racing is growing in popularity for athletes and fans. This article will give you information and the necessary skills in order to be prepared for the demands of draft-legal racing.

Typically athletes are called to the start line one at a time and your choice of position on the line can make or break your swim. With athletes starting side by side, the swim venue is important to understand and practice as there can be several different kinds of swim starts. Swims can take place in lakes or oceans, which can have athletes starting on the beach, in the water or on a pontoon resulting in a dive start. Skills that can improve your swim for beach starts will be dolphin diving, and aggressively running in and out of the water. Pontoon starts can be challenging, as the power from all the athletes simultaneously pressing off the dock can move the dock backwards, so be ready to dive off as soon as the horn blasts.

It’s critical to improve start speed to the first turn buoy because the beginning of draft legal swims are aggressive, rough and fast. Similar to non-draft racing, sighting is a skill that takes time and practice but, if done properly, will help you swim faster and more efficiently. Remember the buoys are huge yellow or orange colors so all you need to do is get a glance, and you’ll be able to sight properly. Another skill to work on is making sure you swim with a higher swim cadence because of the various environmental conditions of wind, waves and other competitors. An important skill that athletes will want to master is drafting in the water. Drafting in the water will help ensure you make it into a swim group and also allow you to save energy. The ideal swim position is directly behind someone’s feet, but just be aware that you want to give their feet just enough room to kick properly.


Athletes will have the most success in open water when they are relaxed. Draft-legal racing is a more advanced style of racing, and for many athletes, it’s the first time they are swimming in large packs for an extended period in the water. Even advanced swimmers need to practice being comfortable in congested water. One drill I like to do is work on mass swim starts by putting three to four people in one lane and have them swim to the other end of the pool at the same time. This will help you practice swimming in choppy water and help you learn to stay relaxed around other swimmers.

Transition skills are where you can make up lost time on the swim. When you enter the transition, your goggles, swim cap and wetsuit must be dropped in the provided bin or you can be assessed a penalty. Draft-legal athletes mount their bikes with their shoes attached to their bike pedals with a rubber band. This allows them to quickly put on their helmet and grab their bike and head to the mount line. Remember that when you do a flying mount, the aim is to land with your feet on top of your shoes, spin up to speed and then get into your shoes which will help you catch the group ahead. Dismounting is done by keeping your shoes clipped into your pedal and riding the last 1/4th mile on top of your shoes. Make sure when you rack your bike, it is done by both handlebars or by the seat and is facing to the outside of transition. Before you leave transition make sure your helmet is placed in the provided bin as well. These skills can all be practiced in a grassy field and then when you feel comfortable, in a parking lot.

When you are riding in a group pace line, it is important to communicate when you are rotating off the front, when a turn is ahead or when the last person can be ready to jump back into the pace line. One of the keys to draft-legal racing is the hard accelerations out of corners that occur in the bike packs. A simple rule to determine how many accelerations you need to be prepared for is to count the number of turns and the number of bike laps. So if one bike lap has 8 turns and it’s a 4-lap bike course, you will need to be prepared for 32 hard accelerations at minimum. Being in good position in the bike pack going into corners will also help you as it will determine how much you have to accelerate. If you are in the very back of the group, you will have to power out of the corner the longest to stay in the group. Making sure you are in a good gear to spin your way out of a turn is also important and can help save your run legs. Finally I would suggest learning to be comfortable riding in the drops on the road bike. That will help you power out of turns and improve cornering skills.

The run can be a challenge because of the hard accelerations you had to do on the bike leg. However, the key to a successful run is to always negative split, which means making sure the second part of the run is faster than the first part. This will give you confidence and the motivation to finish strong. Negative splitting the run starts with a smart run transition exit. You have to start the run at a manageable pace — not something that is 60 seconds faster than paces you can’t manage. Running strong on tired legs takes discipline and strong mechanics. One of the drills I make sure athletes work on is keeping their eyes looking down, 8-10 yards in front of them. This helps make sure they keep their head still, which saves energy and brings a good forward lean that allows them to not overstride.

A key workout that I like to do is a multi-brick session at a track. Setup a trainer where you bike for 10 minutes at race intensity efforts then transition to a 1 mile run around the track. Try to do that three to four times in the lead up to races, and that will start to prepare you to running faster and more efficiently off the bike.

Draft-legal racing is a great avenue into the sport of triathlon. It’s fast, fun and challenging. Mentally prepare yourself for the event, but always stay in the moment. Take each segment of the race and focus on it entirely, and then move onto the next segment. Control what you can control, and you will see success at draft-legal triathlon.

Brooks Doughtie is head coach of All Out MultiSport located in Raleigh, N.C. A USA Triathlon Level II and Youth & Junior Certified Coach, Doughtie coaches the All Out draft legal athletes as part of a daily training environment. Acknowledgement goes to Kim Clark of Impact Multisport for the collaboration of information in this article.

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