Swimrun racing using a tether

Can being tied to your race partner make you faster?

While I have often used a tether in the swim section on a swim, until recently I hadn’t used it doing the runs. In the swims, the benefits are obvious. If you’re the faster swimmer in your team, you can swim at your own pace without worrying that your race partner will be left behind. If you’re the slower swimmer, you can relax, put your head down and follow the line of the tether. You will be in the perfect position to draft and won’t need to slow yourself down with sighting. In tests we’ve done, the overall speed of swimming tethered is closer to the fastest swimmer’s speed than the slower ones.

But could you get similar benefits in running? I was sceptical. I had lots of excuses: I might get pulled off balance; the line will get tangled; it won’t make any difference anyway. I also had to protect my ego.

Then, in June this year, I did the Great North Swimrun with Mike Alexander, the person behind WeSwimRun. It soon became clear that Mike was a stronger runner than me. About 10km in, I felt my legs weakening and was falling off the pace. Mike offered to tow me. We’d just been overtaken, and I didn’t have the energy to increase our pace, so I agreed.

The impact was immediate. It was as if some of Mike’s energy transferred through the tether to my legs. I suddenly felt lighter and faster. Instead of losing ground, we were now keeping our distance from the guys who gone past us. I stopped worrying about holding us up or about having to remind Mike to slow down. If I needed to ease off a little, I let the tether go taught, and Mike had to pull harder. When I’d recovered enough, I sped up and let the line go slack again. As another bonus, it enhanced the feeling of working together as a team, as I’d been leading on the swim sections. We made the most of each other’s strengths.

I subsequently did two more events with my regular race partner Lucy who is faster than me running uphill and experienced the same benefits. However, to be fair, I should point out that Lucy was not quite so pleased with the outcome. She pointed out that I’m heavier than her and she could feel my weight on the line, and her legs got more tired than usual. She thought the gains were marginal and would probably only be significant in close races.

The only way to truly find out would be to set up some kind of time trial in training, but there is evidence from another sport that supports the idea that being towed can help the slower runner: canicross, a sport where people do trail running races with their dogs.

There’s a chap called Ben Robinson who ran 5km with his dog Blake in a blistering time of 12 minutes 24 seconds in 2017. To put that in context, the current word record for 5000m on the track is 12 minutes 35 seconds, while on the road it’s 12 minutes 49 seconds. What I haven’t yet been able to find out is how fast Ben can run without his dog – but I’m confident that it’s not faster than the world record.

Running with a tether does take some getting used to. My experience is being the slower runner and I mostly feel the need for assistance on uphills. It works best on easy trails. On technical trails, especially fast descents, I find it more difficult as it’s harder to spot the obstacles, roots and loose stones that might send you tumbling. If you’re going to stay tethered for these, you’ll need a partner who will warn you about hazards ahead.

Also, be prepared to swallow your pride and ignore all the comments from people you pass about being taken for a walk or being kept on a tight leash.

Image: Tal Y Llyn Swimrun (c) WeSwimRun
(bonus tip: always speed up when the camera is watching so there is no photographic evidence of being dragged)