What’s The Deal With The Swimrun Tether?

The Swimrun duo, The Low Tide Boyz, are tackling your Swimrun questions. This month: the mystifying tether.

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In this monthly Swimrun column, Chris Douglas and Chipper Nicodemus, a swimrun team out of Northern California and hosts of the Low Tide Boyz – A Swimrun Podcast, will be answering all of your Swimrun questions. This month, they tackle one of the most confusing: What’s a Swimrun tether, why are you tied to your partner, and do you have to have one? 

A question that we get a lot is some variation of the following: So you swim and run, swim and run over and over—AND you’re attached to each other the whole time? To which our answer is always some variation of, “Yeah, with a tether!” and then insert a pregnant pause for added effect.

In this month’s column, we will demystify the Swimrun tether (or mystify it if this is the first you’re hearing of such a thing), talk about the tactical reasons for using a tether (spoiler alert: it makes you faster), and tie (pun intended) in some funny Swimrun tether stories from guests and fans of the show.

What Is A Swimrun Tether?

The tether, or tow line, is essentially a 3m (or roughly 10ft) cord that Swimrun teams use to stay in contact with each other in the water and land. The genesis for the tether, according to legendary swimrunner Jonas Colting, was to keep teams safe and in contact during the original Ötillö race, which in the early years took teams 18+ hours to finish. While tethers aren’t mandatory at every race, most teams will opt to use one for longer distance events. The majority of teams DIY their Swimrun tethers and we recommend using quick release carabiners to attach it at both ends for, um, quick release. The length of a tether can vary depending on comfort level, but typically you want it just long enough so that you stay on your partner’s feet in the water. (PRO TIP: If the tether is too long during a race, make a knot on the line during the next run leg.) Teams then attach each end to their wetsuit—some suits have integrated loops for attachment—or to a waist utility belt a la Batman. As with anything Swimrun, you should experiment in training to see what works best for you. It definitely takes some getting used to swimming and running with a tether, and dinner plate-sized hand paddles, and a giant pull buoy.

Everything to Know Before Attempting a Swimrun
The Greatest Thing About Swimrun (Spoiler: It’s the Partner Part)
Never Get Out of the Boat: An Ötillö Catalina Race Report
Hold My Bike: A Look at the Rapid Growth of Swimrun
Swimrun: Your Ticket to a Faster Tri

Unlike other pieces of your kit, like choosing the right shoes (see our special episode on Swimrun shoes to hear all the considerations that go into that decision), the Swimrun tether setup is pretty straight-forward. Teams use either a thick, bright-colored paracord or one-half to three-quarter nylon webbing material and attach carabiners on either side. We recommend a highly visible color that can be easily seen in murky lakes and crystal clear ocean waters. You don’t need anything special in terms of carabiners. Even the basic one that came with that lip balm or reusable shopping bag you got at a conference last year will work.

Why Use A Tether?

There are some tactical advantages for using a tether. First, it allows teams to stay in contact during swim legs and stay in each other’s draft. The advantages of drafting in the water are pretty well understood. In longer Swimrun events, recoverinng behind the lead swimmer can keep everyone fresh, which can pay off later in the race. Teams can use different drafting strategies. Some teams will just put their uber swimmer up front the whole time and the drafting teammate pretty much chills. As the tailing Swimrunner, nothing motivates you to push it a bit to stay in that draft zone than watching the tether become as taut as a guitar string. Other teams, like Kawika and Blake from Team Envol Baywatch—you can listen to their complete take on the tether on episode 6 of our podcast—count out 20-30 swim strokes and then switch places by passing the lead swimmer on the right or left to keep a fast overall pace while still getting plenty of active recovery.

Second, tethers aren’t just useful in the water. Teams will typically stay tethered during run legs and it’s not uncommon for a runner to semi-tow their partner up a steep climb. If a team member is not having a good day, the tether can keep them moving forward until they recover or hit the next aid station. Rather than thinking of it as your teammate giving you a push of motivation, they’re giving you a pull of motivation.

When you are using a tether, be sure to keep it on all the time. Clipping, unclipping, wrapping the cord up after a 200m swim, pulling it out, having it tangle worse than your iPhone headphones, and then trying to rehook it to your partner who is already charging away will eat up a lot of time. This all comes down to practice and developing the technique to wield the tether effectively.

Does It Ever Backfire?

Using a tether will likely help your team perform better at a race but it also pretty much increases the chance of hilarity ensuing by about 40%, according to an unofficial Löw Tide Böyz survey. You can trip on it, get your paddle caught in it, get it stuck on foliage, etc. It all makes for great race stories and really adds to the Swimrun experience.

We asked our listeners for some of their tales of Swimrun tether mishaps and we weren’t disappointed. According to Mia, tethers can attract wildlife—in her case: ducks. David told us his friend thought the race organizers had put up ropes to help with a difficult swim exit and he ended up pulling the tether and dragging his partner back into the water. Audrey said, “At Casco Bay we saw teams coming out of the water looking like they just harvested enough greens for a nice seaweed salad.” The best story of all was probably from David, who told us about the time he saw a team running full-out go on opposite sides of a lamppost—while tethered. I think we all know how that one ended.

That’s it for this month’s column. Reach out to us with any burning Swimrun questions that you’d like to see answered. Hopefully, we will all be able to go back to racing safely soon but until then, go for a swim with shoes on, then a run, rinse and repeat, and be sure to give that tether a shot. It will change your life!

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