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Triathlon Swimming Technique: How to Sight in Open Water

Taren Gesell

Triathlon swim training focuses not just on swimming technique in the pool but also on how to be the best, most comfortable swimmer you can be in open water. That’s because open water swimming is an integral part of most endurance triathlon events. It's also one of the most daunting parts of triathlon race day! However, with a good open-water swim sighting technique, you’ll navigate your way to the bike in no time.

Unlike swimming in the pool, open-water swimming navigation is not so straightforward. You’ll have to keep swimming straight while encountering and overcoming the challenges of a foreign environment: underwater currents, waves, the sun in your eyes, and all the other swimmers colliding with you!

How can you develop good open-water swim sighting techniques to help you get through the swim quickly, efficiently, and unscathed? In this article, we’ll talk about: 

  • The importance of open-water swim sighting;
  • What good sighting looks like;
  • Pool drills to prepare for open-water swim sighting.

Why is Open-Water Swim Sighting Important?

One of the main reasons for ending up swimming longer than you expected on race day is swimming off-course. We’ve all done it: you spend hours and hours during your triathlon swim training in the pool, perfecting your stroke technique, getting as fast as possible and developing the breathing patterns that keep you relaxed and smooth under water. 

But, if you have no practice or experience with open-water swimming, when you hit the water on race day, you might find yourself finishing way behind your expected time. Check your GPS file after the race: how does it compare to the distance of the official swim course? How many more meters did you swim because you lost your way or got swayed off course? And how much more tired and disoriented did you feel when you got into T1?

Here's why it’s essential to master open-water swim sighting:

  • Good sighting technique keeps your body floating like a log. Instead of lifting your head too high up, causing your legs to sink, getting panicky, and losing that hydrodynamic body position you’ve worked so hard to develop, sighting well means you stay straight and swim better and faster.
  • Keep your breathing calm and controlled. On top of keeping your body positioning aligned, a good sighting technique means you won't get distracted and forget to take a breath rhythmically. As a result, you won’t panic and feel breathless, and you’ll keep swimming calmly and proficiently.
  • Don’t get lost! The most important thing about good sighting in open water is you’ll stay on track and finish your swim quickly and efficiently. Without effective sighting, you'll lose valuable time and energy just to stay on course. Be aware of your surroundings and choose the optimal line throughout the swim.
  • Minimize outside interference. As you get better at sighting, you’ll be able to find your ideal spot in the swim pack. Whether you stay away from the “washing machine” of bodies all bashing against each other in the middle of the pack, or you choose to swim with everybody else, good sighting helps you stay where you want to be. Know where all the other swimmers are, position yourself, so you don’t swim headfirst into a first-aid canoe, and avoid buoys and other unexpected obstacles.

How to Sight in Open Water 

So, now you’ll be asking how to sight in open water during your next session. Firstly, I want you to remember two things:

  1. You need to practice sighting in open water during 5-6 sessions before your race. This is essential, as you should always aim to practice in open water anyway, to get used to the feelings and challenges.
  1. You can prepare for open-water swim sighting by practicing drills in the pool. This means you can add a bunch of drills during your pool sessions, and you should feel even more prepared to put your practice to the test when you get out in open water.

Here’s what the best open-water swim sighting technique should look like:

  • Ahead of your race, decide if you’re going to draft off somebody or if you’re better off swimming away from other triathletes and doing your own sighting. This depends on how comfortable you are in open water and the proficiency of your swimming technique (so you’re not getting bashed around and you can keep on track of whoever you’re drafting). Have a look at this video to see some strategies around drafting and sighting. 
  • Aim to sight every six strokes. As an age grouper, you’re very likely to swim off course simply because you’re not trained like a pro, and you don’t know the course like a pro might. And, if you’re drafting off other swimmers, you might still be swayed away by currents, so you need to be sure of where you’re going. 
  • Use sightlines and static points of reference on shore, rather than moving objects like boats or buoys. This way, you’ll always be swimming in the right direction.
  • Less is more when it comes to sighting. You don’t need to lift your entire head out of the water - try to lift your eyes out while leaving your nose in the water, turn your head to catch a breath, then sight two or three times in a row. You’ll get a more complete picture of your surroundings this way.
  • One way to think of this is like “alligator eyes” - imagine how alligators lift just half of their head out of the water to see where they’re going. You can do this before you catch a breath.
  • When there are lots of waves out there, time your sighting, so you’re looking out when you’re at the top of a wave. 
  • Never breathe while you’re looking forward! Move your head to the side to breathe once you’ve caught a glimpse of the course ahead of you. 
  • Keep your legs from sinking by kicking a bit harder while you’re sighting.

The 2 Drills You Need to Sight Like a Pro

The single most important way to optimize your open-water swim sighting is to practice in open water. But, as you’re spending lots of time in the pool before the open-water season starts, you can do a few drills to get yourself used to sighting.

1. Sighting practice every six strokes

Even though you’re not in open water, start practicing sighting every six strokes. Lift your head slightly as you move forward in the water, take a quick glimpse, then move your head to the side to breathe, all while sighting 2-3 more times.

Check out an example here. 

Additionally, learn to separate breathing and sighting with this diagram, so you avoid pulling your whole face out of the water and losing your smooth, straight swimming form. 

Remember to do this during your pool workouts, maybe at every cool down or during your easy swim once a week. By the time you’re in open water, you’ll be doing it naturally. 

2. Work on bilateral breathing

What is invaluable in open water is being able to breathe on both sides. There are lots of reasons for this: the current could bring waves in your face constantly from one side, the sun might be shining straight in your face, etc.

Moreover, bilateral breathing helps with sighting because it allows you to catch a few glimpses on both sides of your body. So, once you’ve had your quick forward glance as you lift your head out of the water, then you’re looking to each side every time you’re breathing. This also informs you of your distance from other swimmers and lets you check out your second point of reference on shore (if you have one) on one side of your body.

So, while you’re in the pool, avoid always breathing to the same side. Mix it up by doing one lap breathing on the right only, one lap on the left, and then finally a third lap alternating. Do this for a few laps during your easy swims or your cool downs. You'll be less likely to panic if, for whatever reason, you’re struggling to breathe on one side on race day, and it will help with your sighting.

Open-Water Swim Sighting and Your Next Triathlon

Open-water swim sighting doesn’t have to be intimidating. It’s a key skill to add to your open-water toolkit, which helps keep your swims quicker and shorter and avoids any unnecessary panic out there in the water. Remember to practice it as many times as you can before your race, including getting into open water a few times, practicing all the drills and tips we’ve covered on triathlon race prep for swimming. 

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Taren Gesell
Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MOTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast, Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.

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