Efficient Sighting Techniques in Open Water

Sighting the course markers in the open water is one of the trickiest aspects of triathlon. The most common question from novice open water swimmers and triathletes is: “How do I see where I’m going?” Actually, seeing where you are going is pretty easy. It’s seeing where you are going while still swimming efficiently that is difficult. 

First, we are teaching these athletes how to swim with their face in the water and a horizontal body position. Then we ask them to lift their heads, scan the horizon and swim toward a cone on the pool deck. Where is the happy medium, the balance? How do you swim efficiently and in a straight line?

My first suggestion is aimed at beginner swimmers in the open water. Swim freestyle for about 20 strokes. Breathe normally, whether on the left, on the right or bilaterally. Stop swimming freestyle and immediately start swimming breaststroke. Take four to five strokes with your head above the water. Look for the buoy during this time. When you spot the buoy, orient your body in the correct direction. Finally, put your face back in the water and return to basic freestyle strokes.

Using this method, a swimmer continues to move through the water while looking for the buoy. If the breaststroke is uncomfortable or too challenging, try sidestroke or dog paddle. Sighting is efficient as long as the swimmer is making forward progress while scanning the horizon for the buoy. Using breaststroke or sidestroke is a great deal better than treading water, because then you’re not continuing to move toward the swim exit. If you are a beginner, practice this method in the pool before participating in your first open-water swim.

The second sighting method is the most efficient and fastest way to go.

First, let’s think about why efficient sighting is so important. The triathlon swim course is laid out with a series of markers, usually inflatable buoys, which all the athletes must swim around. Some courses require that the buoys be kept on the right side for a clockwise swim, while others are counterclockwise and the buoys must be kept on the left side at all times. However the course is set up, the shortest distance is a straight line from one buoy to the next. Good sighting will increase your chances of staying on course and decrease the total number of meters you have to swim. An athlete with poor sighting who takes a zigzag line from start to finish will swim a longer total distance than the athlete who swims a clean, straight course.

The mechanics of sighting are very simple. You lift your head to get your eyes above the water line so you can see forward. But this motion interferes with the normal freestyle stroke. A good swim coach will tell you that maintaining a horizontal body position in the water is the fastest and most efficient way to swim. Keeping your head in line with your spine is critical. Don’t bury it too deep under the water and don’t lift it too high out of the water. So, how do we reconcile this advice with the need to sight?

Balancing the two is as simple as arching your back. Imagine a swimmer from a side angle. If the swimmer raises her head, her legs sink in the water. When the swimmer lowers her head back to a neutral spine position, it takes time and energy to bring the legs back to the correct position. Efficiency and forward momentum are lost during this exchange. If the swimmer arches her back at the same time she raises their head, her legs and feet remain at the surface. By lowering the head and relaxing the back at the same time, the swimmer returns to a neutral spine position almost immediately.

As for timing, typically check your course in relation to the next buoy once every six to ten strokes. When your right hand enters the water above your head, quickly press down with your arm right before I the pull. This gives your upper body a slight lift in the water. Lift your head just enough to raise your eyes above the surface of the water. As soon as your eyes are out of the water, swing your face around to the right side, take a normal breath, return your entire body to horizontal position and continue swimming. By turning to the right, you have plenty of time to take a breath before your right arm completes the recovery phase.

If  you see that you are directly on course with the buoy, complete six to ten more strokes before checking again. If the buoy does not show up during your millisecond scan of the horizon, sight again, and again and again—on as many consecutive strokes as necessary to get the buoy back in front of you. Each time you lift and sight, check out a different direction. Look out for other people swimming. You know you can’t be too far off course because you are sighting often. This method loses almost no momentum in the water so you can sight often, keep an efficient body position, and take the straightest line from start to finish.

Practice this method, or your own method, in the pool during swim training. Practice in all water conditions: calm, choppy, wavy, salty, fresh, etc. Also, practice with your wetsuit on. The fit and style of your wetsuit will dictate whether any alterations need to be made to this method. The most critical factor for most swimmers in a wetsuit is preventing chafing on the back of your neck. Good anti-chaffing cream helps.

Next time you are in an open-water event, don’t forget these critical steps for fast and efficient sighting: Arch your back, kick harder, lift only your eyes out of the water, breathe to the side and sight only as necessary, but as often as necessary. With practice and implementation on race day, you might find that your new best time is due to swimming a more direct route around the buoys.