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Sighting in Triathlon Swimming

Most triathletes do not come from a swimming background.  Many were once cyclists or runners who only grudgingly accepted having to swim.  If they were lucky, they could find open bodies of water for swimming practice and training.  Most though don’t have that luxury, like me.  Living in the desert affords me very few open water swimming opportunities so I spend hours following that little black line back and forth and back and forth…  Thankfully, I enjoy swimming so that doesn’t bother me, well, doesn’t bother me much.  But, many don’t find any joy in swimming.  That’s not a big deal in the pool as many external variables are controlled.  There’s little, if any, chop; there’s generally no other people in your space; there’s an easy tracking device to follow so you always swim relatively straight; and so on.  That’s all well and good in the pool but move to open water and things can change.

Open water swimming is, for many athletes, a big source of stress.  Even if you can crush the pool, the open water just presents different challenges that can cause large amounts of psychological turmoil.  I literally know decent to really good swimmers who cannot race in triathlons with ocean swims.  They are simply too scared of open water swimming in the ocean.  Reducing or, ideally, eliminating that stress can go a long way in having a fun and successful race day.

Triathlon SwimmingObviously, there’s some things you cannot change.  If it is windy, there’ll be some chop or even waves.  If you are with a large group, you are very likely to have contact.  Some things you just have to accept and move past.  Others, though, you can practice and improve.  The most obvious is swimming straight.  In the pool, this is a no-brainer: just follow the never-ending black line.  In the open water, you don’t have that luxury.

See, humans are very visual creatures.  Most of our perception of the world comes from our eyes and significantly reducing that input can often be an athlete’s greatest source of anxiety.  With that in mind, I thought I’d try to provide some guidance at becoming a better sighter in the open water.  I hope this helps you become more comfortable and, more importantly, confident in your open water swimming skills.


Know the lay of the land: Before you even put your pinkie toe in the water, study the swim course.  How many turns are there?  Should be buoys be on your right or left?  Where will you start in the water?  How many buoys are there between each of the main turn buoys?  The more of these questions you can answer, the more knowledge you have and, thus, the greater your chances of having a successful swim.

Assess race day specifics: Just like studying the swim course, analyze the conditions of the day.  Is there wind?  If so, from what direction?  What impact will that have on each of the legs of the swim?  How large is your wave start?  What is the overall order of waves and where is your wave?  Understand the impact that both (1) the overall order of waves will have and (2) the location of your wave in the line-up will have.  For instance, if you are a slow swimmer, the faster swimmers from the group behind you will overtake you rather quickly.  Be ready for that.  Conversely, if you are a strong swimmer, be ready to catch the slower swimmers from other groups.

Find visual cues: Review the topography and landmarks of the swim.  What easily-discernible visual landmarks can you use for sighting?  Think about this for all of the legs of the swim.  Try to note things that you can quickly and easily spot to help you course-correct while swimming.

In the water before race start

Be smart at the start: This is an easy one.  If you are a strong to very strong swimmer, please feel free to move to the front of the line.  If you are a back-of-the-packer, please allow others to move past you.  There’s no shame is knowing your abilities and respecting those that may be faster or slower.  It is equally uncool to swim over people and force other to swim over you.  The quickest way to ruin your day is to seed yourself poorly before race start.  Trust me on this one.

While swimming, just swim straight

To start, accept the fact that you should sight.  Every few strokes, you could easily stop swimming, tread water, and reassess your position and direction.  This would probably ensure you swam the straightest line possible.  However, you would also set a race record for the slowest swim on the day.  So, you are going to sight and that’s just the deal.  (Note, there are a few swims in clear water that can dramatically minimize the need for sighting.  But, having done some of those, trust me that you will still need to sight; just less than otherwise.)  Thankfully, sighting while swimming is just a learned skill.  Some are better at it than others, but like most actions, you can get better with improved skill and practice.

Triathlon Swimming Training

Ummm, I thought the buoys were in a straight line???

Ideally, before race start, you have planned how you intend to tackle the swim.  Whether you intend to follow the buoy line, distant topographical cues, the toes of a fellow swimmers, or something else, have your plan.  My advice, take it or leave it, would be to follow the buoy line.  It might not be perfectly straight, but it will give you consistent, frequent targets and generally be a pretty straight line.  Much like driving from Phoenix to Los Angeles at night, you only need to see to the next buoy just like your car lights only illuminate the area right in front of your car.  That small zone of information allows you to consistently course-correct.  Hopefully, this tactic will reduce the number of times you need to lift your head, usually resulting in a faster, less-tiring swim.

How to sight

There’s no right or wrong way to sight.  You simply want to get your eyes out of the water so that you can hopefully see where you are going and where you want to go.  There are a few general concepts to follow:

1.  Lift your head out of the water only as far as is necessary.  In calm conditions, I try to “alligator sight”, which means just lifting my head high enough to get my eyes above the water line and no further.  Anything more than that and I am not only wasting energy but likely causing my legs to drop as they counter-balance the upper-part of my body.

2.  Understand that the conditions will affect how you can sight.  In very choppy/wavy conditions, you might need to time your sighting with the swells so that you sight at the top rather than the bottom.  Likewise, you also might need to lift your head higher than normal simply to clear the chop.

3.  Sighting is actually a two-step process.  First, you lift and sight and then, second, you roll and breathe.  This motion happens quickly, but you don’t breathe when lifting; you breathe when rolling your head to the side before it plunges beneath the surface.  In the video, when I lift my head extra high, you can see that I turn/roll my head to the side.  When I do this, I inhale; not when I am lifting to sight.

4.  As I prepare to sight, I press down with my hand and arm, rather than executing my typical catch.  This helps get extra lift making the lifting of my upper-body easier.  I also try to lift with my back, hopefully to minimize the dropping of my legs.

5.  Sight as often as you need.  Many pros will sight 2-3 times in a row but then not sight for a bunch of strokes.  Other people develop a rhythm.  Find what works best for you but be prepared to modify if the conditions require you to do so.

6.  Lastly, for crying out loud, please practice.  Develop the motion and the muscle so that you don’t get to the end of your swim with a neck cramp and half-a-mile of extra swimming.  The best drill is to sight two times per length and pick different targets each time.  Try to minimize how high you have to lift your head to find your target.  Likewise, pick a variety of different things to find.  You can also swim the length of a lap with your eyes closed.  This will very quickly reveal any drifting tendencies you have.  Obviously, be aware that you could reach the end of the lane so don’t swim into the wall.

If something is unclear or you have follow-up questions, please just ask below.  I greatly appreciate comments and questions!  Until next time, thank you for reading!

Swimming Training

Ever thought about swimming straight???

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