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How to Sight When Swimming in Open Water

Knowing how to sight while open-water swimming will help you stay on course. Here's how to practice sighting before race day.

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Triathletes spend hours in the pool practicing perfect stroke technique, but on race day, following buoys and staying on course is equally important. Sighting in open water, or looking up without losing momentum in your swim, is a skill that needs to be practiced and perfected before race day. Not only does this help you to see where you’re going during a triathlon swim, but it can also allow you to be aware of other athletes around you in the swim. Follow these tips for your next open-water swim or triathlon race.

How to sight in open water

1. Lift your head only as high as necessary. In calm bodies of water, like a lake or river, lift just your eyes out of the water.

2. In wavy ocean conditions, time it so you’re sighting on the top of a wave for the best view of the course. Feel your body rise and fall on the swells and sight accordingly.

3. When conditions are choppy and unpredictable, lift your head extra high, but try to minimize the total number of times you sight. Use landmarks and other swimmers when breathing to the side.

4. Do not breathe while looking forward. Separate the two actions by sighting forward and then immediately rolling your head to take a breath to the side.

5. As you prepare to sight, press down with your hand and arm during the catch phase of your stroke. This will slightly lift your upper body and make it easier to raise your head.

6. Arch your back while lifting your head. This will allow your legs and feet to stay near the surface, minimizing drag under the water.

7. Kick extra hard for a moment while you are sighting. This will help maintain forward speed and also keep your feet from dropping.

8. Sight 2–3 times in a row (during every other stroke). Use the first sight to locate the buoy, the second sight to adjust your angle and the third to verify your direction. Swim straight for 20–30 seconds before repeating this system.

9. Practice, practice, practice! Make a point to practice sighting drills in every second or third workout.

RELATED: An In-Depth Guide to Triathlon Swimming

Sighting Drills For The Pool

Tarzan
Swim the entire length of the pool with your head out of the water. Use this drill to practice arching your back, kicking extra hard and maintaining a good body position.

Where’s Waldo?
Use good sighting technique to locate your coach on the pool deck while swimming a single lap.

3 Right/3 Left/6 Regular
Sight three times while taking a stroke with the right arm and then three times with the left. Take six regular strokes and then repeat.

Swim Blind
Find an empty lane at the pool and swim straight down the middle with your eyes closed. Based on which lane line you bump most often, you know which direction to compensate for in open water.

Bilateral Breathing
Instead of favoring one side for breathing, learn to turn your head to the opposite side while swimming, known as “bilateral breathing.” This gives you the ability to switch sides if there is a large wave or if your rhythm is disrupted while sighting.

RELATED: Why (and How) to Learn to Bilateral Breathe