It’s Time to Become an Open-Water Sighting Expert

Think of this page as your Cliffs Notes on sighting, designed to prep you for your best open-water swim yet.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Great sighting technique is the key to an open-water PR. It’ll help you stay on course, swim the straightest line, reduce drag and maintain speed in the water. If you learn to do it right, you won’t wear yourself out or lose precious minutes looking for the next buoy. So stop worrying about your yardage sometimes, read up on techniques to try, then start doing some fun sighting drills.

Getting Started

The simplest sighting technique is to take a few breaststrokes with your head out of the water. This method allows you to breathe while looking forward to locate the next buoy. Once you’ve confirmed you are on course, keep swimming freestyle until your next sighting break. Many beginner swimmers feel comfortable following a pattern of 10 strokes freestyle and 2–3 strokes breaststroke.

Sighting Frequency

There is no right number of times to sight. Athletes who have a balanced stroke and swim in a straight line can go longer between each sighting. Start with a pattern of one sight every 8–12 strokes and judge how well you stay on course. Environmental conditions, like wind and currents, can affect your path and create a need for more frequent sighting. On the flip side, major landmarks (like paralleling a shoreline) or following another swimmer can reduce the need for sighting and allow for faster swimming.

Advanced Technique

Advanced sighting combines a quick glance forward with a breath to the side, all within one stroke to maximize efficiency. First, work on minimizing your head lift to just get your eyes out of the water. Then work on making the look so quick that you just take a “snapshot” of the scene in front of you and process it while you continue swimming.

Advanced technique, broken down:
(reverse if you breathe to the left)

  • As your right arm enters the water, begin to tilt your chin up.
  • When the right arm starts to pull, slightly push down and lift the top of your head and eyes (not your mouth) out of the water.
  • Take a quick snapshot and immediately roll your face to the right and take a breath as your left arm is entering the water.
  • Complete your breath as your right arm swings overhead.
  • Continue swimming and process what you saw in front of you.
  • Adjust your course and take another quick sight to confirm your path.

If you are struggling with this method, try it in reverse: Take a breath to the side and then immediately roll your eyes forward to sight the course. Follow the same guidelines of keeping only your eyes above the water and taking a quick snapshot.

Five Smart Sighting Drills

Practice sighting in the pool to get comfortable with your technique and train the muscles that’ll lift your head and neck up 100-plus times during a race.

Sight your water bottle
Perform 2–3 sightings every time you swim toward your equipment on the pool deck.

Sight your coach or the lifeguard
Try this with a moving target to work on your “snapshot” skills.

Tarzan/Water Polo Drill
Swim the entire length of the pool with your face out of the water. This builds neck strength and shows how much drag inefficiency sighting can create.

Swim with your eyes closed
In a lane by yourself or one at a time with teammates, see how far you can swim down the pool before you bump into a lane line.

Open water bonus: Swim 25/50/100/500 strokes
Try this one if you’re lucky enough to get to swim in open water this winter: Swim toward a buoy or a landmark in open water without looking forward for a predetermined number of strokes. Use the shoreline and the angle of the sun to stay on target.

Jan Frodeno Reflects on His Final Ironman World Championship

Immediately after finishing 24th place at his final Ironman World Championships, the Olympic medalist (and three-time IMWC winner) explains what his race in Nice meant to him.