Beginner’s Luck: The Mystery of Open-Water Sighting

"Beginner's Luck" columnist Meredith Atwood on the importance of learning to properly sight in the open water.

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“Beginner’s Luck” columnist Meredith Atwood on the importance of learning to properly sight in the open water and get over typical fears that come with diving into the scary dark water. 

In the last installment, I covered my horrendous first open-water swim and also provided a few pointers about learning how to swim and then talking some “truth” into yourself about what open-water swimming really is.

Today, we’re going to talk “sighting” and the mystery around that beast.

When I started thinking about trying a tri, I did not think about all the logistics and complications that really surround open water. Once you wrap your head around the facts of open-water swimming, then it’s far less scary (see Part I, the “truth” section).

But one truth about open water, even if you are a comfortable pool swimmer, is that you don’t have a lovely black line to follow at the bottom of the river, ocean or lake. Also, you might further be spooked by the fact that some water is dark—and I mean dark. (Not trying to scare you, just keeping it real!). Despite growing up swimming the in Atlantic ocean (dark water) and even fishing in the Chattahoochee River parts of Savannah (dark water), I was not prepared for the first time I went to “real” swim in the lake in North Georgia (dark, scary, black water! Ahhhh!).

Okay, breathe.

Here’s the thingwithout a black line, a clear underwater cable at Mirror Lake in Lake Placid, or a pool lineyou gotta figure out how to see where you are going.

This is called SIGHTING.

Summed up, sighting is the process where you “peek” your head out of the water (while continuing to swim) to see where you are going. Sighting is not only necessary to stay on course, but also to make sure that you swim the least amount of yards. In other words, if you go off course, you will swim much farther than you anticipated and lose time and energy.

Find Your Focus

Depending on the swim course, it helps to find a focal point outside of the water in the distance, and check to make sure you are swimming towards that at all times—then adjust as you change directions. You can use buoys for the race course as a point to sight, but it’s important to become flexible with sighting points so you can adapt on race day. Having a focus point far off in the distance is a neat trick, and was a big saver on long-course racing.

How to Sight

Megan Melgaard, swim coach extraordinaire out of Atlanta, refers to sighting as using your “crocodile eyes”—you want to lift your head out of the water only a peek, only as high as necessary to get the job done. When the water is smooth, crocodile eyes are pretty easy. After you peek with your eyes, then rotate your head to breathe. That’s right, you want to peek, then breathe—always to the side: Peek and breathe. Peek and breathe. Peek and breathe. Then swim for another 20 or so strokes, then repeat.

You may want to sight a few times in a row to see where you are, correct your course, and get back into the right direction. You can then go for 25-35 seconds before you sight again.

When the water is chop chop choppy, do the best you can to keep the head lower, but keep in mind to not expend any more energy than necessary. You may have to lift your head high, but then try and sight a little less, relying on bigger focal points.

Practice Makes Less Scary

Practice sighting in the pool by closing your eyes in the pool, then lifting to peek and breathe, seeing where you are. Find a point in the pool area as your focal point, and practice everything so you are more comfortable on race day. And don’t forget to get in the open water before your big day! The biggest part of the triathlon game is consistency and working to make all the fears less scary. This is your mission—choose to accept it.

Meredith Atwood (@SwimBikeMom) is a recovering attorney, motivational speaker and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She is the host of the new podcast, “The Same 24 Hours,” a show which interviews interesting people who make the best of the 24 hours in each day. Meredith is working with the incredible Dina Griffin, RD, in the new Metabolic Efficiency Training program, Optimal Thrive. Meredith lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children, and writes about all things at

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