A hippo swimming with eyes above water like an open water swimmer should sight properly

How to sight in open water

Posted on: BY: Saga Svensson
Tags: crowded starts | rough conditions | sighting

Many swimmers do the bulk of their training in the pool, expecting the transition to open water to be relatively seamless, but there are some aspects of open water swimming that you need to train for or you are likely to struggle when you venture outside of the pool. This is especially true of sighting. In this post we explain how to sight in open water without negatively impacting your performance

Good sighting VS. bad sighting

Good sighting can cut off huge amounts of energy and time compared with bad sighting, not just because of the distance you will ultimately travel, but also because of the amount of effort you use each time you sight.

In a pool there are lines below us, so we can do all our sighting below water without needing to do anything that will affect our stroke or add unnecessary drag. In open water though, there are obviously no such guides below us and we need to raise our head above water to sight. 

Sighting above the water isn’t as easy as it sounds, because lifting your head up alters your body position, sending your legs downwards causing massive drag, slowing you down, and increasing your effort. Bad sighting takes a huge amount of energy every attempt. As a result, you will probably end up avoiding sighting so much and taking a worse line, and in the long run your pace will suffer greatly.

Instead, the goal is to include sighting seamlessly into your stroke without adding any other additional movement. Once you are able to do that, it will give you a huge edge, allowing you to eliminate additional drag, swim straighter, avoid clusters of competitors in a race situation, avoid debris, read wave patterns and time your stroke in rough conditions, and to save time when you do sight, instead of stopping swimming or changing stroke in order to get your breath and your bearings.

So how do you sight in open water?

Start by using the stroke to give you the torque you need to be able to lift and sight. Apply pressure down on the water in the beginning of the stroke cycle, so as to provide a counteractive force that will enable you to lift your head without fighting against yourself. But don’t overdo it in a see-saw motion: instead of lifting your whole head out of the water, just lift your eyes out of the water like a hippo.

Continue through your next stroke and breathe keeping all these parts fluid and without lifting your head too high or breaking your normal rhythm at all. Strive to keep your position as similar to your normal freestyle stroke cycle position as possible. Make sure you are sighting then breathing in the same stroke – you should be sighting without breathing, then use the next stroke for breathing. If not, the sighting will be more of a hang in the ‘air’ which will be labored and throw you off balance. This part takes a bit of practice.

How often should i sight in open water?

How often you sight will depend if you are racing, on the particular conditions you face, and on your personal ability and preference. You will often need to sight two or three times in a row to get your bearings properly. Often you can sight and not see anything at all because of water or the timing of the stroke. Other times you don’t get a proper view of the buoy or landmark you are heading for. It is best to sight a few times to confirm details, which means a few cycles of sight-stroke-breath.

In terms of frequency, you don’t want to leave it too long before sighting again and risk going way off track; but likewise you don’t want to sight too often because sighting isn’t as efficient as normal swimming, even if you are doing it perfectly, so you will waste time and energy that way instead. I try for about every five or seven strokes, but in rougher conditions or conditions with strong currents, I reduce according to the feedback I am getting.

You can start practicing sighting easily in the pool and incorporate sighting every five strokes (or your preference). Even though you aren’t looking at objects very far away, you can at least choose objects around the pool to keep an eye on. The object at first is to tie sighting effortlessly into your stroke, less than using the information to redirect your course.

It can be difficult to see buoys and even landmarks at different times during open water swimming, especially in a race start when, from water level, often the only thing visible are other people and splashing. Try to sight other people and use them as a guide to follow until the racers separate and you are able to sight long distance objects. 

In a race scenario, you should always have landmarks imprinted in your mind in case you can’t see race buoys altogether. Use unique landmarks on the horizon like funny shaped buildings or recognizable peaks on the horizon that line up with your destination and won’t be so easily obscured in bad light or when there are many people around you. Race organizers will usually give you good landmarks to navigate by at the pre-race briefing. Make sure you understand them properly and if they are not supplied, ask someone.

Sighting in rough conditions

In rough conditions sighting becomes even more important. You need to be acutely aware of your surroundings, not only of your destination and your track but of closer obstacles such as oncoming waves. If there are strong currents, it can help to sight more to see how much you are getting pulled so as to readjust your stroke and effort to stay on track and conserve resources.

If the waves are large you need to be able to duck into them and swim through to the other side before continuing to swim. This requires you to know where the waves are, and the speed and frequency of their approach.

If waves are not large enough to warrant ducking into them, you still need to be aware of your position in relation to them, so as to quicken or slow your pace to time your next sighting on a crest. From the crest of the wave you will get a better view of things in the distance. From the trough of a wave you will likely see just water. From somewhere in between, you may be tempted to throw your stroke off and see-saw to get a better glimpse into the distance.

Disclaimer: Our swimming adventure content is not intended to take the place of specific, current, local advice from qualified experts. We strongly recommend that you consult with professional safety experts and take all necessary precautions should you undertake any adventure activity, especially in open water. Swimming is a HAZARDOUS activity. Never swim alone or beyond your ability. There is the possibility of physical injury, emotional distress and/or death, and you assume the risk and responsibility for any such results.

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