Keys to Open-Water Sighting

Here’s an email I recently received from a Masters swimmer — and my reply. Although this swimmer is relatively new to triathlon, his questions are ones that I hear again and again from triathletes at every level.

I’ve got my first open-water triathlon this weekend. I feel confident about my stroke when I’m swimming, but when I try to sight, I come to a complete stop. How often should I sight, and is there a way to do it without stopping or losing my streamline? –Brad

Dear Brad,
The ability to sight quickly and effectively is a key skill for every triathlete, and you’ve hit on two of the most common aspects of sighting — how often and how. Sight too little, and you can easily get off course and end up swimming hundreds of extra yards and unnecessary strokes. This is especially true if it’s windy on race day, or if there are strong currents. Sight too often — or with poor technique — and you can easily lose momentum, and fall out of balance and streamline. Here are some guidelines to help you judge how often to sight, and a practice drill that will help you become more efficient in getting your bearings.


How often should you sight? It varies from race to race, depending on the conditions. And you should take time before each race to study the conditions and plan a sighting strategy. Here are things to consider:
1. Which way is the wind blowing, and how hard is it blowing?
2. Are there currents or tides, and are they masked by the surface effect of the wind?
3. How will the wind, current, or tides affect my swimming on each segment of the course?

If you’re unsure how to judge all of this, you could ask a lifeguard about the prevailing winds and about current/tide and how they affect the water. You might also ask athletes who have swum the course before.

On a day with no wind, and with no current or tide, it’s possible to sight every 40 to 50 strokes and still stay on target. But on a windy day — or on a day with just a light, steady breeze — it’s easy to stray off course in as few as 5 or 6 strokes. You need to be able to adjust your sight rate to the conditions, and you need to be able to sight every stroke cycle, if necessary, if that’s what the day calls for.

There are many components of good sighting technique. Some have to do with how well you study the course. Others depend on how clever you are in the water. Still others have to do with how and when you lift your head. Here’s a breakdown that may help.

Study the Course
When you arrive at a race, you should do the following:
1. Assess wind, current, tide, wave height.
2. Find out the water temperature.
3. Check the course map. Find out where you start and finish, and then count (and memorize) how many buoys are on each segment of the course, and what color they are. Do you have to keep the buoys on your left or on your right as you swim past them or around them? Are turn buoys a different size, shape, or color than the other buoys?
4. Does the course/buoy pattern require you to adjust your breathing pattern? If you always breathe to the right, but you have to keep the buoys on your left, you will need to make some adjustments. You may need to find some other objects to sight on, or you may need to suck it up and breathe at least a few times on your less-comfortable side. (In any case, you’ll probably pay more attention next time coach suggests you try some bilateral breathing.)
5. Go to the start and take a mental picture of the first buoy. Try to estimate the yardage to the first buoy. Is there some tall landmark beyond and directly in line with the first buoy on which you can sight? Get an image in your mind of what you’re supposed to see when you sight on the first buoy —  from water level.
6. Go to the finish area. If you can get in and swim out 50 yards or so from the finish, do it; otherwise, just stand on shore and focus. Again, you want to develop a strong mental image of what the finish will look like from eye level in the water. There probably won’t be a finish-line buoy, so what will you sight on? A banner? A lone pine tree? A gazebo? A condo or water tower? A pier?
7. Think about where the sun will be when you finish your swim. The sun may not be visible when you get to the race at 6 am, but by 9:30 am, it might be right in your eyes, making it impossible to see the finish line or your sight marker. If this is the case, you should think about what you could sight on behind you as you stroke to the finish — a tree on the opposite shore, for example. Don Walsh, a veteran of hundreds of open-water swims, including the fabled 28.5-mile marathon swim around Manhattan, suggests that you select objects that can be seen in a quick "snapshot" while racing — objects that stand out from the landscape.

Be Clever in the Water

One thing that Don learned in his round-Manhattan swim is that you should sight only as much as necessary to stay on course. Even the best of sighters fall somewhat out of balance each time they sight. This can waste time and energy over the course of a race. But there are ways to be clever.

1. Use other swimmers to sight for you. If you are swimming beside another swimmer and you notice that she is sighting A LOT, it’s usually safe to assume the swimmer is staying on course. Let her do the work! If she’s sighting every 4 to 6 strokes, you could sight every 10 to 20 strokes and save a lot of energy.
2. Another tip from Don: If you’re swimming in the ocean or in a bay where you encounter waves and swells, don’t waste time trying to sight when you’re in the trough between swells. You won’t be able to see anything. Try to take your sightings when you’re on the top or crest of a wave. You’ll feel your body lift up as you approach the crest, and that’s when you want to sight.

How and When to Lift Your Head

There’s a physics lesson that goes "for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction."  In open water, this means that the higher you lift your head to sight, the deeper your hips will sink (and the more you’ll slow down). But there’s a way to sight and not disturb your balance and stroke rhythm. Lets go to the video clip. It shows a triathlete (me!) swimming at a normal pace with no sighting. My balance is pretty good (I’m horizontal) and my stroke cadence is steady. The clip then shows me swimming and sighting on every cycle. Notice that my balance is still pretty good and that the sighting doesn’t interrupt my stroke cadence. The clip shows two angles on this — from the front and from the side.

Heres how to do this:
1. Keep your lead arm extended (and pointed toward your sighting target) as you lift your head slightly and peek along your arm to sight.
2. Continue to keep your lead arm extended as you turn your head (and roll your body) to the side to breathe.
3. As your recovering arm comes forward, let it fall and carry your head with it. When the recovering hand enters the water, your head and eyes are already down.

Try not to look directly forward when you sight. This can strain your neck and cause your hips to drop. Instead, look slightly sideways at your sighting target. Peek just over the surface of the water and take a quick snapshot rather than a full portrait. If you know what you’re supposed to see (pre-race planning), the snapshots will be sufficient to keep you on course. Focus on staying long and in balance, and on taking quick peeks.

I don’t advise sighting every cycle in a race, but it’s good to practice this as a drill in the pool or in your local open water.

Sometimes you just have to stop and get your bearings. When you need a really good, long look, BREASTSTROKE is the answer. It lets you keep moving while you take in the scenery. Just be careful not to kick one of your competitors in the jaw or arm. They won’t be expecting you to switch from flutter kick to breaststroke kick.

Sometimes you can simply sight behind you as you continue to swim. Again, just take a snapshot and stay in rhythm.

Good luck in your next triathlon season. GO SWIM in open water!