With the race season soon upon us, it is natural to start thinking about open water swimming and how you will go about brushing up your pool-based fitness and transforming it into fast open water swim splits. One of the most overlooked (if you’ll pardon the pun) aspects of open water swimming is sighting: the simple principle of navigating your way around the swim course. This month Dan Bullock guides you through his top tips for saving time and energy in the water by sighting effectively.
Some sighting methods will feel more effective than others, some are to be avoided at certain times and some styles will suit different conditions. At most races in the UK we have a lack of clarity working against us: few straight edges along river banks, jagged edges to most lakes and thick tree lines set back from the water’s edge pulling you away from your intended course. Often all you have to rely on are a sequence of buoys several hundred metres apart, floating on the horizon, often with the sun coming up behind them.
The simple overriding guideline here is to always look for any large and immovable objects above, beyond and in line with the buoy you are swimming towards. Lifting your head high in the water to look for a buoy floating on the surface impairs your swim speed dramatically. The higher you lift at the front, the more your legs will sink. Also remember that the further you are from the buoy, the harder it is to spot because it lies on the surface with potentially many swimmers between it and you.
If there is a large immoveable object (crane, large tower block, bridge, tree or pylon) in the distance that you know is in line with the buoy you are swimming towards then you will be able to keep your head lower, which in turn will disturb your swim speed less and allow you shorter, more useful sighting. Be aware that there might be very little on the racing line to look at in terms of large immoveable objects. If this is the case, maybe make use of what is not there, such as a break in the tree line or a gap between two hills. Swimming the course the day before (if possible), arriving early and observing earlier waves will help you formulate your approach.
I used to play a game as a child where I tried to walk as far as possible in an open space with my eyes closed. Despite knowing nothing was around to be bumped into, after just a few steps I would lose my nerve and my mind would tell me that any second I would hit something. I sometimes wonder if when swimming in open water, triathletes could go longer between sights if they had the confidence that their stroke was keeping them swimming straight.
Before you even get to open water you can evaluate this in the pool by swimming on top of the black line on the bottom of the lane. Have a look at the pathways your hands take. If overly exaggerated sweeps are avoided and the hands predominantly send water back down towards the feet then you are probably going to be moving forwards relatively straight. Confirm this by closing your eyes and swimming on top of the line (but please check that the lane is empty first!). Starting on the black line, try to swim seven or eight strokes and then open your eyes: are you still on top of the black line? If so – and you can repeat this multiple times – then you can be fairly assured your stroke is working well.
In terms of sighting methods a first simple and logical style might involve the movement of combining a sight with a breath taken while the head is forwards. This is because doing two things at once saves time. While this method is an easy first step there are several problems with it. To create so much lift that the head is high enough that the mouth to be above the surface will cause the legs to sink and more susceptible to more drag. Also you will have probably needed to force the arm pull downwards pivoting at the shoulder to lift the head, rather than pivoting at the elbow to send water back towards the feet propelling you forwards. For the novice attempting a first successful swim who is not too concerned with performance in calm conditions this method can be quite useful. If conditions become rougher then this method is often unavoidable because you need to get the head excessively high to see where you’re going. If you do need the excessive height then avoid taking in the breath at this peak time. The other downside to this style, though, is how much it breaks the rhythm of the stroke. Swim, lift, sight, slow down, return the head to a neutral position and then reaccelerate back to regular race pace.
Stronger swimmers who are unfamiliar with open water racing often adopt the following method to combine a lower smoother sight with a breath. Keri-Anne Payne (Olympic 10K open water swimmer silver medallist in Beijing) described this as her preferred method when we conducted a workshop recently. By sighting forwards and keeping the head lower (eyes just above the water line), the breath is taken by rolling to the side within the usual arm recovery cycle. If this movement is not controlled there can be a lot of combined upper body momentum that will upset the normal forward progression of the stroke through lateral deviation of the body.
My preferred method (and the one which logic suggests should have least impact on the horizontal profile of the body) is to lift the head to its lowest position and keep the movement separate from the breath (i.e. eyes just above the surface and then return the head to its normal neutral position). The breath is taken to the side in its normal breathing pattern cycle. As the stroking arm starts to pull, the fingertips will move beneath the elbow of the outstretched arm setting up a strong catch position. At this point there should be a natural lifting movement as the palm unavoidably pushes down momentarily before establishing an early vertical forearm.
If the conditions are calm and you have a large easy to spot ‘sight’ to reference then just the one stroke cycle will probably be necessary to focus your position. With this style of sighting the head is out of its neutral position the least amount of time, keeps the lowest profile of head lift and because this method has the longest time between breaths suggests it is probably better suited for the slower paced IM swims. The downside to the method of sighting is that it’s ineffective in rough conditions.
Whichever style of sighting you adopt or favour the key advice is to get to the venue early and map out where you are going and what immoveable objects you can use to assist you. Watching the mistakes of the earlier waves can help your swim enormously. The Windsor Triathlon is a classic example of this. The river’s flow is not always strongest in the middle of the river, meaning you don’t always need to head over to the far bank and hug the opposite side of the river. Ideally, you will have practised all the methods at your local lake or at least in an open water skills pool session.
A lot of these methods and tips will work well in calm conditions but as soon as you experience a rougher open water sea swim then you might need to adjust accordingly. Expect to keep the head up for two to three strokes continually as you wait for the peak of a wave to gain a clear vantage point and then take an accurate sight. Minimise this time in the up position by attempting to use large immovable objects for assisting your sighting in addition to any buoys. Assist this issue further by ensuring vision is 100 per cent by taking light and dark goggles and choosing the correct pair as conditions dictate on race morning. Old goggles that are scratched often seem to mist over more quickly than newer or well cared for pairs. A greater contrast in the warmth of the face and the coolness of the sea might also cause goggles to mist up quickly. Splashing and cooling the face before applying your goggles during the warm-up might help.
By practising some of these tips and ultimately finding what works best for you is the finest way to improve your open water swimming. No one wants to swim further than they need to on race day! If all else fails then please join me in the Damme to Bruges 5K Open water swim in August. This picturesque race starts in scenic Damme and we swim straight (and I mean straight) back to Bruges along an idyllic canal. No turns, no buoys, no multi loops – a simple straight swim back to Bruges down the lily-lined canal. Whichever sighting method you choose here, it’s hard to get this one wrong.