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Maximizing Open Water Sighting Efficiency

Use these three simple tips to improve sighting in open water

Stuart McDougal | February 20, 2015

Coaches: Open water season is approaching and with it the need to help your swimmers learn the basics of sighting. One of the easiest ways to improve your swimmers’ open water performance is by improving their ability to sight on a course. However, sighting well and swimming straighter in open water are often mistaken with sighting forward more frequently and having the target in complete focus. Locking in on a target frequently may be calming and comforting because swimmers feel they're swimming a straighter and shorter path, but it can come at a big expense.

It’s important for open water swimmers to remember that it’s only necessary to recognize contrast when sighting; it’s not necessary to focus on the target’s absolute size and shape. For example, the object the swimmer is aiming for might be a group of dark green trees, a radio antenna, or an orange buoy off in the distance. All the swimmer needs to recognize is a dark green blob on the hill, the light metallic color of the radio antenna contrasting against a grassy hilltop, or the orange color of the buoy. Swimmers need not determine the actual shape of the buoy, because the time it takes to lock in and focus on a target is too long. Leaving the head up too long to focus in on the target creates drag, which in turn causes a loss of valuable forward momentum.

Although it’s important to swim the shortest distance possible with little drift, swimmers shouldn’t do so at the expense of sighting forward every four to six strokes. Swimmer who drift left or right after a few strokes shouldn’t compensate by sighting more to course correct. Instead, find out what is causing this quick drift. Sometimes the cause is not stroke asymmetry—often it’s head position. Tension in the neck can cause the head to angle slightly to the left or right. A swimmer’s head is like a rudder—the spine, hips, and legs will follow wherever the head is pointed. Releasing tension in the neck allows the head, spine, and hips to come into alignment, which aids forward progress along a straighter path.

Each time the head is lifted to sight forward, the hips sink. This in turn increases drag profile. Speed drops and effort level increases. Picking the head up to sight forward is much like stepping on the brakes: The more frequently and longer the breaks are applied, the slower the swim and greater the effort required to keep moving forward. 

Here are three simple steps you can offer your swimmers to assist them in sighting. Employing these tips can help maintain forward momentum and a more consistent, linear path in open water.

Sight Quickly

  • Like a camera, take a snapshot with your eyes and quickly return your head to the water, goggles down. Allow your brain to process the contrasting images when your face is in the water. Sight forward with a single stroke as your lead arm finishes to forward extension (where your body is longest or tallest in the water). Do not pull or use your lead arm to lift your head above the surface and do not use multiple strokes to keep your head above the water to have a longer look. Lift only your goggles above the water to sight on your target, not your entire head—after all, you don't see with your chin! If you’re swimming through chop or swells, wait for the swell to rise, then sight quickly when you’re highest in the water.

Sight Forward Less Frequently

  • Gradually increase the number of strokes before sighting forward. Practice taking 20 to 30 strokes or more before lifting your head to sight forward. The more your head is in the water, the faster you will go, and the less effort required. Only sight forward when absolutely necessary and not because it’s comforting. As noted previously, if you drift after a few strokes, fix the errors in your head position and/or your stroke. Don't mask the problem and compensate by sighting more frequently.

Sight Bilaterally

  • Breathing to both sides gives you a definite advantage on sighting, as you can see more around you and can also compensate for choppy water coming at one side from strong wind or swells. As you roll to breathe, briefly take notice of the shoreline or something such as a bridge, an orange buoy (or blob), or some other visible item in your peripheral vision. Learn to use other swimmers to do the sighting for you. As you take your breath and see swimmers to the right or left with their heads high looking forward in the same direction as you're swimming, there is no need for you to sight forward since they just did that for you! Just get that head back down after breathing and silently say, "thank you” to your fellow competitors.

Practice

Practice makes perfect in all things, and it’s easy to offer training opportunities for your open water swimmers during pool workouts. (See Wind-n-Sea head coach Mike Lewis’s technique feature, “DIY Open Water,” in the March-April 2015 issue of SWIMMER for more on how to create a fun open water pool workout with minimal cost and effort.)

Although a 50-meter pool is optimal for practicing open water skills, a 25-yard pool will do just fine. Pick most anything to sight on: a tree in the distance, a cone, flags, a dive platform, swimmers in the next lane, etc. Tell your swimmers to make sure they’ve released all the tension in their necks, and to keep head and spine aligned throughout the stroke cycle—especially after sighting forward.  

If you’re working with a single swimmer in an empty lane, you can help the swimmer learn more about drifintg by having the swimmer swim with eyes closed and count how many strokes it takes before drifting into the lane line. This drill can provide even more helpful feedback if you can remove some of the lane ropes, giving the swimmer even more room to work. Most swimmers will drift off in the same direction every time. Spend some time discovering what’s causing this drift after a few strokes and take the necessary measures to correct the problem. 

When your swimmers have the opportunity to practice in open water and nothing is impeding the direction they’re swimming, have them see how far they drift after 10, 20, 30, or more strokes when only sighting laterally at the shoreline or other objects. Use this information to help them develop their abilities to swim straight for 20 or more strokes between sightings. This will make them feel more comfortable than having to sight very frequently, not to mention it will reduce the effort required to reach their target by reducing drag.

In summary, help your swimmers learn to sight quickly, increase the number of strokes they take before sighting forward, and use lateral targets to the left and right side when breathing. The more often the head is submerged and not lifting to sight, the faster your swimmers’ times will be.

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About the Author—Stuart McDougal

Stuart McDougal is a USMS Level 3 Coach and a Total Immersion Certified Professional. He is head coach of SoCal Tri Masters in Los Angeles and cofounder of Mind Body and Swim. He got hooked on triathlons with his first open water swim in 2003. Although he still loves triathlon, he now really enjoys long distance swims in San Francisco Bay.

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