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Why Sighting in Open Water is Important and some technique tips

If you are starting your journey into open water swimming, there are several challenges to overcome that you do not experience when swimming in a heated indoor pool. Once you learn how to deal with this outdoor environment, most people prefer it to lap swimming in a chlorinated pool.

Some of these challenges include acclimatising to colder water, perhaps swimming in a wetsuit, swimming in choppy water when it is windy, swimming directly into the sun in certain directions, not being able to stand up and rest but having to tread water or swim further, not being able to see under the water and more difficulty swimming in a straight line without lane ropes and the black line to follow at the bottom of swimming pools.

There are tricks and tips to overcoming these challenges, but a key open water swimming skill to learn if you swim front crawl is efficient "sighting".

Certainly in the UK, you generally cannot see much under the water, like in a pool, and this disrupts your navigation and makes most people swim anything but in a straight line. You end up zig zagging and swimming further than you intend to or need to. This is particularly important if you are planning on swimming in an open water event or triathlon where you want to swim directly towards the buoys on the course and only swim the 1500m course and not further!

What Does Sighting in Open Water Involve?

Sighting involves adding a new movement to our stroke by lifting the eyes above the water briefly to see where we are going and keep our body swimming in the right direction, preferably in a straight line!

Before an open water swim in the sea or a lake, the swimmer can often pre-determine objects on their swim course to sight on. Although buoys or anchored boats in the water can be useful sighting targets, these can move and if choppy or sunny, become more difficult to see. Therefore, it is best to seek out static objects in the distance. These may typically include trees at the other side of the lake/reservoir, buildings along the coast, etc. that will be there for your entire swim to help you navigate. So every time you lift your eyes, you look at that tree or building in the distance. If you are swimming a circular course, your sighting objects will obviously change as you change direction.

This is a skill that needs practice but the great thing is you can practice it in a swimming pool first and then build this into your routine pool-based swim sessions throughout the year, as well as practicing it in the open water.

New open water swimmers, and in fact, quite a few seasoned open water swimmers lift their head too high to sight and often for too long. Some even try to grab a breath at the same time. However, this creates an imbalance in the body, causing a significant posterior tilt in the rib cage, leading to the legs sinking, or creating a lot of pressure in the lower back if wearing a high buoyancy wetsuit.

We only need to lift the eyes above the water, keeping the nose and mouth submerged to minimise disruption to our connected, horizontal swimming position. The term "Crocodile Eyes" is often used as it helps swimmers remember the correct head movement. We want to keep the breath separate from this head lift and only breathe to the side, rather than when looking ahead.

Sighting Timing

Getting the timing of your sighting right is a key part of the skill, along with "crocodile eyes" and fitting in breathing. The way I tend to teach it is to get the swimmer to lift their eyes to sight as they rotate in streamline and slide their lead arm forwards under the water. Some people prefer to synchronise the head lift with the catch. Try both synchronisation combinations and see which feels easier for you.

Different Sighting Techniques

There are different approaches to teaching sighting and also slightly different types of sighting, depending on the conditions and the swimmer.

Sighting with poor visibility - if a quick glance with crocodile eyes doesn't work very well due to poor visibility from fog, sun in your eyes, or choppy waves, you can lift the eyes and take a few strokes keeping the head lifted, to give you more time to see. This is often referred to as the "Water Polo stroke." This will disrupt your stroke efficiency and speed and is more tiring as the tendency is to kick more to aid balance, but may be necessary in poor conditions.

Sighting in breaststroke - another option if sighting with crocodile eyes is tricky can be to switch to heads up breaststroke for a few strokes to get your bearings, then return to front crawl.

Crocodile Eyes breathing separately - if the water conditions are good, the most efficient technique is crocodile eyes every 6-12 strokes, depending on your swimming ability, your open water experience and how many other swimmers or water users are around you. You want to try and fit your sighting into your current breathing pattern. For example, if you breathe every three strokes, try sighting after every second or third breath. If you breathe every two strokes, try sighting after every fourth breath. So after taking a breath, take another stroke whilst returning your face to the water in a neutral position, then you are ready to lift your eyes to sight.

Integrating breathing with Sighting - most elite swimmers combine the head lift to sight with an immediate head turn to breathe as they lower their head back into the water. This takes more skill to keep the head low and the timing right for this integrated manoeuvre, but is quicker when racing in open water. I tend to advise learning to sight and breathe separately first, and when that becomes automatic, learning to combine these moves as part of race skills training.

Each swimmer will find their own comfortable balance of when to sight and when to breathe, and this is likely to change with different open water conditions. So lots of practice is the key to having a more enjoyable open water swimming experience and more efficient race skills.

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