3 open water swimming skills you need to master!

This week we’ve picked our top 3 open water swimming skills – swimming-straight, sighting and drafting – which we think every open water swimmer should learn to perfect. These skills, when done correctly, will make you a much more effective open water swimmer, shave time off your swims and generally make your open water experiences that much more rewarding and enjoyable! Just remember, integrating these skills into your swimming technique takes a bit of patience and and practice – but it’s definitely worth putting in the time to get them right.

1. Swimming-straight

Being able to swim in a straight line is essential if you want to develop an effective open water swimming technique. With the absence of lane ropes and black lines to guide you, coupled with reduced visibility and variable weather conditions, this can often be harder said than done!

To swim in a straight line you should eliminate imbalances in your stroke and aim for a more symmetrical swimming technique. Following the 3 technique points below will help you to swim straighter, to eliminate zig-zagging and unplanned detours (we’ve all been there), and most importantly to prevent you from swimming much further than you actually need to!

Body position and bilateral breathing. To maintain symmetry in your stroke, to prevent a lean to one side or the other, then breathing bilaterally is always the best option. Swimmers who only ever breathe to one side will find that, however marginally, they will tend to drift off course towards that dominant side. Breathing bilaterally therefore helps to establish balance in your stroke and prevent a bias to one side or the other.

But bilateral breathing must be matched with a streamlined body position. Imagine a a pole cutting through the centre line of your body from your head to your feet – then keep your body orientated along this straight line while you rotate your head to the side, and then back again, as you breathe. Make sure the head stays really still when you’re not breathing trying not sway from side to side or to to lean to one side more than the other. The head is a like a rudder, if it moves then the rest of your body will move too – so keep it still!

Stroke entry and good alignment. Again, our aim here is to establish symmetry in your stroke and to avoid anything that’ll cause you to drift towards one side or the other. A common flaw amongst swimmers is a ‘cross-over’ of the arms – this is when, having entered the water, the arms reach across the centre line of the body rather than staying in line with body and entering just in front of the shoulders.

If the arms do cross-over, rather than allowing for a more a symmetrical swimming pattern, this may well cause you to drift to one side or the other while you’re swimming and it will reduce the likelihood that you can maintain a straight-line swimming trajectory.

Rotational symmetry and core strength. This point is closely related to the point above, people tend to develop a ‘cross-over’ because they’re not rotating their body effectively (and tend compensate for a lack of rotation by reaching over, and crossing-over, the centre line of the body).

Also, another common flaw – which will work against your swimming straight goals – is that some swimmers tend to rotate more to one side than to the other. Again, the aim here is to try and eliminate such imbalances in your stoke and to try to move towards a more symmetrical and balanced swimming technique. To eliminate rotational imbalances and to build core strength at the same time, aim for drills such as side-kick, this always does the trick for our open water improvers!

2. Sighting

Sighting allows open water swimmers to see where they’re going, to navigate a course effectively and to allow themselves to maintain a straight-line swimming trajectory. With the reduced visibility that comes with swimming in open water environments, it becomes clear, pretty quickly, that sighting really is one of the most important open water skills. Having said that, sighting can all too easily be done incorrectly and a bad sighting technique can end up interrupting the rhythm of your stroke, straining your neck and ultimately slow you down! Here we’ve written a 3-step approach to sighting correctly, and we’ve made a note of some of the most common sighting errors which are best avoided (unless you want a mouthful of water).

Step 1what are you looking at?

Before you set off on your swim you should take time to study your course and most importantly to identity the landmarks that you’ll be ‘sighting’ towards. A sighting landmark should be a large, immovable object which you ‘sight’ towards in order to stick to a certain course. Some people may choose to ‘sight’ towards the course buoys themselves however buoys are sometimes quite hard to spot and are easily obstructed by other swimmers. A better alternative is a larger (unmoving!) object behind the buoy – for instance this could be a large tree or a large building.

Step 2remember your crocodile eyes!

Now you know where you’ll be looking…it’s time to lift your eyes (not your whole face!) forward so that you can ‘sight’ the way ahead. It’s important that you ‘sight’ at the right point of your stroke cycle: the lifting of the head forward should happen as you extend your arm forward…and then before you start to pull the arm through the water you should pause slightly, and press lightly down on the water as your eyes lift forward. As you ‘sight’ forward your back should arch slightly and your chin should be pushed forward all the while trying to hard to prevent the legs from dropping. It can often help to kick slightly harder as you ‘sight’ forward, to prevent the legs from dropping, but then to return to your normal kicking rhythm as your head returns back to the water.

Step 3NO breathing to the front (unless you’re thirsty)

Some swimmers make the mistake of trying to lift their whole face (and mouth) out of the water rather than just their eyes. And further still, while their whole face is out of the water they try to fit in a breath when they’re meant to be ‘sighting’! This combination can often end in disaster…a breath to the front while swimming will almost always lead to a mouthful of water (far from ideal). And above all, lifting your whole face and mouth out of the water, rather than just your eyes, will waste so much energy which you could instead conserve for your swim itself. Rather than trying to breathe to the front as you ‘sight’, you should instead take a breathe immediately after you’ve ‘sighted’ by rotating your head to the side as normal.

Top tip: ‘sight’ just enough…but not too much!

We’ve already stressed how important sighting is, especially for making sure that you’re swimming in a straight line and in the right direction, BUT that said, it is important that you don’t overdo it. If you ‘sight’ too much then you’ll find that you run the risk of interrupting the rhythm of your swimming and actually slowing yourself down. You need to aim for the goldilocks ‘sighting’ formula, ‘sighting’ just enough so that you can stay on course, but not too much that you interrupt your technique and start putting the brakes on – this is a skill we perfect with our Tri Squad

3. Drafting

The final skill to make it into our top 3 is drafting! We think that this skill is pretty underrated, and in fact it only seems to get mentioned when talking about elite swimmers or competitive triathletes. But drafting really is a skill that ALL open water swimmers should learn to perfect. And it’s fairly straight-forward to get right, drafting just involves swimming in the wake of another swimmer, reducing the drag for the swimmer immediately behind, and therefore allowing you to conserve energy. In fact, the best bit is that drafting can reduce swimming effort by up to 15-25%! Give it a go, you’ll have more energy to swim further and faster…

Step 1Choose your spot

Once you’ve found yourself behind a swimmer (ideally of the same speed and ability as yourself) you need to work out where to place yourself. There’s generally two options…first option, you place yourself immediately behind the feet of the swimmer in front of you, and option two, you choose instead to position yourself behind the hip of the leading swimmer. The first option always seems to be better than the second, staying at the feet of the swimmer in front makes it easier if you feel you need to overtake or if you need to alter your direction of travel. If you do choose to position behind the hip of the leading swimmer – make sure the swimmer you’re following is not obstructing your dominant breathing side (although of course you should be aiming for bilateral breathing most of the time).

Step 2Get friendly…but NO toe-tapping!

It’s worth cozying up to the swimmer in front of you…the closer you get to that swimmer in front then the less drag you’ll experience and the more energy you’ll end up conserving. It’s also worth baring in mind that the larger the swimmer in front of you then again the more less drag you’ll be experiencing as the swimmer behind. BUT although it’s good to get up close and personal to the swimmer in front it’s NOT ok to start tapping their feet…this can be more than slightly annoying, some swimmers will find it infuriating, and in fact it’ll end up slowing both of you down – so don’t do it, stay friendly!

Step 3Swim your own race

Lastly remember that while drafting can help you save energy and swim further and faster…it’s still important that you’re swimming your own race (or fun swim!). There are a few things that can go wrong with drafting if you’re not careful. Firstly the swimmer in front may not have read our ‘sighting’ tips and so might be leading you in the completely wrong direction – so remember to do your own ‘sighting’ even while you’re drafting! Secondly the swimmer in front may actually have a slower overall swim time than you – don’t let them slow you down, swim at your own pace and overtake them if you need to.

Have fun putting these skills into practice, and if you have any questions then just leave a reply and we’ll get back to you.

And this isn’t the last you’ll hear from us about these 3 skills – in fact, we’ve got an awesome open water skills video series coming soon where we’ll walk you through all these skills in extra detail, stay tuned! 



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