Open Water Swiming


Open Water Swiming

We are well into the beginning of the triathlon season. There are also numerous open water swim events leading up to Midmar Mile. So now is the time of the year where we need to leave behind the lane-ropes and black line and head into the open water. This can be daunting at first but it need not be. To follow are two skills that we can develop that will make our next open water event or triathlon more efficient and faster.


Sighting – There are very few, if any, open water races that don’t involve marker and turn-buoys. Looking over the course from the side of the dam, these look easy to find, but put your eyes just above water level, amongst a bunch of splashing swimmers, and they are not that easy to spot. So learning to sight properly, while expending as little extra energy as possible, is essential.

The first thing we want to avoid is swimming ‘head-up’ like a waterpolo player. This requires a lot of extra effort and is seriously detrimental to your forward motion. As you lift your head, your legs and hips will drop as a counterbalance. This less than optimum body position in the water will slow you down and make you work much harder. The only time we want to keep our head up and looking forward is when we are seriously off-course and lost. So let’s avoid that by incorporating regular sighting in our stroke.

Sighting should fit seamlessly into your normal freestyle stroke. All you do, just before you turn your head to breath, is slightly change the angle of your head so that your eyes clear the surface of the water. Your head is still tilted to the side so your eyes will be looking up through the top of your goggles to see in the direction you are moving. This is a very slight lift, just enough to get the eyes up, so it shouldn’t affect the body position. Do this on the breathing stroke because your favourite side to breath will be the stronger stroke, which will help getting you up.

Avoid getting lost

Back to avoiding getting lost… we want to do a sighting stroke every four or five strokes. Do it regularly because you won’t be able to see clearly every time. Sometimes a swell or chop might be in the way. Other times another swimmer will put in a big kick and splash, obstructing your view. You also may not be heading perfectly in the right direction so that second that your eyes are up, they could be looking in the wrong place for the buoy. So doing a sight regularly gives you a chance to look around if you need to, without holding the head up and coming to a standstill.

Incorporate sighting into some of your sets in the pool. Not just in the warm up where you are swimming easy. Do a sight halfway down the pool, every length in an interval set to practice how to do it under pressure. Pick something to look at on the poolside or in the health club if that is where you train, so that you are not just lifting your eyes but also actually using them.


Draft – This is not only useful in cycling. Sitting in another swimmer’s draft has been proven to reduce the amount of effort it takes for the following swimmer to move at the same speed. The simplest way to draft in swimming is to sit directly behind the swimmer in front of you. You want to get right up close but preferably avoid tapping their feet too often. That is a sure way to get a few big kicks coming your way. The front swimmer is then pushing through the water and creating a small current behind them which then reduces the resistance that the following swimmer has to overcome. It does require the following swimmer to look forward in the water a bit more than good head position would dictate but if you don’t keep an eye on those feet, it is very easy to lose the draft if the swimmer in front of you changes direction even slightly.

Swimmer’s wave

An even more effective method of drafting in the water is to swim on another swimmer’s wave. Just as canoeists paddle in a diamond in order to share the workload, so a swimmer can ride the wave of the swimmer in front. This also makes it easier to stay in the draft as it is more comfortable to watch the swimmer you are drafting if their feet and legs are next to you. This will allow you to maintain a better head and body position. The ideal situation is to sit between the legs of two swimmers racing side by side. So always look for that golden opportunity.

Drafting is also a skill that we can work on in the pool but here we will need the assistance of a few training mates. Jump in the same lane and, instead of giving each other room when you push off, drop straight onto the feet of the swimmer in front and enjoy an easy cruise while they are working hard. When you get to the wall, the swimmer in front goes straight and stops while the following swimmers move to the side, turn and continue with the interval. The former leader then pushes off onto the feet of the last swimmer in the string.

Obviously there is no better practice than actually swimming in the open water. Whenever the opportunity presents itself head to a dam with your training mates and practice swimming together in tight formations and sighting in different directions.

Next time we will continue the open water discussion but this time in the ocean. Many of us will be heading to the coast during the December holiday season and what better time to do some practice sessions in preparation for the big triathlons on the SA calendar that have ocean swims?

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