How Often Should You Sight In The Open Water


Sighting is the act of seeing or navigating in the open water, generally towards landmarks, turn buoys, escort boats or the finish. It is a crucial aspect of open water swimming. If you sight incorrectly – or too much or not at all – during a race, you will utilize too much energy for the wrong purposes and may end up swimming much longer and farther than necessary.

A common question asked by newbie open water swimmers and triathletes is “How often should I sight?”

Although some coaches have different opinions or offer definitive explanations on sighting, this question does not have one simple answer. The optimal number for individual swimmers depend on a variety of factors including their navigational IQ, the water conditions, where they are in the race, who is around them, the number of buoys and escort boats, and the layout of the course.

Navigational IQ:
Like intellectual IQ, everyone has a different navigational IQ. Like body types, the optimal sighting rhythm for every individual varies. While some people have an innate sense of direction, others do not and will never develop that skill. For every swimmer and triathlete who swims with a balanced stroke and can swim relatively long distances on a straight line, there are hundreds who find it impossible to swim straight without constant re-positioning and re-directing their bodies. Therefore, optimal sighting may range from once every 10 strokes for those who easily veer off a straight-line tangent to those who can nail a thumb line for as many as 50 strokes.

This navigational IQ can be related to how balanced one’s stroke is. Breathing, a cross-over stroke or cross-over kick, or an uncoordinated sighting technique are various ways to throw off one’s balance. While some swimmers can incorporate lifting their head and sighting into their stroke quite naturally and without a negative impact on their straight-line forward progress, others have to disrupt their normal stroke in order to sight.

Thus, a swimmer with an inefficient stroke or off-balance breathing usually veers slightly to one side or the other. It behooves them to focus on their swimming stroke as a means to swim more efficiently.

Water Conditions:

The conditions of the water also play a huge role. If the water is extremely choppy or wavy, or there are lateral currents, you will need to sight more often. These conditions can often cause one to become disoriented and the elements will work against your desire to swim straight. If you do not keep some type of landmark in sight, you may find yourself swimming off course.

If you are swimming by yourself, you probably want to sight more often. While risky, an athlete can gamble and make a tactical move by taking a different course than the other athletes. In this case, the athlete must base the decision on more than a hunch; they want to be as certain as possible that they are making the right decision and then separating themselves from the pack as they confirm their line is, indeed, faster. On the other hand, if you are swimming in a pack of people, you are safe to sight less and conserve energy. Chances are greater that with many swimmers, the group is going to be headed in the right direction.

If you place yourself near an experienced veteran or someone who you know has swum the course before, you can be more confident that they are probably taking the optimal course. This will enable you to sight slightly less, conserving energy as you can.

Conversely, if you are swimming near swimmers who have never swum the course before or less experienced swimmers, then you want to sight slightly more frequently than normal. In a pack of newbies (either to the sport or to the course), you want to confirm your course is spot on.

Course Layout and Boat Traffic:
You are also lucky if there is a lead boat or escort kayak near you. In that case, your best bet is to just follow the boat. It is rare that the boat pilot or kayaker is not taking the optimal course. However, this does NOT mean that you never need to look up. Just to be safe, you should always have some landmarks that you can occasionally check.

The number and placement of turn buoys and guide buoys will also have a great influence over your sighting pattern. The more buoys on the course, the easier your navigational responsibilities will be. If you see the buoy anchors underwater, make a mental note if there are any currents. If you see the rope being stretched to one direction or the other, this will give you a clear indication which direction the current is running. Adjust your course based on this information.

A runner would never run off-course, a cyclist sticks to the optimal route, but an open water swimmer is at a distinct disadvantage over other endurance athletes. Sighting is one of the key elements of open water swimming. It is a skill just as important as drafting and pacing. The frequency of sighting that should be done by swimmers depends on the individual, the race and numerous situational factors.

As you swim, look to your right and look to your left. If you find yourself swimming alone and unsure of your exact position or intended direction, it is well worth your time to stop for several seconds to collect your bearings. Do not hesitate to do some breaststroke while looking around or take a number of head-up strokes until you gain confidence of your course. In some cases, as you swim past safety personnel or official boats on the course, yell loudly and ask them if you are swimming correctly. More than likely, they will point you in the right direction.

Photos show FINA 10K Marathon Swimming World Cup champion Chad Ho and 2011 World Swimming Championship 5 km team pursuit gold medalist sighting and winning the 2013 Midmar Mile in South Africa.

Copyright © 2013 by Open Water Swimming

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