Sighting in open water swimming is one of the most imperative skills to master. Effective sighting allows you to swim straight and swim the shortest distance possible around the course.
The most efficient way to sight is to ‘peek’ your eyes above the surface of the water. Lifting your head only slightly does not affect the position of your legs and hips therefore creating minimal drag. Sighting should be integrated into your swimming technique and should not affect the efficiency of your stroke. Lift your head and ‘peek’ your eyes over the surface of the water to sight the buoy, then turn your head to the side and breath. Continue to swim normally for a couple of stroke cycles and the sight again to make sure you remain in line with the buoy. It is important that the motion from sighting to breathing is a one smooth motion. The key is that you are constantly moving forward when sighting.
A common question about sighting is “How often should I sight?” Typically if you naturally swim straight you can sight every 6 to 12 strokes. If you have a little more trouble swimming straight I would recommend you sight every 3-4 strokes. Another element that effects how often you sight is the weather. If the water is calm with minimal glare you can sight less as the visibility will be greater and it will be easier to see the buoys. However if there are high winds and the water is choppy, the buoys are going to more difficult to see. Therefore you should sight more often to avoid going off course. The weather also effects how high you must lift your head to sight. Ideally you want to lift your head enough so that you ‘peek’ your eyes over the surface of the water. However in choppy conditions ‘peeking’ may not give you enough visibility. You may need to lift your head further out of the water to sight the buoys. The higher you lift your head the more you hips and your legs will drop. It is important that if you are lifting your head higher out of the water that you kick harder to counteract the drag from the hips and legs. Timing when you sight can also help the visibility in choppy conditions. Sighting in between the sets or at the peak of the swell can be used to your advantage as you are higher up and have more visibility.
A good exercise to practice sighting is to start in the pool. Swim with your eyes closed for 6-8 strokes then lift your head up so your eyes peek over the water to sight. This will help you to learn to swim straight without looking at the black line on the bottom of the pool. Overtime you should be able to increase the amount of strokes with your eyes closed and still swim in a straight line. Another exercise you can practice in the pool is to sight every 3-4 strokes. Focus on the motion from sighting to breathing, make sure it is one fluid none stop motion. Repeat this for 6×50 and feel yourself making the motion more fluid. You should notice that the more efficient your sighting is the faster the times will become. This exercise will also train and strengthen your muscles that you use to sight.
The next step is to practice sighting in the open water. Pick three points to practice sighting, these may be a tree, house or a buoy along the shoreline. Choose your first landmark that you will swim to, focus on the fluid motion from sighting to breathing. After 100 strokes, change direction to the second landmark etc. It is important to also do this exercise in different conditions. Try sighting in salt water versus freshwater or choppy versus calm or glare versus clear. How did your sighting technique differ in each of the situations? The more practice you have sighting in these different conditions the more effectively and efficiently you will sight when it comes to race day.