Swim Straight! How to Master Sighting in Open Water

Swim Straight! How to Master Sighting in Open Water

Triathlete swimming in open waterSwim Straight! How to Master Sighting in Open Water

When swimming in open water, sighting is a crucial skill that allows you to keep a straight course and stay on target. Seeing the horizon is more than just looking up; it is also about minimizing disturbances to your swimming rhythm while spotting the horizon efficiently. We’ll discuss how to incorporate effective sighting techniques into your training routine in order to navigate open waters with precision in this article.

1. Quick Spotting:

You can spot your reference points while swimming by taking brief, quick glances forward without interrupting your stroke when you sight. As you continue swimming, let your visual cortex process the information while you glance forward and return your head smoothly to the water instead of holding your head up for extended periods.

Try this on dry land first when you arrive at your swim spot, whether it’s a pool, lake or ocean.  First close your eyes and generally face a direction that has some interesting objects in the distance.  This could be the buoys on your swim course, a marina, a parking lot or a group of people.   Don’t study the area first before closing your eyes…that’s cheating!  Close your eyes first and then rotate your body to facd the direction you’ve chosen, or you can have a friend help point you the right way, while taking turns.

You can also try this right where you are reading this article…when you’re ready, do NOT look up from your screen without first closing your eyes.   Close your eyes THEN lift your head to face any direction that you know has some objects in front of you.

Now with your eyes closed, open and close them as quickly as you can and keep them closed.  Don’t open your eyes, look around and close them again, you’re simply going to blink once, eyes open then closed again.   With your eyes closed, you’ll have a visual memory of what you just saw even if you can’t identify specific objects. If you are doing this with a partner, describe what you saw.   If on a swim course, you’ll probably want to identify the buoys right?   Now decide what additional information you want to gather for your 2nd blink.  Do you need to rotate your head a little to face a specific direction so whatever you’re trying to gather information about is more in front of you?   Did you see colors but you’re not sure what the colors are?   Did you see a car but thought there may be more?

Repeat the blink again, keeping your eyes closed when you’re done.  You can blink at a speed that allows you to “see” more, but remember that after you close your eyes, you continue to “see” what was there.  If the lighting is bright enough you may even notice a literal impression on your retina after your eyes are closed.  it takes several seconds for the cells on the back of the eye to revert back to their neutral state, and during that time, you’re brain is still getting the signal of what was imprinted on the retina.

Ok, try it a 3rd time and gather any additional information that you can.   Finally, open your eyes and survey what is in front of you.  How accurate was your minds eye after your eyes were closed? Keep this in mind when sighting. You don’t have to “see” or even “look” for navigational cues while swimming…just use your visual memory after a quick peek (or even a blink) during your peek above the surface and you’ll save energy and swim much smoother.

2. Identify Contrasting Elements:

Look for things that are easily distinguishable, such as bright orange or yellow buoys, fellow swimmers’ caps, tree lines, or areas where water meets land. Try to spot any contrasting objects in front of you first, then refine what you see on a subsequent sighting opportunity by focusing on a narrower target in the direction you are going to swim.  Like the blink exercise above, you may notice that high contrast leaves an imprint on your retina after you close your eyes. You’re not only remembering what you saw…but even after your eyes are closed, you can still “see” what the retina was exposed to as if the scene were on the back of your eyelids.

3. Maintaining Proper Body Position:

Keep your mouth and nose below the waterline when sighting, ensuring only your eyes and forehead break the surface. Maintaining a streamlined body position keeps your head low and keeps your hips from dropping, allowing you to swim efficiently.  Breathing can be incorporated in two basic ways after the sight.  The first option is my preferred way – after sighting with the “alligator eyes” relax your neck muscles and regain your balance in the water by letting your face fall back towards the bottom of the lake / ocean.   Then take a normal breath on a subsequent stroke.   This reduces the amount of disruption in your balance and alignment since you have a chance to regain perfect body alignment after the sighting, and before the next breath.

The second way is best for people who already have good to great swim form, can take a breath in the pool (under still perfect conditions) with their goggles splitting the water surface and breathing behind your bow wave, and who do not have any neck injuries, chronic neck pain, disc issues or neck arthritis.   After your quick “alligator eyes” peek, simply rotate your face away from your lead arm to take a breath before finishing that stroke.

Experiment with both ways to find what’s comfortable…but be willing to spend time finding out what’s not comfortable about your less preferred choice.  Why? Because often what’s most comfortable in swimming is what keeps the head above the water the longest.  This most often creates a poor body position with sinking hips and knees, and makes the underwater stroke portion inefficient.   For that reason we teach all of our swimmers the “peek, stroke, breath” pattern, rather than the “peek, breath, stroke” pattern.

What’s your preferred way to stroke? Leave a comment below and let us know!

4. Timing and Rhythm:

You maintain a seamless and efficient swimming motion by  incorporating sighting into your stroke rhythm.

You should time your peek at the same moment your lead arm extends forward, just before your catch phase. This allows you to relax your head back into the water as or just before initiating the catch.   Trying to catch while you sight creates a “doggy paddle” or “tarzan” style stroke that is inefficient.

One incredibly helpful tip that works great for turning yourself into a sleek open water swimmer who is the envy of all around you is to maintain your torso rotation during your sighting.   Instead of a flat body position while sighting, maintain your rotation to the side of the extended arm.  This will lengthen your body, and allow you  milliseconds longer to gather visual information.  When you let your head return to the water, the weight of the head movement coordinates both the recovery arm and the catch occurring together, and you’ll maintain your speed.

5. Utilizing the Underwater Stroke:

When sighting, use the latter half of your underwater stroke to minimize speed disruption. As your stroking arm is lengthening backwards, your lead arm extends just below the surface, just as you reach your peak rotation.   This allows your eyes to pop up briefly without significantly affecting your speed. Be careful however not to use the pushing phase of your stroke to force your head above water, it’s simply a cue to help you time the alligator eyes.   The same time your arms are moving in opposite directions your forward speed is still close to its stroke to stroke max.   Use the momentum and the lead arm is a “wing” in front to help pop the head up briefly. This technique ensures a smooth transition between sighting and swimming, enabling you to maintain a consistent pace.


Mastering the art of sighting is essential for open water swimmers wanting to swim the course without getting too far off track. By practicing the techniques outlined above, you can develop a sighting method that minimizes disruptions to your stroke while providing the navigational cues you need to complete your swim. Practice incorporating these skills into your training sessions to gain confidence and enhance your open water swimming performance. So, embrace the art of sighting, and conquer open water with confidence!

Improving Your Performance for Running a 10K or Longer: A Comprehensive Approach

close up of a running shoe being tied Whether you’re a triathlete doing an Olympic distance / International triathlon or a runner, racing a 10K or longer distance requires not only determination and consistent training but also a mindful approach to avoid injury and optimize recovery. While interval and speed work are commonly suggested methods, it’s crucial to tailor your training based on your current abilities, goals, and overall health. In this blog post, we’ll delve into specific factors to consider and provide a multifactorial approach to help you achieve your running goals.

Assessing Your Current Abilities:

Before embarking on any training program, it’s essential to assess your current abilities and set specific goals. To establish a baseline, consider the following questions:

  1. Recent Performance: Reflect on your last 5K run. Was it a solo effort or part of a triathlon? What was your actual time? This information will help gauge your current fitness level and set realistic goals.
  2. Rest and Recovery: Consider whether you felt well-rested for your last 5K race. Adequate rest and recovery are vital for maximizing performance and preventing overuse injuries.
  3. Course Conditions: Evaluate the terrain of your previous races. Was it a flat course or did it involve inclines and declines? This knowledge will assist in tailoring your training program to address specific challenges.

Current Training Regimen and Endurance Background:

To enhance your performance for longer distances, it’s important to understand your current training regimen and endurance background. Answer the following questions:

  1. Consistency: How many days a week do you currently run? Consistency is key for building endurance and improving overall fitness.
  2. Injury History: Assess your injury history to identify any recurring issues or areas of concern. Prior injuries may require additional attention or modifications to your training routine.
  3. Joint Problems: If you have joint problems or orthopedic issues, seeking advice from a foot and ankle physician or sports medicine specialist can provide valuable insights for adjusting your training program.

Considering Weight and Health Goals:

While weight is a sensitive topic, it’s worth addressing when it comes to improving your running performance. Here are a few points to consider:

  1. Power-to-Weight Ratio: Increasing your power-to-weight ratio can make you faster. Assess whether your weight is appropriate for your health and running goals. Consult with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian to determine if weight management is necessary.
  2. Nutrition: Fueling your body with a balanced diet, focusing on nutrient-dense foods, can optimize your performance and overall well-being.

A Multifactorial Approach:

Improving your performance for running a 10K or longer requires a comprehensive approach that takes into account the specific factors mentioned above. Here are some additional suggestions:

  1. Training Plan: Work with a running coach or use established training programs to structure your workouts effectively. Incorporate a mix of interval training, tempo runs, long runs, and recovery days to build both speed and endurance.
  2. Video Analysis and Footwear: Consider getting a run video analysis to identify any biomechanical issues or form imbalances. Additionally, ensure you have well-fitting shoes that provide the necessary support and cushioning for your feet.
  3. Cross-Training: Include cross-training activities such as strength training, yoga, or swimming to improve overall fitness, prevent injuries, and enhance muscular balance.
  4. Recovery and Rest: Prioritize recovery and rest days to allow your body to adapt and rebuild. Adequate sleep, stretching, foam rolling, and other recovery techniques can aid in reducing muscle soreness and improving performance.

Improving your performance for running a 10K or longer requires a thoughtful and well-rounded approach. By considering your current abilities, training regimen, injury history, weight management, and other factors, you can develop a training plan tailored to your specific needs.

Remember, the journey to becoming faster and more efficient in longer distances is a gradual process that requires patience, consistency, and a focus on both physical and mental well-being. Seek guidance from professionals if needed, listen to your body, and make adjustments along the way. With dedication and a multifactorial approach, you’ll be on your way to achieving your running goals and conquering the 10K or longer distances with confidence and enjoyment.

Interested a running focused training plan by Steel City Endurance? Check the Training Peaks running & triathlon training plans for sale by Coach Suzanne.

Lace up those running shoes and embrace the exhilarating path towards becoming a stronger and faster runner. Happy running!


Original content by Coach Suzanne Atkinson, MD
ChatGPT used to improve formatting & readability

Create Swim Experiments with a Tempo Trainer to Improve Freestyle Technique

  1. Change your thinking from strokes per minute to seconds per stroke.  Instead of frequency, think period. This allows you to do faster analysis of your swimsperiments.   20 strokes @ .9 sec/stroke = 18 seconds. Vs 20 strokes @ 68spm = ?? (Can’t do that math in the pool quickly)
  2. You need to test/ train tempo in a measured setting before you can use it in open water since you can’t measure progress very well
  3. Since pace is the result of stroke rate x Stroke length, paying attention to those 2 variables will help you learn a lot about yoru technique without timing yourself (you can always multiply them to get the time, or look at your watch) But you can’t look at yoru watch until you’re done with a set, so learn to count strokes well.
  4. Each hand entry counts as a stroke (the watch is inaccurate, except for how variable you are, the actual numbers are not helpful)

Some experiments to start with.   

Use a comfortable tempo (70 spm = .86 sec/stroke), and swim 2 sets of 3 x 25.    (So 6 x 25 total)

No breath, right breathing only, left breathing only, repeat. Rest for 5-10 beeps between repeats

Count your strokes.

Be sure to start your first stroke underwater after a consistent # of beeps off the way (3-5 find out what’s comfortable, and be consistent so you can compare)

Progress to 50s if you can taking 1 breath per 50 plus 1 at the wall (open turn on all 50s for comparison) Count your strokes.

This is a fun simple experiment that will usually tell you what you may already know…that breathing reduces stroke length, and that one side is better / worse than the other.  You may have to practice counting strokes before you can be consistent with yoru experiments.  A poolside notepad with a ball point pen is great for tracking different things.

Now with data, you can create a hypothesis…

Example (after warmup)

Tempo .85 sec/stroke

6 x 25 as Breath Right only, breath left only, no breathing, repeat.  Rest 5-10 beeps between repeats, 5 beeps off wall before first stroke.   count strokes.

Stroke Counts by length:

1: 20SPL 4: 21 SPL (Left only)
2: 18 SPL 5: 19 SPL (Right only)
3: 17 SPL 6: 18 SPL (No breathing)

Results show left side breathing adds 3 strokes every 25 yds compared to no breaths   At .85 sec/stroke, you’re adding 2.55 seconds / 25 yards due to the slowing down from breathing left.   Over 1 mile  that’s 2.5 minutes.   Right side is better than left side, saving .85 seconds / 25 yards if you only breathed right.

You’ve learned  a lot from this simple experiment.


  1. if I practiced alternate breathing I’ll save 1 stroke / length (as opposed to same side breathing).   Test it!
  2. If I improved my breathing form I’ll save 1-3 strokes per length.   Choose a skill, and practice incorporating it into your stroke with and without a breath.  Practice without a tempo trainer ,then practice at a slower tempo (since thinking about your skills will take longer).  Maybe add .15 – .2 seconds to drill with the TT and practice.   You can repeat the test set above at this new tempo and while the stroke cont will / should be different, you can still measure the results and see if you’re improving without having to have a coach, video or time yourself.

This is just 1 test set and 2 ideas that emerge from it.  There are infinite numbers of tempo sets you can do as part of improving your technique. Kirsten or I can share more, but try this one if you havn’t yet and see what you can learn.

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Swimming Drills that Give Better Results for Triathletes

You don’t have to swim faster to beat your best time in a triathlon

triathlon swimmer doing a face down floatYou just have to swim better than you are right now.

Many triathletes go to the pool with a soggy workout printed off the internet and a bag of pool toys like paddles, fins and a snorkel   But what most end up being frustrated  by is not knowing if their work with the drills and toys translates to better swimming.

When you begin to realize that just doing a drill doesn’t mean you’ve learned a better swim skill, you’ll start to pay attention to the quality of your training plan.

it’s better to have a specific body based focus that you can pay attention to while swimming.

Let’s take just one example.  most triathletes carry a lot of tension in their neck which impacts their streamlining, efficiency and breathing.  Here’s one way to approach improving this micro skill and improve awareness.

“25 kick, 25 swim”

Does this look familiar?  “25 kick, 25 swim”.   This is an extremely common example of a freestyle drill set for triathletes.    It would seem that the main intent is to practice kicking, right? But without further direction or a coach on deck, it’s unclear and doesn’t give you the focus you need to improve your freestyle swimming for triathlon.

Instead of “25 kick, 25 swim”, let’s add a specific thought to direct your muscles while doing the drill.

“Relax your neck” while kicking with one arm extended for 25 yards.  Stroke once to breath or roll to the sky for a breath.   Then swim 25 yards while maintaining your relaxed neck.  Does your neck feel relaxed with and without arm strokes?   

Aside from using a few more words, what’s the subtle difference between these two drill sets? The second set addresses a specific issue that impacts your swimming in both drilling and full stroke freestyle.   You see most people will tense their neck and instinctively pick their head up a bit to look ahead.  This creates tension in the neck and creates misalignment.   Both issues require more effort to swim, and create an even bigger problem when trying to breath.

Great swim practices move your attention instead moving body parts

By removing the arms and just kicking (with or without fins) you can move your attention to your neck and experiment with different levels of relaxation and tone.  When followed immediately with swimming it’s easy to compare the results of the new focus and attention to the neck.

Since new movements feel awkward and foreign, a drill set that addresses a specific thought (“relax the neck”) rather than an exercise (“Kicking”) is a supercharged way to increase your learning speed and adopt better swim skills faster.

Next time you go to the pool and are faced with a drill set, try substituting a body awareness focal point, or simply layering it on top of the drill.   Some examples

  • One armed swimming becomes “Stroke with your Left (Right) arm, while keepign the neck relaxed and the spine aligned during the entire arm cycle.”
  • Cat & Mouse drill becomes “Keep your neck relaxed while exploring how much overlap is in your stroke while playing cat & mouse. At what point in your overlap can you keep your neck most relaxed?

12 Weeks of Better Swim Practices

If you’re ready to apply these principles to your own training, my dedicated triathlon swimming plan for Olympic or Half Distance races contains 12 weeks (32 unique workouts) of practical swimming workouts just like these. Just head on over here to purchase a dedicated triathlon swimming plan to prepare you for an Olympic or Half Distance Triathlon.  

(You can apply this plan over top of any other training plan you’re currently using and just swap out the swims) 

SWOLF – Your Ultimate Guide to Improve your Swimming with Swim Golf

SWOLF is a contraction of the words  Swim Golf or Swimming Golf.   This article will help you understand what it is, how it  is measured and how you can experiment with different ways to “play” swim golf in order to improve your swimming.  When you understand the different ways to use SWOLF, you can create a variety of interesting and engaging swim workouts that will help you become faster.

What is swim golf (or swimming golf)?

Swim golf is a fun way you can add some gamification to your swimming workouts in order to see if you are making improvements. Just like in regular golf, a lower score in swim golf is usually better.

How is SWOLF measured?

Your swim golf score is the total of the number of strokes you took, plus the time in seconds.   It doesn’t matter if you are swimming in yards or meters, and it doesn’t matter what length the interval is, as long as you are being consistent with your own measurements.

For example:  If you swim 50 yards in 45 seconds, your swim golf or SWOLF is 50 + 45 , or 95.

If you swim a 100 meter interval with a total of 40 strokes and swam it in 65 seconds, your SWOLF would be 105.

How do swim watches measure SWOLF?

Many swim watches such as the  Garmin Forerunner models, Garmin Swim 2, Moov Now, the Apple watch, Swimovate Poolmate, and many more will automatically calculate a SWOLF score for you.

These swim watches calculate the swim golf score by counting your strokes and time per length of the pool.  So whether you swim in a 25 yard pool, 25 meter pool or 50 meter pool, the calculation is based on 1 length of that pool.

For example:  with a 200meter swim interval in a 50 meter pool, the software will show 4 SWOLF scores for that interval, one for each length.

On the other hand, a 500 yard swim in a 25 yard pool will show a graph of 20 SWOLF scores for the entire interval.

Here is an example of multiple swim golf scores shown in a graph after downloading the data to the watch’s software.   The red filled portion with the heavier red outline is the SWOLF score for each length.


Swolf Score Graph

This graph represents a swim set of ten 100 yard repeats with a very short rest between them

If you are interested in a detailed discussion of how to interpret entire sets of swim golf scores for a workout, I’ve written about that in an article called What can SWOLF tell us? Interpreting data from your GPS watch – Part 1 and Part 2: Swim watch analysis- A case study in a mid-pack triathlete

How do you “Play” Swim Golf?

In order to “play” swim golf,  you would want to lower your SWOLF score over time. These could be short term goals within the same workout, or longer term goals over time.

If your score is the sum of your strokes and your time, then there are two ways to decrease your score. You can either lower your strokes (ie take fewer strokes to complete your interval), or swim in a faster time.   The tricky part is that in order to actually get a lower sun, you need to prevent the other score from increasing.

For example, these two swims would result in the same score for a 50 yard swim: A) 43 seconds in 52 strokes or B) 45 seconds in 50 strokes.  Both of them result in a score if 95 for a 50 yard interval.

Two ways to lower your SWOLF score

Take fewer strokes in the same amount of time

For example if you swam 25 yards in 22 seconds with 18 strokes, your score is 40.

In subsequent 25s, you would try to swim in 22 seconds while still taking fewer than 18 strokes, for a score less than 40

Repeat 1: 22 seconds + 18 strokes = 40
Repeat 2: 22 seconds + 17 strokes = 39
Repeat 3: 22 seconds + 16 strokes = 38

Swim faster while taking the same number of strokes

For example if you swam 25 yards in 22 seconds with 18 strokes, your score is 40.

In subsequent 25s, you would try to swim faster than 22 seconds while still taking 18 strokes for a score less than 40.

Repeat 1: 22 seconds + 18 strokes = 40
Repeat 2: 21 seconds + 18 strokes = 39
Repeat 3: 20 seconds + 18 strokes = 38

What’s a Good SWOLF Score?

Since stroke count is half of your swim golf score, and stroke count can change based on a persons height or wing span, it’s hard to compare your score against anyone else’s score.  Everyone has different physical features that can influence their strokes per length.   The best way to use SWOLF is as a personal measure of change or improvement.

How can I Incorporate SWOLF into my swim workouts?

You can create sets like the examples above to add some focus to your swims that are centered around using SWOLF to improve your swimming.

For beginning and early intermediate swimmers, usually the best bang for the buck is to try to lower stroke count first in order to lower your score.  This is because most of these swimmers have several technique areas that when improved, can reduce drag and lower the number of strokes needed to get across the pool.

Intermediate swimmers may enjoy trying to hold their SPL the same, while trying to swim faster.   This means that they are traveling the same distance with each arm stroke ,but because their time is faster, they are taking each stroke at a slightly faster tempo.

Alternatively, intermediate swimmers can experiment with different ways to prevent SWOLF from climbing, but trading a stroke for a second.  That means that by allowing an extra stroke during the length, you can often gain a second…so it’s an even tradeoff.   When there are multiple ways to achieve the same SWOLF score, it’s worth spending time evaluating the effort required at different stroke counts.   Your goal would be to use the score combination that results in the least effort as a target for practice and improvement.

More advanced swimmers will enjoy trying to lower both scores…swim faster AND take fewer strokes  This requires precision technique as well as properly applied power in your stroke.

Can I track SWOLF without a swim watch?
Of course you can!  What do you think coaches and swimmers did before swim watches were available?  Many swimmers ask if you should count one arm only or both arms.   I teach my swimmers to count each arm entry as a stroke. This is because you will get a more precise number instead of estimating 1/2 cycles.

But you’ll have to remember that your swim watch usually counts cycles…one arm through the whole stroke cycle. So when YOU count two strokes (right arm entry, left arm entry), your swim watch is counting 1 cycle (right arm entry to next right arm entry).

Counting strokes is a great skill to learn to make improvements to your swim, so it’s time well spent.