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!