Chrissie Wellington’s Open Water Guide Pt 5/5: Sighting

Sighting in the open water is infinitely more tricky than in a crystal clear pool. But with Chrissie's tips for a straight swim, you'll have no excuse for going off course


Issue ID: July 2012


Sighting in the open water is infinitely more tricky than in a crystal clear pool. But with Chrissie’s tips for a straight swim, you’ll have no excuse for going off course…

All swimmers should be able to periodically ‘sight’ or ‘spot’ to make sure they’re heading in the right direction.

In open water, you could simply follow the bubbles of the feet in front of you, but you’re placing your trust in them to go the right way, so to sight you need a ‘marker’. This can be one of the race buoys or a tall, visible and immovable landmark, which you’d have identified prior to the race.

In a pack and/or in choppy conditions it’s often easier to sight these land-based markers than the smaller buoys to keep yourself on track. If you’re swimming in a river/canal, you can sight the shore/towpath as part of your normal stroke to keep you on course.

It takes a bit of skill and practice to be able to do it well, but efficient sighting technique and the ability to swim in a straight line can make a huge difference to your swim time. The world’s best triathletes and open-water swimmers can sight without disrupting the rhythm of their stroke or their body position in the water.


If you naturally swim straight you can sight every 12-15 strokes. If you have a little more trouble swimming straight you should sight more frequently, say every seven to nine strokes.

Sometimes the initial sight gives you only a rough idea of where you’re headed, so practising taking two sights on successive strokes is useful. The second sighting allows you to hone in on the point you’re looking for.

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’ll be easier to see the markers. However, if there are high winds and the water is choppy, the markers are going to be more difficult to see.

If you sight in the trough of a wave you may not be able to glimpse the buoy/marker and may need to take another look after a couple more strokes. If it’s choppy you may need to lift your head slightly higher, but this will result in your legs sinking slightly. Counteract this by kicking slightly more.


1. Press down lightly on the water with your lead arm, and lift your head slightly above the goggle line just before you want to take a breath.

2. Look forward as you lower it.

3. Then turn your head to the side to breathe.


Don’t try to breathe and sight at the same time, otherwise you’ll lift your head too high and your hips and legs will drop. It’s equally important to not lift your head up for too long. The sight-turn-breathe technique should be quick, smooth and fluid, as opposed to three separate movements, to ensure you can maintain your stroke and rhythm.