Introduction to Open-Water (Part 2)

Once you're in the water, you need to know the most efficient way to get round the swim course. Andrew Potter has the essential advice...


After looking at getting comfortable and confident in open water in Part 1, it’s time to look at racing and the specific skills you can practise to help you. We’ll also discuss the adjustments you may need to make for racing in seas or rivers to cope with any waves and currents.


Having practised and become more comfortable in open water, the actual race will throw up a whole set of new challenges. And if you’re not prepared for them, they could immediately undermine any confidence you had in your open-water practice sessions.

Apart from the start (which we’ll cover in Part 3), one of the biggest challenges in a race is to keep swimming in the right direction; otherwise known as navigation.


There are two elements to ensure your 1.5km swim doesn’t become 1.6km: planning and sighting technique.

Planning amounts to carrying out some research prior to jumping in the water to help you understand the course. Quite often the marker buoys are easy to spot from dry land, but once you’re in the water they become much less visible. Knowing the course will at least help you visualise the direction you need to follow when you’re trying to sight the markers.

One very effective method of minimising the disruption sighting can cause to your stroke is to use taller landmarks on the race line or shore rather than the buoys themselves. Often in a lake swim it’s also possible to walk around the course, look at the turns and work out some landmarks and sight lines that you can use from the water.

Choose large, tall objects that are easily visible. Make special note of the last part of the course and the swim exit, especially if it’s a different place from the start.

Once you’re in the water, if the first buoy is not too far away, swim the first stretch as part of your warm-up, and once there check the direction to the next course marker.

You can also check for any current – if the course is in the sea – by swimming to the first buoy and floating near to it to observe your drift. You can take this into account when choosing your line to the first turning point.

If it’s a major event, there’s often time to carry out a practice swim prior to the race. This can be invaluable in helping you establish sight lines and land-based markers around the course. Make a special effort to note the route from the last buoy to the exit, and see if you can find a shore marker because it’s sometimes pretty tricky to swim the last bit in a straight line.

Sighting technique

This should be practised so that the act of sighting is incorporated into your stroke and disrupts you and your momentum as little as possible. The most common error is to confuse sighting with breathing – if you look up and forward and try to take a breath at the same time, your legs are going to sink, which will stop you dead in the water.

Instead, try looking forward by only slightly raising your head so only your eyes are above the water. This way you can keep exhaling beneath the surface and your body remains flat with your legs up. Then you inhale as you normally would by putting your head back in the water and rolling to the side on the next stroke. Sighting like this is referred to as the crocodile technique as only your eyes peak out above the surface.

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. It’s equally important to not lift your head up too far or for too long. You need to keep the swim rhythm to ensure your momentum is maintained. After sighting ,make small adjustments to your stroke; otherwise you’ll end up zig zagging.

Sighting can be practised in a pool. If you have a pace clock at the end of the pool, try practising your sighting technique in a set and noting the clock’s second hand to see your mid-pool splits. You can also practise the double sighting technique this way.

Swimming straight

Swimming straight is also a skill that can be improved with practice – and it’s actually easier to practise in open water. Training in open water allows you to swim with your eyes closed without fear of hitting an oncoming swimmer or wall.

Choose a buoy or set of markers about 30m away, close your eyes and aim to swim straight towards them. Sight every so often just to check you’re not swimming off course and swim slowly until you improve your ability to keep going straight.

As you increase your pace, keeping straight becomes more difficult, so practise this drill at different effort levels and get to know your stroke. In a race situation this practice will enable you to gauge how often you may need to take a sight – typically it could be anything from eight strokes to 12.

Following other swimmers can enable you to sight less often (provided they’re going straight) but there’s no substitute for being able to swim straight and developing a good sighting technique.

Turning technique

If the turn is very sharp, there are two ways to change direction fast, the first of which is the sweep turn. Use the arm that’s closest to the inside of the turn as a pivot by keeping it straight and deep through the underwater phase of the stroke. Then, with the arm that’s on the outside, take wide, ‘sweeping’ strokes to push you round the turn. 

Secondly, there’s the roll turn, where you roll onto your back mid turn before turning 90º as you roll back onto your front. In effect, it’s like doing one stroke of backstroke to cause a complete change of direction.

Sweep Turn

1 Approach the turn, keeping as close to it as possible to ensure you take the shortest route around it.

2 Once your head is level with the buoy use your inside arm (above the water) as a pivot on the next stroke.

3 Drive your inside arm straight and deep into the water to act as the pivot around which you’ll turn.

4 Take wide, sweeping strokes with your outside arm to change direction around the turn.

Roll Turn

1 Swim up to the turn using your normal front-crawl stroke until you draw level with the buoy.

2 As you pass the buoy, roll over onto your back as your arm comes through to take the next stroke.

3 Throw your recovering arm over as though you’re doing back stroke, to roll onto your back…

4 …Then, use your next stroke to roll you back onto your front and take you round the turn.


During a race it’s possible to reduce your effort substantially by ‘drafting’ behind another swimmer. It’s much the same as drafting behind someone on the bike – allowing the person ahead to break the wind, or, in this case, water. Then again, swimmers vary in their ability to swim straight and in their kick technique. Drafting a swimmer with a relaxed kick is a lot easier than following a washing machine.

Just like on the bike, if you’re too far from the swimmer in front, the effect soon disappears, so you literally need to be swimming just off the back of their feet. Get too close too often and hit the swimmer ahead and it’s likely they’ll start kicking harder to make your life unpleasant, so practise staying in the right place. It’s a useful skill and one that you can practise outside the race situation.

Arrange a small group of up to four swimmers (although you can do this in pairs) and swim 20-40 strokes on the front and then swing out to the side and let the second swimmer come through and rejoin at the rear. Your aim is to see if you can keep the group together and mimic the draft situation you’ll get in a race.

Practise swimming in a group to prepare yourself for the melee of racing, as well as getting used to drafting


In sea or river courses you may encounter currents. There are no specific differences to technique when you’re racing in water with a current but it can have an impact on your performance. Depending on its direction, it can make you swim further (or shorter), and may make holding a straight line and navigating turns more difficult.

Mentally, it can also affect you as, if you’re on an out-and-back course, you may have the current with you one way and against on the way back. As such, the swim can, in effect, be much longer if the second half is against the current, so beware and pace yourself!

Your navigation lines need to be adjusted when the current runs across the course. In these circumstances, simply sighting and aiming for the buoy will result in you swimming in an arc and taking a longer course to reach the turn. What you need to do is to aim above (or below) the marker to compensate for the drift the cross current will cause.

When approaching a turn in a cross current that takes swimmers ‘below’ the turn, it’s common to see swimmers struggling around the turn – so make allowances early.

In the sea, you can check for any current on the course by swimming to the first buoy and floating nearby to see you drift. You can then adjust your line to counter the current as you approach the first turning point and beyond.

In rivers, the current may vary considerably, and choosing to swim a longer route to avoid it can often be advantageous. Generally, the shallower the water, the weaker the current, with the stronger areas being in the deeper parts. On bends, the river will be deeper on the outside. So if you’re swimming upstream, keep to the inside of the bend; when you’re coming back down, stay on the outside.


You only really encounter waves in large lakes or the sea. There are various kinds – sea swell, waves or wind chop. Waves travel in one direction and take you up and down; chop is lots of little waves with no apparent direction to them and a swell is a large wave. When waves reach shallower water they become steeper and, of course, when they hit a beach they can turn into breakers.

Swimming in waves may mean that you need to use a higher arm recovery. If it’s too low, your hand could enter the water too early or be hit by a wave unexpectedly, causing you to unbalance. Since waves move in the same direction, if they’re coming from your right and you can only breathe to the right, you’re likely to swallow a lot of water and won’t be very comfortable. This is one good reason to learn bilateral breathing so you can adjust the side to which you breathe.

Sighting is also much harder in waves and swells. Taking your sight at the top of a wave is important – you won’t see anything from the trough. Again, practice helps.


So, with your new found comfort in open water, you can begin to replicate race-related challenges such as sighting, navigation and swimming straight to better equip yourself for the challenge of racing.

In addition, you can begin to think about waves, currents and sea swimming – all good for building the experience you need to tackle a wide variety of race venues. In Part 3 we’ll look at how we put all this to use in an actual race situation.


Andrew Potter is a BTA-qualified coach who specialises in open-water swimming. He runs T3 Performance Coaching