• Mark Durnford

Sighting for open water swimming

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

Firstly let’s define what sighting for open water swimming is. Simply put, it’s looking where you’re going and essential when open water swimming. Due to the nature of being outside, we no longer have the luxury of lines on the bottom of the pool or walls at either end of the length to help keep us on track with both direction and awareness of distance covered. This lack of awareness with distance covered can also have a negative effect on your overall pacing of swim. For more information on this read the Swimming Pacing Blog I’ve previously written.

It’s always worth remembering that sighting will cause disruption and inefficiency to your Front Crawl so important to perform this skill as technically correct as possible and only use as frequently as is necessary. Which brings us to the question “how often should I sight?” Various factors to consider when answering this question and as with most elements of swimming, there is rarely one answer that will suit everyone. Therefore consider all the following points and use according to what you feel is required.

Sense of direction

Lets face it, many of us tend to naturally be better at this than others but without a doubt a trainable skill. One of the best ways to improve your sense of direction is to swim outside regularly. Having a great navigational ability will allow you the luxury of not needing to sight often. As already highlighted, however technically correct your sighting might be, it will cause additional energy consumption. In order to maintain a sense of direction, a visual guide in one form or another will always be required as a point of reference:

Guide boats

When used, these offer a guide throughout the route of the swim serving a dual purpose by supporting swimmers who might get into a little trouble and need to stop. Ultimately they will stay alongside swimmers only requiring you to breathe to this same side in order to keep an eye on the boat and use its lead. Bear in mind they may be located on either side so having the ability to breathe to both sides comfortably will be an advantage. Bilateral breathing is an essential open water skill not only for the scenario I’ve just described but also if your landmarks (banks, trees, buildings etc) happen to be on different sides throughout the route of the course.

Marker Buoys

Size, colour, visibility and quantity of buoys along the route are all factors to be considered. Organised events should have these strategically placed, using large and brightly coloured buoys. When sighting, you should be able to capture a quick glimpse of one ahead, then use your sense of direction to swim toward it in the most direct route possible. Staying on track will prevent you from having to sight too often. Studying the course layout prior to an event will also assist your understanding of direction during the swim. Take time to study the route plan both on paper as well as walking around prior to the event beginning if possible.

Other swimmers

Other swimmers can both be a help as well as a hindrance. Swimming within a small group of others can offer possible drafting opportunities along with directional guidance. Although this can minimise the frequency of sighting, avoid solely depending on other swimmers and always check the route being followed every now and then. Of course there is also the chance that stroke rhythm could be disrupted by clashing arms as well as overall pacing being influenced by the group around you. The experience of your surrounding swimmers both as open water swimmers and / or possibly those who have swum the route before, should all assist the direct you follow.

Water conditions

Consider how currents, tides, waves and poor visibility can all help to send you off course. Having some or all of these present during your swim will require you to sight more often as well as demand a greater energy consumption to complete your swim. Factor these into the equation when managing your time expectations and be accepting of a slower time should this be the case.


Should your Front Crawl technique require attention it could in fact be encouraging poor direction. For example, crossing over the arms or uncoordinated breathing and / or sighting can all move you off course. Ensure your technique is correct for both efficiency of energy consumption as well as to enhance your navigational direction.

In summary with all things considered it would be beneficial to start sighting around every 8 strokes to see how this works out for you in the first instance. If you feel confident in not veering off course try taking more strokes between sighting then gradually increase this until you feel you’ve reached your personal limit. Remember if any of the conditions outlined above change during the swim this will have a direct influence on the frequency of your sighting. Sighting frequency should therefore not be set in stone and be prepared to alter accordingly at any given time. Some experienced open water swimmers can at times take up to 50+ strokes between sightings while staying very much on track.

Final point to raise when sighting in open water. Don’t be afraid at any point to stop, tread water momentarily and take a good look where you need to go. Of course this will slow you down but not nearly as much as veering totally off course will!

You may also be interested in reading Top 10 swimming tips for triathletes – open water

For more guidance on how to perfect your Front Crawl technique and more download the series of swimming books by Mark Durnford.