Swimming in the open water requires patience, determination, confidence and a bit of humor. The conditions in open water can vary drastically, with elements like wind, chop, waves and swell to be considered. The combination of these factors can make for open water swimming intimidating unless you're truly prepared before getting your feet wet.
ROS (Return on Swimvestment)
Open water swimming’s single most valuable and important skill is “sighting”. How can you expect to swim from point A to point B efficiently and precisely without knowing how to navigate open waters? It may seem obvious that a swimmer must look forward or “sight” to maintain a straight course, but its likely the most common and costly problem seen in triathletes and open water swimmers alike.
The goal should be to integrate sighting into the mechanics of your stroke cycle. What I mean by this is that the natural tempo and fluidity of your stroke shouldn't be interrupted or compromised because of your sighting. Many swimmers halt their stroke all-together, in order to lift their head to sight, and then restart their stroke each time. This causes a huge break in momentum and a drop in body position. Instead, imagine extending your head forward, like a turtle does, to maintain a low profile to the water. The higher you lift your head out of the water the lower your hips and legs will sink in the water, causing excess drag and loss of speed. Dependent on water conditions, you only want to clear the goggles and perhaps the nose above the water when sighting, just enough to get a clear snapshot of whats ahead of you.
When to sight?
Tempo is everything in open water swimming. Maintaining a consistent, rhythmic stroke rate allows the swimmer to overcome the difficulty of the dynamic, moving water without losing speed or momentum. With this said, integrating the mechanics of sighting into your stroke cycle is imperative to managing the integrity of your stroke in open water. A simple device to practice this (which will be sighting every other stroke cycle), is to repeat in your head “inhale, exhale, inhale, sight”, synced with each stroke. Sighting is synonymous with the exhale. As you extend the head forward to sight you should be exhaling, even if your mouth clears the water. Your breathing pattern IS your tempo in swimming and being consistent with it will translate directly to aerobic efficiency.
There is no time for hesitation when sighting. Take your inhale and just as you would normally return your face into the water to exhale and smoothly extend your head forward to sight while exhaling and the same side arm as your breathing side is fully extended for support/stability. If you don’t get a clear picture of whats in front of you during this window of time do not hesitate. Instead, continue with your stroke cycle, rolling into the next inhale and sight again on the next stroke to fill in the blanks of what you missed. The frequency of sighting is subjective, based on how difficult it is to see in front of you due to the conditions at hand or potential swell/splah. I recommend sighting more often than not, every 2-4 stroke cycles, guaranteeing your most direct course possible.
Dress rehearsal on race day
Being prepared for an open water swim will put you ahead of most of the group, in the sense that mentally you will be confident and prepared for the conditions at hand and that you will navigate the course with a game plan in place. From the shore, take a look at the buoys of the swim course to get an idea of what you will see while out in the water. Find a landmark on land, a fixed object that stands out such as a telephone tower or tall group of trees. This marker will help you reference where you are relative to the buoy at all times, especially in cases when you're unable to see the buoy.
If the race allows, do a warmup swim out to the first buoy so that you have a sense of it’s distance from the starting point, know how the bottom of the lake/ocean plays out, and feel the energy the water has at that time. Once you’re at the first buoy, position yourself towards the second buoy so that you have firsthand perspective of what you will see at the course’s first turn. Now, find another fixed reference point on land straight ahead that you can use to easily reference while swimming.
All of the above is wonderful (and necessary) to help you sight better when in the open water, but don’t overlook the value of also incorporating sighting in your pool training, too. Start by sighting once or twice per 100 of your main set, building up to the point that you're able to comfortably maintain sighting mechanics for the bulk of your workouts without compromising body position or speed. Utilize the clock in front of you or something at the end of your lane on the pool deck to sight, insuring you’re not just going through the motions, but actually spotting something you intended to see.
I hope this helps put a little more purpose behind “sighting” and will help you create much greater spatial awareness in the open water and thus CONFIDENCE!