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swim open water

How to Swim Straight In Open Water


  • Tips on how to swim straight in open water
  • How to improve sighting
  • What are the best drills to balance swimming strokes?
  • Open-water vs. pool swimming

Swimming Essentials: How to Swim Straight In Open Water

Many swimmers and triathletes prioritize perfecting their strokes before race day, but little did they know that staying on course while swimming, especially in open water, is just as crucial. Open-water swimming presents many unpredictable challenges and comes with ever-changing water conditions. Given this, swimmers and triathletes must also improve their abilities to swim straight in open water.

In this guide, we’ll help athletes and aspiring athletes improve their techniques and performance while staying on course and keeping their eyes on the prize. Here are eight tips on how to swim straight in open water:

1. Start With a Good Body Position

The starting point is your body position. Everything points to your body and its movements. You can follow and improve the proper body position for your swimming stroke. But generally, you want your head to be in a natural position aligned with your spine. A well-positioned head is crucial to swimming straight. And following proper head positioning doesn’t just affect your ability to stay on course; it also improves your body movements and speed. In fact, according to a study published in the US National Library of Medicine, “the swimmer’s head location may play an important role in reducing hydrodynamic resistance during passive underwater gliding.” When you do this, everything else follows.

To align your head, try to stare directly at the bottom of the pool. It may seem awkward at first, but you’ll get used to it. Once you get the hang of it, your legs will automatically come up behind you, positioning your body into a straight line.

While moving, don’t let your hips drop as it will disrupt your momentum and ruin your body position. Last but not the least, learn to lift your head only as high as necessary. This movement can be a challenge in wavy open water, but you can just lift your eyes out of the water in calm bodies of water, such as lakes, man-made dams, or rivers, to avoid discomfort.

2. Study the Swim Course

Don’t wait for the last-minute briefing before the competition when you have plenty of time to analyze the race and study the swim course. Be confident with the course details come race day because you need to know where you’re going before hitting the starting line. It will save you a ton of time in the competition if you know what to do and where to go.

If it’s a big triathlon or swimming competition, the organizer would likely offer a race course tour. But in case there isn’t any, you can map out the race course yourself. To study the course effectively, you should know the shape of the course, figure out the location of the buoys, and analyze the direction of the course. Further, you can also seek advice from competitors or acquaintances who already competed in the venue. Use your knowledge of the swim course to your advantage come race day. This will help you execute your swimming routine flawlessly.

3. Expose Your Body To Various Open-Water Conditions

As a triathlete or swimmer, you’ll undoubtedly encounter various open-water conditions in different bodies of water. So, as early as now, expose your body to them. A research and guide published by the University of Sydney’s Ross Sanders, a professor and researcher with expertise in biomechanics, motor control, and skill acquisition, stated that “practicing in a range of open water conditions helps enable successful adaptation to any conditions in open-water competition.” 

By doing this, you’ll learn how to adapt to different situations and water conditions. You’ll also improve your swimming course and body movements. These benefits will help you stay confident and competitive during the actual competition.

To start, round up your friends or training buddies and take a trip to the closest and safest body of water to practice. It could be a publicly open ocean, lake, pond, or river. Just make sure to follow precautionary measures, especially in areas with no lifeguards or public security. Have your companions watch over you in deep and wavy regions of the water.

4. Improve and Time Your Sighting

Sighting is a special skill all swimmers and triathletes should learn and develop. Sighting is the act where you look up from the water during your stroke and identify your surroundings to find the direction you’re swimming in. This helps you monitor your progress, track the course, and identify any obstacles in your path. Being good at sighting can help you prevent zig-zagging in open water. As such, you need to learn how to do this properly.

Aside from acquiring the skill, you should also time your sighting. In wavy water, time the moment you breathe out of the water and track the location of the course, so you’re sighting on the top of an obstacle or a wave; this gives you the best view of the course. Match the rise and fall of your body to the wave so that you can sight at the right time. Also, don’t lift your head too high to avoid weak body positioning.

There are two ways to learn how to sight properly and effectively: lifting your whole head out of the water or just your eyes on the surface of the water. Either method is effective, but it still depends on your stroke and preference. Experiment with both methods in open water and find the most natural and comfortable method for you.

5. Understand Water Currents and Conditions

As a swimmer or triathlete, you need to be one with the water. You need to love the ocean and all its unpredictable currents and conditions. The currents, waves, and tides of the water will play a crucial role in the competition, and it might improve or ruin your ability to swim straight. To ensure that you always lean on the former, you need to understand water currents and conditions.

One way to do this is to practice in wavy water during your warm-up and training. Let’s start with currents: train your body to understand the direction the current is pushing, then figure out how it will affect your body movements at different stages of the swimming course. With this knowledge, aim to adjust your body at each of the points and stages of the course every time the current comes. If this strategy fails, don’t fight against the current. Just stay calm and work out the direction that the currents will lead you to.

Swimming in waves, which typically appears in large bodies of water, may require you to use a higher arm recovery. If your arm is too low for the wave, your hand could enter the water early. Worse, the wave can hit your whole body unexpectedly, causing you to lose balance and stay off course. To avoid this, know the direction of the wave. Waves move in the same direction. Learn bilateral breathing to counter the waves coming from your left or right position. Breathe on either side of your body, so you can adjust your position based on the direction of the waves.

Swimming in tides, meanwhile, requires more observational skills. Tides are long-period waves brought about by the rise and fall of sea levels and various gravitational forces. As such, tide times in a particular body of water change each day. Knowing the tide times, the height of the tide, the direction of the flow, and the speed of the flow allows you to better plan your swimming strategies based on the course.

6. Balance Your Stroke

Of course, another factor that will affect your ability to stay on course is the balance of your swimming strokes and overall body movements. To do this, you need to engage your core and leg muscles and get total control of your head, torso, and limbs.

When moving forward, push your chest and lungs down the water and keep your hips up. With this position, ensure that your pulls and kicks are strong enough to engage your core muscles.

Another tip suggested by many coaches and professional swimmers is to, once again, perfect and utilize bilateral breathing. Breathing on both sides of your body will prevent you from veering to your left or right.

To improve your balance, however, you need consistency. So, while applying the tips we’ve mentioned, also perform balance drills during training. Here are some popular balance drills you can try:

  • Side Balance Drills – Execute your kicks while keeping your balance on one side. Keep your body from rolling to your back or front.
  • Front Balance Drills – Keep your head even with your spine and avoid holding your head above the water.
  • Kick-On-Your Side Drills – Execute your kicks on your side while keeping your bottom arm out in front of you and your top arm by your side.

7. Maximize the Use of Your Body

Swimming may mainly require you to use your arms and legs. But if you wish to swim straight in open water and reach your goal, maximize the use of all your body muscles. Treat swimming as a full-body workout to control your full-body position in the water.

The five most important muscles you should pay attention to are the triceps, lats, deltoids, quads, and core. However, you should also aim to strengthen and utilize your hamstrings (thigs), trapezius (shoulder), brachioradialis (arms), and other minor muscles. You can efficiently use these muscles to maintain your alignment.

“Muscles that are not used or are used minimally in flat-water swimming may be used to compensate for perturbations in open water swimming so that good alignment is maintained,” said Professor Ross Sanders of the University of Sydney.

The strength and endurance of these muscles will be required for the specific demands of open-water swimming, so it’s best to develop and improve them in different open-water conditions, as we advised before.

8. Wear the Right Swimming Equipment

Wearing the right swimming equipment, especially those that protect your head and eyes, is also essential in open-water swimming and tracking your route. It can improve your sighting techniques and overall performance.

Correct goggles, for one, can help your eyes adjust to differing outdoor light conditions in open water. For bright sunny days, a pair of tinted goggles will help you sight better. For dull or rainy days, a clear or polarized pair of goggles can improve your vision.

Meanwhile, nose and earplugs can offer additional help in keeping water out of your head and controlling your breathing. Wearing these can provide comfort, so you can sight better and often. They are, however, not necessary. It’s best to test them out during training and see which type of equipment works best for sighting.

Open-Water vs. Pool Swimming

Open-water swimming is definitely different from pool swimming; that’s why it’s important to diversify and level up your training if you’re competing in triathlon or long-distance and open-water swimming. Aim to transition from pool swimming to open-water swimming if you’re a beginner by identifying the key differences between the two through physical training.

One main difference between the two is the water condition and temperature. Open-water swimming presents more challenges as compared to a static swimming pool with consistent water temperatures. Outdoor temperature can also affect your breathing techniques and ability to sight.

Another key difference is visibility. Open-water swimming will require you to try out different types of goggles to improve your visibility affected by lighting conditions and the color of water. Swimming pools, meanwhile, offer clearer water for complete visibility.

In short, you need to keep your body warm and your vision clear when swimming in open water to swim straight and execute your strokes properly. You must familiarize your body with these challenges and prepare for the transition.


Every swimmer or triathlete, even the elites, started swimming in circles before they mastered the art of swimming straight in open water. So, it’s not impossible to perfect your routine and improve your ability to swim straight, regardless of your body type and the body of water. Above all, sighting, breathing, and body positioning are the three most important techniques you should master.

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