No matter how experienced you are in the sport of triathlon, heading out into an open water swim offers some real uncertainties. Strong currents, choppy waves, sun glare, and other competitors can make the swim a dynamically treacherous event that can easily set the wrong tone for your race.
These ever-changing conditions can challenge you both physically and mentally, and they do what every triathlete hopes to avoid: get you off course. Aside from a complete mental breakdown in the middle of the swim, nothing is more detrimental to your success than swimming in a zig-zag pattern all the way down what is intended to be a straight path.
With that in mind, remember that the goal is to swim as straight as possible, streamlining the distance covered and minimizing the time spent in the water. The swim taxes your upper body much more so than the other two events, and, if done inefficiently, it can steal vital energy from you that you’ll need during the bike and the run.
So, to keep yourself headed in the right direction, make sure to practice sighting, the skill of finding a point in the distance and swimming to it. Although most people will swim in a large circle if left alone and without ever bothering to pick their heads up to see where they are going, most triathletes are knowledgeable of the need to sight yet they still make a few critical errors while doing so.
Poor sighting form causes the hips and legs to drop significantly, which, in turn, results in more drag as the body encounters additional water after falling from the streamlined position. It alters the best position for the hand and forearm during the pull phase, which decreases speed and efficiency while also adding to needless fatigue. Finally, it creates a more crossed over kick line, or, at worst, a complete pause in the kick, both of which throw off the fluency of the swim form.
To avoid these pitfalls and improve your swim time, try these three simple suggestions to make sighting in the open water smoother.
1. When sighting, change the beginning of your catch. Just after your hand enters the water, start the catch higher and pull the water back rather allowing any downward motion. Downward motion diminishes the body’s forward propulsion and makes your efficiency decline dramatically.
2. Take quick glances. Full head and neck, and sometimes even upper shoulders, leaving the water seriously inhibits the body’s ability to cut the water cleanly, and it disallows the arms to remain in a consistent rhythm. Only the smallest amount of head movement should be used.
3. Concentrate on your kick as you sight. Many triathletes will soften their kick as they look up, yet those on the more advanced levels remain consistent and strong with their legs and feet. The strong kick keeps the body moving through the water, as it allows for the hips to remain high. Keeping the body from the natural dip caused by raising the head, the kick keeps you as close to efficient as possible.
Sighting is a basic idea that, if done well, can shave precious seconds off your swim time and allow you to retain as much stored energy as possible for the remainder of the race. If done poorly, it will make you labor far too hard and force you to spend needless extra time in the water. Therefore, use the suggestions above in practice and training so that they become second nature when you hit the open water on race day.