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Triathlon Swimming Technique: How to Swim Straight in Open Water

by Taren Gesell

Blog ▸ Triathlon Swimming Technique: How to Swim Straight in Open Water

Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MōTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.

Triathlon training should include a good number of workouts focused on developing open-water swim techniques. After you’ve developed your basic swimming skills in the pool and you’ve seen your speed improve thanks to our drills, when you hit the open water on race day, you’ll have to contend with a different, more chaotic environment and added challenges. That’s why you need to practice in open water and learn how to stay the course, so you don’t end up spending more time than you need to during your triathlon swim!

One significant reason triathletes’ swim times are sometimes much longer than they anticipated on race day is that it’s not easy to swim straight in open water. You need to keep on course, sight often and well so you don’t lose your way, avoid other swimmers, deal with water currents and waves… all that while remaining calm, remembering to breathe and staying relaxed, so your form doesn’t suffer!

It’s not an easy task, so in this article, you’ll learn:

  • Why swimming straight is tough in open water;
  • What the best open water swim techniques look like when you swim straight;
  • The 3 drills you need to swim in a straight line.

What Are the Challenges to Swimming Straight in Open Water?

First off, if you’ve been practicing our drills to help you breathe calmly and keep a good body position in open water, you’re already a good part of the way to swimming straight out there. Two factors are major contributors to why people struggle to swim straight:  how they take a breath and how they manage their sinking legs.

Here are the common faults that result in swaying side-to-side and, inevitably, going off-course:

  • Lifting the head up to breathe, thereby driving your legs down, then losing your body balance;
  • A loose core that doesn’t resist sideways movement from your legs or the waves;
  • A floppy “scissor kick” with wide legs, which pulls your body side-to-side;
  • Your hands and arms reaching outside or across of the narrow channel directly in line with your shoulder in which you should focus on keeping your hand within;
  • Hands facing inward or outward, pushing the water to one side or another, instead of right behind you.

What Is the Best Open Water Swim Technique for Going Straight?

Now, think of the last time you were at the pool (or do this next time you go) and remember how an elite swimmer glides away from you while you’re swimming freestyle. You’ll notice their effortless movement, thanks to breathing calmly and maintaining a strong yet relaxed body position at the top of the water. But have you also noticed how they simply move in a straight line? This means their hips are directly aligned behind their heads, and their feet are directly behind their hips.

Keeping your body in a narrow channel like that eliminates almost all of the drag from the water. I like to think of it as “racing like an arrow.” 

The 3 Drills You Need to Swim Straight in Open Water

Swimming straight means your body stays straight. And how you move from the top of the body influences what happens at the back, too. So, if you’ve practiced the drills we’ve covered in the breathing and avoiding sinking articles, you’re already swimming with as straight a body as possible while maintaining a stable body when you sight or kick too hard.

Now, we’ll focus on keeping you going forward in a straight line in the dynamic nature of open water with a few additional drills. 

Stretch cords strength training

Working out with stretch cords is a great way to build muscular endurance out of the water and to strengthen your shoulders, lats and core. It’s also excellent training for building up during the off-season, whether or not you have access to the pool. Adding to really valuable core strength that helps you when you get knocked around in the water by people or waves.

Practice sighting

You need to get out in open water at least 4-6 times before your race to get acclimated to the environment and develop familiarity. This helps induce calmness and  on race day.

Moreover, by having a good sighting technique, you’ll avoid lifting your head up too high, causing your legs to sink and destabilizing your body. Finally, of course, sighting is key to staying on course! 

You can work on your sighting technique in the pool by doing these drills. Watch this breakdown of how you should move your arm and head to avoid letting your hands go to the side of your body and cause you to sway.

Also, remember to focus on sighting on both sides to allow you to adjust to the sun’s position and where the waves are coming from. This lets you breathe and catch a glimpse of where you are, regardless of which way your head turns. 

Don’t (blindly) follow people’s feet

We talked about following behind people when drafting in the pool or open water to reduce your swimming effort and get you to stay panic-free out there. However, following people’s feet is not a good idea for staying in your line!

Instead of following others 100% of the time – who might be going the wrong way themselves – learn to combine your sighting with your drafting. To help ensure you’re heading in the right direction, pick a reference point on land. Whenever you look up, position yourself relative to that stable object (like a house, a tree, or a lighthouse). If you’re moving out of your line, this will help you straighten up.

Here are some more tips to help practice sighting in the pool:

Open Water Swim Techniques to Keep You Going Straight

If you’ve read and followed our advice on how to breathe and how to avoid sinking legs by swimming like a log, a few extra sessions of strength training with stretch cords, sighting practice and maintaining a solid swimming direction in open water are the last key pieces of the puzzle to help you swim straight.

Finally, remember that there’s no reason you have to be right in the middle of a chaotic swim pack if you’re not a confident open-water swimmer or if you just want to stay relaxed and smooth on race day. Swim a little behind or to the side of the main group, which will keep you away from elbows and feet smashing into you and allow a clear head so that you can use all the tips you’ve learned here.

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Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MōTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.