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How to correctly perform open water turns

The head coach of South West Swim, Jason Tait, offers his advice on how to correctly perform different open water turns.

Many swimmers don’t pay much attention to their open water turns, simply thinking of them as just “swimming around a buoy”. This could not be further from the truth.

There are some elements to an open water turn that, when put in place, can make a huge difference to the speed, accuracy and effort of getting around a turn buoy and maybe gaining an advantage on your (less practised) competitors.

There are two common turns used. You may know them by different names but the skills are the same.

The arc turn or sweeping turn (simply swimming around the buoy)

I prefer to coach this basic turn as a two-arm movement – keeping both arms moving whilst turning around the buoy.

I have found this method works best because you can simply maintain your rhythm and cadence through the turn and you do not break your stroke flow.

You perform this turn by swimming to the buoy and starting the movement as your shoulder passes the turn buoy.

Simply swim around it and change direction by slightly pushing across, under your body (sweeping) with the closest arm to the buoy and using the next stroke on the other arm to further change direction.

I always liken this to imagining you are swimming along and suddenly somebody jumps in front of you. How would you naturally change direction to swim around them?

The corkscrew turn / backstroke rollover turn

A slightly harder turn, but quicker in the right situation.

This turn involves rolling over onto your back in a corkscrew action, whilst also changing direction around the buoy.

You execute this by rotating onto your back, into the direction of the buoy, as your shoulder passes the buoy.

A simple corkscrew stroke will see you go in a straight line, so you need to think about laying the recovering backstroke arm behind the buoy to change direction to 90 degrees.

This turn looks great, and can be very quick around a sharp turn buoy, but you have to decide when is the right time to use it.

If you have space around you, or are leading the pack, then this turn can help you get round the buoy quicker, possibly gaining a body length on your competition.

However, if you are in the middle of a bustling pack of swimmers with little space then this turn may not be the right one to use as you may get bashed, barged and dunked, resulting in a loss of rhythm and pace, or worst case scenario take on water.

It is a great turn to practice and add to your arsenal of skills in case it is ever needed.

When performing either of the above turns there are two key principles that should be followed to ensure you are getting the most out of the movement.


When approaching the buoy you should sight more often, every breath or second breath from around six to seven metres out.

Do this to ensure you know where you are in relation to the turn buoy and also to gauge where your competitors are in the approach.

Knowing where you are will enable you to get the shortest route to the buoy and the sharpest, tightest turn.  Turns can get quite busy and tight, with everybody fighting for the quickest way in and out of the turn.

Being able to sense where your other competitors are will enable you to get a good line, or prepare for a tight squeeze so that it’s not a shock when the going gets a bit rough.

Once you are around the turn buoy, your increased sighting should not end. Straight after the turn, ensure you are sighting and looking for the next marker buoy, making sure you are heading in the correct direction coming out of the turn.

It would be a shame to put in a perfectly positioned and executed turn and find yourself swimming off the racing line to the next buoy.

Jason Tait - open water turn story


About four to five metres out from the turn buoy, put a little more power through the legs. We are not talking about a full on sprint kick here, just a short increase in power to drive you around the buoy.

Kicking a little more will help you maintain a good body position while your body changes direction and keeps you high in the water; it will also enable you to turn in a tighter area.

Maintain this kick for about two to three metres after the turn to drive you out of the turn buoy, before going back to your normal race pace kick.

This aspect of the turn is the most under-utilised, yet one of the most productive things to do to drive the fastest and most efficient turn.

Try a standard turn with kick, and then do one without kick to see how it can massively help in both turning tighter and smoother without a loss of momentum.

Practising these skills within your open water swimming can become part of your session itself.  Next time you are in the lake, do some specific turn practice with your training partners. Maybe include this as part of your warm-up.

Practice individually, then in groups and increase the group size to increase confidence.

After all, you never know when you may need that extra body length in the sprint to the finish.