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Tips on straight line swimming and sighting in open water

John Wood is a qualified Level 3 Swim England coach with 16 years coaching experience and a history of swimming international open water races.

Here. he provides some top tips on how to swim straight in open water.

Swimming straight while in a swimming pool is easy. You’ve got a line to follow on the bottom of the lane.

Swimming straight in open water is a little harder. Not only is there no line to follow but the likelihood is also that the water is so murky you can’t see beyond the end of your arm!

How do you ensure that you swim straight?

First up, sighting is an important skill to learn, making sure that you are swimming on the right heading in any training or race.

But the more you lift your head up to sight the more energy you will use and more drag you create for yourself.

How do you ensure that you swim straight without sighting too often?

The main thing to do is to make sure that your stroke is as balanced and even as possible.

Especially if you only breathe to one side, you may find that your arms are doing different things to each other – they aren’t balanced. As a result, this may result in pulling you off a straight line.

A drill for practising in the pool

Swim a length (or as far as you can safely) without breathing.

Because your head is still, take the opportunity to watch for your hands coming through under the body.

If you have a swim snorkel this would work just as well, you can get used to making sure everything is where it should be.

Added to this, ensure that your kick is balanced, even and that your core is set and working for you, to stop your hips swinging from side to side.

Then swim with your normal breathing pattern and aim to maintain the same line and the same feel of stroke – even with the additional head movement from your breathing.

If you find that there is a massive difference and that you’re making lots of small adjustments to keep you in a straight line, you could gradually add more breaths into your swim.

For instance, you could do a length no breathing, then breathe every seven strokes, five strokes and three strokes over a set.


Doing these exercises, getting a feel for being as balanced and even as possible is key, because without being able to view your stroke you can never be quite sure that what you think you’re doing and what you are actually doing are the same!

The next exercise to try is swimming with your eyes closed. Make sure there is the space, and make sure you know how many strokes you take for a length.

Push off the wall, eyes closed and swim steadily.

Put into practice the elements from the previous exercise – whether you do this no breathing, with a snorkel or breathing regularly, feel for where your hands/arms are in relation to your body.

Swim to within two or three strokes of your normal length’s stroke count, open your eyes and finish the length.

Did you manage to swim straight? If not, it’s time to work out what is pulling you off.

You may well find that swimming straight is easy with no breathing, but when you introduce it into your stroke, that’s where things fall down.

If so, be aware that your hand may well pull across under you as you breathe.

For instance, if you breathe to your left, as you breathe your right hand might come across under your body (pulling the whole of you across to the left).

The key here is to concentrate on trying not to over reach to breath, and keeping the pulling elbow up and out (as you no doubt do when not breathing).

Sighting is something you can practise in the pool as well as in open water – and something that you want to as sparsely as possible.

By lifting your head up out of the water to see where you are going, your hips will sink which will create more resistance.

That said, it’s a compromise between sighting enough to make sure that you swim straight, and not wasting energy.

The straighter you can swim, the less often you will have to sight. When you go to sight, as your hand enters the water, press down and shift your chin forward so you can see above the water.

Jack Burnell swimming at the 2017 World Open Water Championships

Focus your eyes on a point in front to make sure that you know where you’re heading – keep it still for a moment – and then drop your head back in to place looking downwards.

If the water is smooth, or you are a stronger swimmer, just bring your eyes above the water.

If you’re less confident, or your eyesight isn’t so good, aim to get your chin out of the water to give yourself more viewing time.

Equally, you may on the way down decide to turn your head to the side to combine with a more conventional breathing movement, but make sure that your whole body stays straight and doesn’t follow your head “around the corner” as you turn it.

In an ideal world, you shouldn’t need to sight more than once every 10 strokes or more.

If you do, you’re likely going to need to work on balancing your stroke up, or you need more confidence in your straight line ability!

  • See John’s top tips on how best to start your open water swims here.