By Jonathan Cain, SwimLabs
Getting better at swimming is a lot like baking chocolate chip cookies. When you first start learning to do it, it’s important to follow a recipe, even when you have a pretty good idea of what you want to accomplish.
Once you completely understand the basic recipe for an activity like swimming or cookie baking, it gets easier to be a little bit more adventurous. Maybe you want a slightly softer cookie, or you want to learn how to compete in open water swimming or triathlons. When you have that basic recipe down, it’s easier to understand how to “hack” the recipe to better suit your needs.
According to the general “recipe” for swimming freestyle, lifting ones head up out of the water is a big no-no. The reason for this is fairly simple—when you lift your head out of the water, your hips sink. This makes it really difficult to swim with any sort of efficiency or endurance.
In pool swimming, this is rarely an issue. One of the first techniques swimmers learn is to look down as they swim, navigating based on what the bottom of the pool looks like.
In open water, it is nearly impossible to navigate based on the “bottom” of the watercourse. As such, a different navigational system known commonly as sighting must be used.
To sight, a swimmer lifts their head out of the water and scans for predetermined landmarks along their course. By doing this periodically during the swim, the swimmer can ensure that they stay on course.
For a newer swimmer, this can be fairly difficult, because again, doing it causes the swimmer’s hips to sink. As such, it’s really a more advanced skill that’s better to learn after a swimmer has mastered “the general recipe” for swimming freestyle.
Once you have mastered this general recipe for swimming freestyle, modifying it so that you can navigate by above water sighting is fairly easy. It’s really not that different from introducing new ingredients into that chocolate chip cookie recipe. You simply have to compensate for the new sighting technique in other ways.
The key issue to remember when you are sighting is that as soon as you lift your head out of the water, your hips are going to begin to sink. This means that you must adjust your body position and your kicking and stroking technique to compensate for a lowered hip position.
Generally, there are two ways that swimmers do this. One way is by modifying their stroking and kicking technique, and maintaining a good head position as they sight.
- Stroking and kicking: One of the easiest ways to handle your stroke and kick during sighting is to increase the tempo of both your kicking and stroking movements. When it comes to stroking, think about moving your arms faster through shorter strokes. For kicking, think about using faster, staccato kicks- probably at least 2 to 3 kicks per stroke. You will not be able to swim forward as powerfully or as efficiently as when you aren’t sighting, but it will be much easier to maintain your body position.
- Head position: A lot of times, less experienced open-water swimmers don’t think much about where their head ends up when they sight because they are more concerned about the action of getting their head out of the water. It’s important to remember that the higher you move your head out of the water, the more your hips will sink. If you keep your chin low to the water as you sight, you will find it to be much easier to maintain your body position as you navigate.
There are more than a few different drills that can help a swimmer work on their sighting technique. My personal favorite is a version of what is known as the “Tarzan Drill.”
I’ll be honest with you. I have been calling this the Tarzan Drill my whole life and I am not quite sure why. It’s not like you are going to be swinging on vines through the pool, wearing a loincloth. You simply will swim with your head out of the water, giving you a chance to practice your head position and modified stroke and kicking movements.
To do the drill, start by identifying a few landmarks around your pool that you can find as you swim. When you are ready to go, swim a few strokes of normal freestyle. Once you get moving, lift your head out of the water until your eyes are looking forward. Try to keep your strokes short and fast, and kick harder and faster than your normal tempo. This will help you maintain a high hip position as you are sighting. While your head is up, move your head from side to side, scanning for your landmarks.
Once you find your landmark, put your face back in the water and swim 5 to 10 strokes of your regular freestyle, then lift your head from the water and repeat the exercise.
If you are brave enough, a great variation on this drill is to swim with no goggles—you must close your eyes under the water, and only open them when you come up to sight. This will better simulate your actual experience in open water.
The Drill Set
4×100’s sighting Tarzan Drill
Lift head to sight every 5-10 strokes
Ensure compensated body position when sighting
- Chin low to water
- Hips high
- Faster kick
- Shorter, faster strokes
4×25’s Modified sighting Tarzan Drill
Same as above, swim with no goggles
Remember: sighting isn’t difficult. What is difficult is maintaining your body position while you sight, and to do that, you have to “hack” your recipe for swimming. Do it, and you might just find yourself just a little more comfortable on race day.
SwimLabs Swim Schools are state of the art swimming facilities outfitted with video analysis and Endless Pools for a truly unique underwater experience. At SwimLabs, recreational and competitive swimmers can swim in a unique environment that provides them with the knowledge to learn, experience to continually improve, and the passion to enjoy a lifetime of healthy activity and competition. They currently operate locations in California, Colorado, Illinois and Virginia.