Triathletes and open water swimmers are gleefully donning their light-colored swim caps and amber-lens goggles for one of their favorite times of year—open water swim season. But for those of you who may be new to the sport, or for those of you feeling a little rusty after your seasonal hiatus, it's best to review some technical movements before skipping into the surf, starting with sighting and turning. It's important to polish up these techniques not only for the big race, but also in practice.
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Let's begin with sighting. Though your form should be the primary method by which you stay on course, OWS swimmers know that the current can and will influence their path. The ability to properly sight will help you maintain your course and offer you some peace of mind.
Sighting can and should be seamless with taking a breath. As you pull, right before your elbow breaks the water for your next stroke, bring your chin slightly forward, raising your forehead just enough so that both eyes can peek over the water line while your mouth and chin are still submerged (imagine a crocodile surfacing). Don't raise your head too much or you will run the risk of also raising your chest and dropping your legs, causing you to break form and lose momentum. This is why it's important to keep your mouth and chin in the water.
Once you have spotted your target, roll your head back into the normal breathing position in one fluid movement. A good rule of thumb is to sight about every 25-30 strokes, but if you aren't 100 percent comfortable in the water, or if it's windy causing the waves to pick up, you may want or need to sight more often.
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Learning to turn is equally as important as sighting. During an OWS race or triathlon, you inevitably have to round a buoy. There are two ways to turn in the open water, one-armed and two-armed. The one-armed turn is more efficient, but it's also more challenging, especially in the often-congested area of the buoy. Beginners should stick to the two-armed method until they feel comfortable.
Raise your head out of the water as you sight/approach the buoy. Widen your stroke with the arm farthest from the buoy, taking it out to the side a bit more to help create the pivot point on which you will turn. Once you have rounded the buoy, sight one more time for the direction you are headed before resuming your regular stroke pattern. What you sacrifice in form and time, you will gain by taking a safer, wider path around the buoy.
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As you approach the buoy, take 3 or 4 larger one-armed strokes with the arm farthest from the buoy. Your other arm should remain out in front of you, thus creating the pivot point on which you will turn around the buoy. Once you have rounded the buoy, sight for the direction before resuming your regular stroke pattern.
Be sure to check weather conditions and water quality before entering the water, and for safety reasons, always be sure to swim with a buddy or small group in any open water swim, no matter how shallow or calm the water.
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