The Triathlon Swim: 3 Key Insights Part 2 - Sighting

Yesterday we initiated a conversation on the three key insights for the triathlon swim by discussing the importance of the start position. Today we’re moving on to an even greater insight – sighting.


What will often separate one who has trained for the pool from one who has trained for the triathlon swim is the ability to ascertain the shortest distance between two points. Hours upon hours of obtaining proper technique and superior swim endurance are all reduced to nothing if you don’t know how to lift your head out of the water to “sight” a buoy.

A focus on swimming faster with little concentration on direction is a silly gamble to roll the dice on for a few obvious reasons. One, you risk wasting precious energy by swimming extra distance. And two (even worse), you risk being disqualified for cutting the course. For these reasons, sighting should always take precedence over speed.

Swimming fast while simultaneously effectively sighting is the goal all triathletes should be striving to reach.

Doing so doesn’t require an extensive background of high school and/or college swimming either. All it takes is a little practice.

The key is in executing the head lift right as you begin the pull and then resuming your downward head position just as your other arm enters the water. What side of the stroke you perform this head lift may largely depend on which is your dominant breathing side.

For example, if it’s the right side you’ll probably be more comfortable angling your head forward and then lifting up to see just as your right arm begins the pull. In this particular instance, you’ll feel more at home popping your head up during your right arm pull because the execution of sighting is actually very similar to the act of breathing.

When you breathe, you’re actually lifting your body ever so slightly by method of marginally stronger propulsion. More propulsion comes from a stronger arm pull and more exaggerated hip rotation, thus lifting your body higher. This is what allows your mouth to crest the surface of the water. When you sight, you’re really just putting a little more oomph into that lift so that you can get your eyes above the water to look forward.

Side note: This is why those who have a dominant breathing side generally pull stronger and have better hip rotation on that particular side. They strengthen their dominant side by virtue of needing to breathe.

This is just another reason why those who are ambidextrous in their breathing are typically stronger swimmers – both sides of their pull are equally strong and hip rotation on both sides is equally balanced.

In order to avoid the drop of your legs and hips while sighting, it’s best to reduce the amount of time your head is above the water. This is achieved by first reducing the amount of velocity decrease you experience during sighting and second, raising your arm stroke tempo.

The best way to keep velocity while peaking above the water’s edge is to remember to continue pressing back with your pull – not down as we may be inclined to do in an effort to lift up.

Secondly, a slightly faster stroke tempo, especially just before sighting, will reduce the amount of time your head is above the water and, therefore, minimizes the amount of drag you encounter during the process.

Think about these factors the next time you practice in the open water. Choose a far-away landmark and swim toward it, focusing on correct pull and experiment with a faster tempo. Try to sight once every 10 to 20 strokes.

In the pool, a good way to discover how well you can swim straight is by pushing off the wall with closed eyes and counting the amount of strokes you typically take before bumping into the lane line. While not a perfect indicator, this is a great way to benchmark what your average stroke count is before needing to sight. However, just remember that pool conditions are far more stable than they are outdoors so there might be a small margin of error in this experiment.

If you have trouble swimming straight, obviously you’ll need to sight more often. The less the better but remember that veering off course will cost you more time than the slight decrease in velocity sighting incurs.

With a little practice, you’ll find a rhythm. Efficient sighting is almost like sounding off to a never-ending consistent beat. Do it enough and the act of looking forward over the surface of the water becomes muscle memory similar to how a drummer always knows how and when to hit the cymbals. You won’t need to think about it. You’ll just do it.

Sighting and a solid start position are two key pieces to the triathlon swim puzzle but the full picture is incomplete without our last insight. While drafting isn’t exactly necessary, not taking advantage of this skill is a major missed opportunity.

Make sure you come back tomorrow to find out why.


Do you have trouble sighting? What issues have hindered you in seeing above the water’s edge? Or, what other tips do you have to make sighting easier?

JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.

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