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Speedo Says...

Head positioning advice for open-water swimming

Want to swim faster and more efficiently during your triathlon? Discover how to perfect your head positioning during open water swimming with tips from triathlon swimming coach, Dan Bullock.

Head positioning – how swimming in open-water differs to the pool

Head positioning is one of the key elements of your freestyle technique that will differ during an open water swim. Why? Open water swimming is a balancing act of compromises, where we try to make the best of a less than ideal environment. Add in the lack of self-correcting, auto-straightening mechanisms familiar to a pool swim (the submerged black line, straight walls and lane ropes) and there’s much to be considered, including what else we can do to use the stroke to keep us swimming straight.

Staring at the bottom of the pool in the clinical conditions of a pool race is probably the most hydrodynamic position for the head but rarely do we get those clinical conditions and clarity in open water. What’s best in the pool is unlikely to be best in open water, as it’s likely you’ll need to breathe a little higher to the sides when it’s choppy and lift your head to sight. These factors combined can lead the head to a more compromised position.

If you find you move your head more during open water swimming, you’re not alone. On a recent training camp to Lanzarote, approximately 80% of the 40-strong group suffered to some degree with head movement. The faster the swimmer, the less the head moved. The very fastest swimmers moved their heads very little at all, if not completely still.

At triathlon swimming training camps, I allow my swimmers the scope of trying to look forwards (but not to the extent of facing forwards), but always keep within the parameters of what is comfortable and suits their own individual style. In the pool we create rough water with floats and kicking exercises that swimmers then swim through, so that degrees of head turn for air need to be adjusted. This is an exercise that you can replicate in the pool to practice, if access to open water is difficult.

How to improve your head positioning in open water
To get the most from your swim, below are a few triathlon coaching tips for head positioning in open water.

Keep head movements small, keep the head in its neutral position for as long as possible, and avoid sighting or breathing any higher than the conditions dictate. If the water is mirror-flat, you can breathe and sight low and your stroke will be more like your pool-based technique. Experience, along with practice in trickier conditions, will prepare you for those occasional races where you need to exaggerate these movements further.

When not breathing, your head should remain still. Completely still. If it moves unnecessarily (sighting and breathing are necessary, of course), you’re likely to add distance to an open water swim, while off-balancing the body. Plus you’ll generally have a harder time coordinating your timing and keeping your arms and legs moving where you want (and need) them to be. The body will follow the movement of the head if excessive, and you will struggle to swim in a straight line.

Keep your chin low to prevent over-rotation. Often the head becomes part of the body’s rotation and a returning arm recovery will push the head out of position. If you can keep your head still, an additional benefit to your freestyle (front crawl swimming stroke) is that you can prevent over-rotation. Keeping the chin pointed down is key here. If you rotate the upper body and bring your shoulder close into your cheek without moving your chin, it becomes harder to rotate too far. Otherwise you risk introducing an off-balance position which involves a lot of gliding or a larger kick to counterbalance the exaggerated head position at the front of the stroke.

Triathlon checklist: Head positioning drill
A great block of work to reinforce your head positioning is the drill below. It is important to perform a sensible warm-up ahead of starting this 'subset' block of work, which is designed to accentuate your focus on your head movements. Follow with a main set of your choice.

Take a breath every 2nd, 4th and 6th stroke (remain at 2, 4 if the pattern is too much for your fitness level.) Ideally, slow down so you can keep the head still for longer by not turning to breathe, or invest in a centre snorkel to remove the turn to breathe entirely. Repeat twice (25m pool).

1 Swim half a length out and back, kicking on your back while balancing a water bottle on your forehead (to reinforce the still head position). If the head moves, the balanced item will fall.

2 Swim 1 length freestyle, breathing 2, 4, 6 to the left, a continuous pattern at an easy pace. Then rest 10 seconds.

3 Swim half a length out and back, kicking on your back while balancing a water bottle on your forehead.

4 Swim 1 length freestyle, breathing 2, 4, 6 to the right, continuous pattern at an easy pace. Then rest 10 seconds.

5 Swim half a length out and back kicking on your back while balancing a water bottle on your forehead.

6 Swim 1 length freestyle, breathing 3, 5, 7 continuous patterns. Then rest 10 seconds.

Want to perfect your breathing in open water? Read my lastest article on open water breathing technique tips.