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Speedo Says...

How to swim straight in open-water by Dan Bullock

An inability to swim straight in open-water is a major hindrance if your aim is to reduce your swim time. While researching the speed required to achieve the magical sub 1-hour time for an Ironman 3.8km swim, I was intrigued to discover that adding just 5% to 3800m in terms of distance then reduced the 100m repeats from 1:35 to 1:30. You might not be interested in the pure pursuit of speed, but it would still be nice to start off in one direction and head there.

What causes swimmers to go off course?

A common test at open-water sessions is to attempt to swim in a straight line between two buoys without sighting forwards. Breathing normally to the left or right is OK, just no peeking. The buoys are about 50m apart, so possibly 45 strokes for the majority of people.

In training I would challenge our swimmers to get to the buoy in just 40 strokes to lengthen their stroke. As most swimmers veered wildly off course, it quickly became apparent that this also served as a good test of a swimmer’s ability to swim straight.

So what caused them to swim off course? There was a slight correlation between those who practiced bilateral breathing in training and an improved ability to swim straighter, even though under these conditions they were not breathing every second breath to the left or right. Many people blamed having one arm stronger than the other for taking them wildly off course. However, this idea doesn’t hold much water once you consider that a swimming arm pull doesn’t need great strength; the movements are from slow to fast as the hand pulls, and the movement is one of controlled finesse rather than brute strength.

Instead, it’s more likely that the culprit in swimming off course is a combination of the following:

  • The lack of a strong catch position set up by one of the arms – usually from the arm that supports the head as you breathe away from it while it props you up into taking a breath. The arm cycle should pull you forwards. Simply put, if you send water symmetrically down towards the feet with both arms as you lie horizontally, you will progress forwards in a fairly straight alignment. If only one arm has an effective catch, this generates unbalanced propulsion.

  • An early exit at the back of the stroke on one arm, leading to less propulsion on one side.

  • A lack of dexterity on the ‘weaker arm’, preventing you from duplicating the correct pathways that the ‘strong arm’ performs.

  • A wide sweep of one of the recovering arms across the centre line (imagine a line protruding from the top of the head.) E.g. the left hand follows the momentum of the head, turning to breathe to the right (or vice versa), due to an inability to disassociate the head and upper body movements.

Why open-water intensifies a wonky stroke

Everything about the pool environment encourages you to swim straight; the black line on the bottom of the pool, the lane ropes, the pool gutters, the walls – there are even lines on the ceiling for when you’re swimming backstroke. In the pool your same wonky open-water stroke is still keeping you off balance, but with every stroke your auto ‘keeping straight’ mechanism self-corrects it, wasting time, effort and energy.

Now take yourself back outside to the lake or sea and you’re unlikely to see anything that will help keep you straight. Instead, you need to rely on your stroke and your sighting skills to keep straight as the environment works against you. In the UK, at most races, lack of clarity also works against us: fewer straight edges along river banks and jagged edges to most lakes.


Excessive sighting is one way of keeping straight but the interruptions to your rhythm will slow you massively. Therefore you should use frequent sighting to keep you on the race course and avoid trying to use excessive sighting to keep you straight.

Use these sighting points to help you improve your swim.

Look for landmarks

Always look for large and immovable objects above, beyond and in line with the buoy you’re trying to reach. As it lies on the surface with (potentially) many swimmers between it and you, the further you are from the buoy, the harder it is to spot. Physically lifting high in the water to find it impairs your swim speed dramatically – the higher you lift up at the front, the more the legs sink, which is unavoidable, otherwise it’s just not possible to see such a small, low item. If there’s a crane, large tower block, bridge, building, tree, pylon, church spire, hill, mountain or similar off in the distance that you can target, in line with the buoy you’re heading towards, you’ll be able to keep your head lower, disturbing your swim speed less and allowing shorter, more useful ‘sights.’

Do your research and arrive early

Whichever style of sighting you favour, the key is to get to the venue early and map out where you’re going and what you can use to assist you (watching the mistakes of the earlier waves can help your swim enormously). Look for the landmarks that you might be able to make use of in line with the buoys and direction of swim. If you’re faced with the greenest, most non-descript landscape, work with what you’ve got. For example, there may be a pleasant tree-line in the distance set against a nice green edge to the lakeside from which gaps in the tree-line could provide a usable line of sight.

Try this pool-based sighting drill

Physically practice sighting in the pool by swimming five strokes of normal freestyle then three strokes of Polo (the traditional name swimmers would use to describe a ‘head up’ position.) For triathlon, adopt a lower head position in this drill with the eyes just above the surface, also known as crocodile eyes.

This drill, thanks to its head up position, also provides a physical barrier that helps prevent the arms sweeping across the centre line. You can also keep an eye on where your hands are entering, allowing you to really tidy up the front of the stroke.

Adapting to conditions

Many of these methods work well in calm conditions but as soon as you experience a rougher, open-water sea swim you’ll need to adjust accordingly. Expect to keep the head up for two-three strokes continually as you ‘wait’ for the peak of a wave to gain a clear vantage point and then take an accurate ‘sight.’ As before, minimise this time in the up position by attempting to use large immovable objects – distinguishable marks on cliffs, pylons for example – to assisting your sighting.

Improve your visibility further by taking light and dark goggles and choosing the correct pair at the last minute as conditions dictate. Be aware that old, scratched goggles seem to mist over more quickly. A greater contrast in the warmth of the face and the coolness of the sea will also speed up the rate your goggles mist up, so splash and cool your face before putting on your goggles during the warm-up.

How to use your stroke to keep you straight

Unlike breaststroke and butterfly which produce symmetrical movements of the hand pathways to assist natural forwards movements, the independent freestyle arm movements require timing and balance to keep forwards propulsion straight. Tidy up your technique by avoiding the following mistakes and enjoy a straighter swim.

Mistake one: One-sided breathing

Breathing to just one side, continually, builds a dominant side, leaving the stroke struggling to stay balanced. If a bilateral breathing pattern eludes you because it leaves you out of breath, at the least aim to breathe every second stroke constantly, either to the left or right with each alternating length.

Mistake two: Sweeping your hands wide at the back of the stroke, around the hips, forgetting that, ideally, the hips will roll out of the way of the hand pathway.

To counteract this, try the ‘Sweep to the opposite hip’ drill, where the hands take a more direct and central route under the body. Aim to brush the left hand to the right hip and vice-versa as you swim freestyle. It’s unlikely you’ll actually touch the opposite hip, but chances are it will help realign enough that your hands no longer sweep wide around the hips.

Mistake three: Minimal rotation through the upper body, keeping the elbow low on recovery.

Which leads to…

Mistake four: Wide sweeps of the hands at the front of the stroke as they start to pull from less than ideal positions (having been thrown out of position from the recovery phase or a strong head movement).

The higher the elbow recovers above the surface of the water, the straighter trajectory the hand can take from the hip area, up past the shoulder before entering in front of the shoulder. Improving your upper body rotation through the long axis will naturally lift the shoulder of the recovering arm and prevent a wide sweep of the hand as it recovers promoting lateral deviation through the stroke.

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