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How To Swim In A Straight Line: Tips for Open Water

While GPS watches aren't always accurate in open water, I've noticed from some Strava analysis that inexperienced swimmers tend to post longer yardages than more experienced triathletes, on the same course. I probably don't need to explain why swimming a more direct line is better for you, but how exactly do you do this? We know that you CAN swim in a straight line because you're not crashing into lane ropes or your lane mates at the pool. Luckily, even if we know your stroke isn't perfectly symmetrical, constant visual queues in the pool help you swim in a direct line.

So, how can we translate this to the open water? Here are some tips:

1. Sighting - aka lifting your eyes out of the water regularly to look towards the next buoy or land mark. A common question I get asked by athletes is, how often should I sight? My answer is usually enough to know you're going the right direction. And that might vary from race to race and depend on conditions. If you find yourself going the right way after 12 strokes, then the next time take 20 before looking. If you're going off course, you might want to sight more often. If you're drafting on another athlete, you should not rely on them for navigation. Occasionally, make sure your ride is not taking you off course, and if you find them zig zagging dramatically, you might be better off on another pair of feet.

2. Practice, obviously - but practice in all sorts of varying conditions. Don't swim the same course every open water swim. Choose new buoys, new routes and circuits and preferably in different bodies of water so that you're not relying on familiar cues.

3. Get someone in the water with you. Have an honest friend or coach, swim behind you while you try and line up a buoy. Sometimes you don't even know that you're not swimming straight. If you're always going off course to the right, you might try aiming to the left of the landmark. Or, if you're looking up every 20 strokes and going wildly off course, then you might want to try looking up every 10 strokes until you're more confident that you're swimming straight.

4. Navigating the buoy: unless someone is physically blocking your path, try to brush right up against the turn buoy. I have no idea why someone would take a wide berth around a buoy in a race, but I see it all the time. Take short, deep, choppy strokes to get around tight turns.

5. Get a swim video analysis. There might be something totally knocking you off direction that you're not able to notice yourself. One of the most common things I see is when people place their arm across the body when it's re-entering the water, especially after breathing. This will easily make you veer off course.

6. Close your eyes. This is a bit scary, but if you have a lane to yourself in the pool, try swimming up the middle with your eyes closed. You'll find out pretty quick if your swim stroke is symmetrical.

Looking for guidance? Schedule an open water swim coaching session in the Santa Cruz or West Michigan areas or swim technique video analysis. Not in those areas? Schedule a virtual swim video analysis.

Need a swimming wetsuit? Learn more here.

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