Sighting is fundamental outdoor swimming skill. In a race you can add up to 20% or more to your overall distance by not sighting effectively or often enough - it all adds up! I’ve coached one swimmer in recent weeks who previously swam 2550 metres in a 1900m half Ironman due to poor sighting. There are several recreational swimmers I’ve coached who used to snake a lot or easily go of course but now with improved overall technique combined with better sighting, they are all now confidently swimming true to a course.
For me, sighting is a skill that requires rhythm, consistency and connection. Checking on your navigation reference is important. Before I’ve even entered the water I survey my environment and get a broad perspective of landmarks. Moreover, sighting efficiently is effective in enabling you to swim in a straight line. We don’t want to add on unnecessary distance or burn unnecessary energy. It’s just as important to master the craft of sighting for a competitive athlete and adventurous swimmer as it is for a recreational swimmer.
Once I’ve got a good grounding and understanding with my landscape I ensure my kit is ready. Of course, you can’t really sight without goggles! So let’s start from the beginning and talk goggles. There’s nothing worse than steamy/foggy goggles mid-swim so I ensure my goggles have been prepared to avoid this with some care and attention. You can get a range of “anti-fogging Goggle” solutions on the internet or in outdoor/sport shops but I’ve found that the most effective method of maintaining the goggles’ anti-fog coating is to rub a small amount of shampoo into the inside of the lens. Then leave to soak in tepid water for a few minutes and rinse under a tap. Finally, just allow to dry naturally. Try it for yourself. I picked up this tip when talking with Matty Davenport, you can follow him @iswim_and_iceswim on Instagram. It’s a brilliant tip and does the job. In the past I’ve used a range of strategies from toothpaste to my own spit (I know, sorry for putting that image in your head!) but none have been as successful. It’s always a good idea to dip your face and your goggles in the cold water you’re about to swim in, before you start. This ensures that there’s not too much of a difference in temperature between your skin and the goggles - it’s this contrast which can instigate the steam.
The second consideration with my goggles is the type of lens. As we’re at the start of autumn and approaching winter it’s useful to have a lens for different conditions. With the shorter days the sun will be lower in the sky which can have a notable impact on our ability to effectively sight - the sun and it’s position is also something to consider when planning your swim. I’d recommend a clear, more transparent lens for dark/cloudy days and a tinted lens for sunnier days or when the sun is low in the sky. You can also get a hybrid type lens which are not too tinted or transparent for those days of changeable conditions.
Now we’ve got the right kit and in good condition to enable the best sighting possible we can explore the technique itself. Every time we lift our heads to sight we can impact on body position and therefore efficiency. However, by maximising visual information retention for every sight whilst simultaneously maintaining natural stroke rhythm, we can ensure progressive and energy efficient swimming.
Sometimes you might think you’re not getting a good enough sight, you’re looking but struggling to build the image in that split second. It could be a wave, the low sun, a splash or maybe even an ominous jelly fish which has dominated your attention! The key point here is to relax and allow your brain to process the frame. Connect and then you will see. If you’re still struggling to make the connection, know that the next sight doesn’t need to be that far away - if you need it. Adapt the rhythm slightly whilst retaining your flow and progress.
I coach my swimmers to imagine that their brain is one of those old fashioned photography dark rooms. At first it might seem like a blank frame but give it a few seconds and features soon emerge and you’ll have a better perspective of your surroundings and directional awareness.
Look forward but stay in the moment.
There you go, that’s two nuggets of unintended life advice in one article, at the beginning and end! You can link so much of what makes up good swimming to general life wisdom. Plato was onto something when he said,
“A man is not learned until he can read, write and swim”.
Or maybe I’m just partial to good old proverb.