Achieve Your Best Open Water Swimming

May 13, 2021

Open water swim season is almost upon us. After what has hopefully been a solid off-season of focused work on form in the pool, we are about to be reintroduced to the exciting but unpredictable open water abyss. Every experience in open water is different. Even if you regularly swim in the same location, there are variances in temperature, depth, color, current, chop, sunlight and other activity that may be taking place on the water, like boats and water sports.

As multi-sport athletes, our form in open water will look different than our form in the pool. We do not train for perfect and pretty form in competitive lap swimming. We train for endurance and efficiency. We train to overcome chop and swells, to be able to stay the course by sighting efficiently and effectively and to be able to breathe on both sides of our body.

Let’s focus on some of those differences and how we can become better open water swimmers. While there are many variables that affect how we must adjust our form to be most efficient in open water, here are some key tips on open water mechanics, breathing and sighting to help you achieve your best open water swimming.


Chop, swells and turbulent water all call for changes in our swim form to power through the water and delay the onset of fatigue. The goal is to do our best to work with the conditions at hand, swimming as efficiently as possible, rather than fight the water.

With chop, the biggest key here is to clear our arms over the chop, rather than try and slice or push our hands through it. Trying to push through the water increases drag, reduces speed and leads to a much earlier onset of fatigue. To navigate chop effectively, we change up the style of our recovery.

In the pool or a calm open water environment, many swimmers default to a bent arm recovery, meaning the elbow is flexed as you bring your arm out of the water. In a pool environment, this is good form. Chop and swells, however, call for a straight arm recovery. We must reach out and over the water, think of making an arc with your arms to overcome the chop.

The pull. The pull is the first propulsive phase of your stroke underwater and may need to occur earlier. In other words, in smooth swim conditions, we can effectively glide with one arm while maximizing propulsion with the other. Heavy chop and swells do not allow for this, if we try to glide, the water will push us backwards, stalling our movement forward. To maintain continual forward movement, we must pull earlier than is typical, sometimes beginning the pull as soon as that hand enters the water.

The kick. Depending on if you use a wetsuit or not, open water conditions may call for a more aggressive kick to help the body stay horizontal and streamlined. A wetsuit provides the advantage of extra buoyancy, helping our bodies float and stay in a more horizontal position with the water. While the kick is less than 10% of our propulsion, it is used to help our body stay streamlined and can be used to help keep our body horizontal, bringing our legs up and reducing drag.


We place a heavy emphasis on the ability to breathe both bilaterally AND unilaterally on both your dominant and non-dominant sides.

Mastering this skill will keep you calmer on race day. Chop can come from any direction, and it will, depending on the course, wind and any other activity on the water, like nearby boats passing by. In a race setting, proximity to other swimmers will also influence which direction water will be splashing towards your face at any given moment. You may be swimming free and clear one moment and the next an off-sighting athlete comes surging right in front of you splashing water directly into your dominant breathing side.

The ability to breathe bilaterally and to your non-dominant side starts in the pool. Bilateral breathing simply means you are breathing every three or five strokes, which causes you to breathe to alternate sides as you go. Most swimmers do not practice bilateral breathing or breathing to the non-dominant side. The ability to do this will not only improve your confidence in the water and decrease any anxiety on a choppy swim morning but drive you to achieve faster times and less energy wasted in the swim which you can save later on for the bike and run.

Bilateral breathing can be as easy as making it a part of every warm-up. As an example, in your classic 4 x 100 swim, kick, pull, swim, breathe bilaterally, or every three strokes, in the first and last 100.

For non-dominant breathing, add in 4 x 50 at a moderate pace, making it the sole focus to practice your non-dominant breathing with each 50. You may need more rest in between sets as you practice catching your breath, this is a difficult skill to learn.

Like any new skill, these will seem hard to learn at first, but stick with it. With consistent practice, you will be that much more confident in your open water swimming, setting yourself apart from your competition and improving your experience and swim times from years past.


Near perfect mechanics mean nothing if you are not sighting and swimming in the right direction.

Sighting should occur prior to breathing. Lift the head just enough for the eyes to clear the water. Many open water swimmers lift their heads much too high. When the head is lifted, this causes the legs to sink, increasing drag and slowing propulsion. When there is heavy chop or swell, requiring you to lift your head higher to sight, utilize a more aggressive kick, this will help keep the body horizontal and streamlined.

When swimming in open water, sight often. Sight every 6-10 strokes. In a race situation, never depend on the swimmer in front of you to be sighting accurately. Always be cognizant of where you are and where you need to be, continuously sighting as you go.

Practice sighting frequently in open water and in your pool sessions to strengthen this skill. Try out 2 x 200 where you practice sighting every 6-8 strokes. Pick a spot on the wall or an object at the end of each lane to sight. Practice lifting the head only as high as needed to clear the eyes from the water. Again, this skill is not easy or fun, but practice makes permanent. Keep at it!

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