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How Open Water Swimming Works

Open Water Navigation
Don't get lost out there in the middle of open water.
Don't get lost out there in the middle of open water.
Thomas Northcut/Lifesize/Thinkstock

Finding your way around an open water course isn't as easy as it looks. Without the guiding hand of painted lines or lane ropes, it can be tricky to keep your bearings using nothing more than the occasional buoy. Once you factor in waves and blinding sunlight, it seems a miracle that open water swimmers ever find the finish line.

Open water swimmers keep themselves on course with "sightings": quick, above-water glances made throughout a swim. Experienced swimmers will typically only need to sight every 10 or 15 strokes, but beginners may need to sight twice as often [source: Berg]. The more you keep head below water, the better your swim time, so keep your sightings low-key. Raise your head only just enough to get your goggles above water.

Buoys can sometimes be tough to spot, especially if they're hidden behind a trough of water -- so it may take you a couple of sightings before it comes into view. Never take too long on a sighting. Spending too much time with your head above water and your eyes darting around the horizon will have a negative effect on your swimming rhythm. If you can't immediately see the buoy, just continue swimming and try again after another 10 or 15 strokes [source: Berg].

If you find yourself off-course, don't panic. Even if you're far from the main pack, fix your course only with slight adjustments. If you get back on course gradually, you'll lose less time than if you immediately scramble back into line.

One of the most foolproof ways to improve your navigation is by learning to swim in a straight line. Many swimmers favor either their left or right side, causing them to swim at a slight angle. The more balanced your stroke, the less you'll need to rely on sightings to maintain your course. To find out the straightness of your stroke, go to a pool and swim a short distance with your eyes closed. If you find that you're veering, work on fixing the imbalance [source: Murphy].

If you get tired of sighting during a race, you might consider giving yourself a break by getting in with a group of other swimmers. They're probably going in the right direction -- but be sure to double-check every now and then.

Keep reading to find out how you can surf your way to a better swim time.