Breathing and orientation in open water swimming

Breathing and orientation in open water swimming

Cloudy water, not being able to see the bottom and crashing waves are the main obstacles to staying on track when swimming in open water. And with every "navigation error" comes the inevitable "getting back on track”. A substantial waste of time and energy as I am sure you will agree...

To properly tame this natural element and its environment without losing your bearings, it is therefore important to be aware of a few tricks to keep you on track from beginning to end.

Today we will concentrate on the techniques used by open water swimmers before and during a swim for orientation, how not to deviate from your course, and especially how to reach your destination!

Follow me, it's over here...

Before swimming

Whether for a competition or for an open water training session, swimmers must take some time before setting off to analyse their future playing field.

It is essential to visualise and memorise the route you plan to take as well as the exact location, shape and colour of the buoys. This step is paramount, whether you have decided to swim inside the designated swimming area or outside of it.

In addition to locating the buoys, also look for landmarks that are high up and visible from a distance (pylon, tree, building, etc.). This is particularly important if you are swimming in the sea, because of the height of the waves. Indeed, once you are several metres from the shore, they tend to block your vision of the coastline and therefore your landmarks.

And as for the waves, the best solution is to make them your friends! Use them to gain height and find where you are more easily.

Memorising these key reference points will help you to subconsciously, and without necessarily needing to lift your head every ten metres, maintain consistency in your route.

If you are then able to combine your spatial awareness with a good breathing technique, you will be a real-life compass!

While swimming

As you may have already noticed, open water swimmers tend to raise their heads very high when they take a breath. This is in fact a very effective way to simultaneously combine orientation and taking in air.

This technique is used by all experienced open water swimmers. Moreover, at sea, in addition to breathing and orientation, it lets you give your arms and legs a rest as the wave passes under you.

However, looking in front of you in this way when open water swimming without losing efficiency in your stroke requires a special technique:

- First, you will need to shift your weight in the water, deeper down and with your elbows bent to lift your shoulders, and raise your head out of the water while propelling yourself forward. You should look into the distance to orient yourself and breathe in at the same time.

- Once straightened up, you will find yourself in a "water polo" position, with your head in the open air and your legs will have to compensate for the imbalance by kicking faster. This part should not last long. To do so, do not forget to breathe out all of your air while in the water to encourage rapid inhalation. As for orientation, if you have done your reconnaissance work properly before jumping in, you will find your way in the blink of an eye!

- The way you return your arms through the air is different to in a pool. Instead of bending your arm and lifting up your elbow, your arm should skim the water, as close to it as possible.

- Your head should then be lowered with your upper body to find its place between the shoulders for a smooth horizontal stroke.

- There is no need to use this technique every two movements unless you were unable to locate yourself the first time. This is because it creates a change of pace that can quickly be tiring. Use it according to the environment and your comfort level every 4, 6, 8 or 10 movements.

Now you know how to get your bearings and stay on course in open water! But before you begin, to be able to orient yourself effectively, the first prerequisite is being able to see clearly!

To be sure of this, choose swimming goggles with mirrored lenses to protect your eyes from the reflection of the sun on the water. And one more tip: to avoid a foggy session, put some shampoo on your swimming goggles and rinse them before you head off!

Enjoy your open water adventure!

Breathing and orientation in open water swimming


National Swimmer & Dialogue Leader