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Navigation Tips for the Triathlon Swim

2016/7/21 10:45:39

No matter your swim speed, one crucial element to the swim portion of a triathlon is navigation.

Swimming the shortest route requires attention to the course design and environmental conditions. The best way to improve your open water navigation skills is to practice in a lake, river or ocean.

However, many athletes don't have the luxury of having regular access to these bodies of water.

More: 5 Secrets of the Triathlon Swim

Luckily, there are drills that you can practice in a swimming pool to help you prepare for open water conditions.


A cardinal rule of competitive swimming is to never lift your head to breathe, but open water swimming is different.

Without black lines, lane ropes and walls to guide you, it's imperative that you pick your head up occasionally to glance forward and make sure you are on course. Always spot-check to ensure you're headed in the correct direction.

More: How to Stay on Course

Often, swimmers decide to blindly follow the person or pack in front of them and assume they're going in the correct direction. This strategy may work depending on the course. More often than not you'll wind up swimming extra yards if you don't personally verify your trajectory. It's helpful to practice sighting in the pool or your neck will be sore on race day.

Practice Set:
Swim 500 yards, picking your head up to sight every 8th stroke. Next complete 10 lengths of 25 yards (10 x25). On the odd laps, swim with your head up the entire length, on the even laps, sight once per lap.

More: Race Rehearsal Tips


Most athletes will have a tendency to favor one side. This imbalance can occur for many different reasons — crossing over, unequal pulling pressure, lopsided entry and excess head movement when breathing.

More: Kicking Drills for Better Body Position

Whatever the cause, the end result of an imbalance is that you go crooked. When your eyes are open in a swimming pool, it's easier to self-correct this crooked movement. However, when swimming in a cloudy lake or river where you can't see anything, it's not as easy to self correct and you may wind up veering way off-course.

Practice Set:
A simple way to self-diagnose if you have a tendency to swim crooked is to swim in a pool with your eyes closed. To get a true sense of your balance, it's important to keep your eyes tightly closed the entire time.

More: How to Keep Your Stroke Balanced

Often you will determine if you are going crooked by the first 10 strokes once you bump into the lane line. (Note: be careful of doing this in a crowded lane!)

Once you determine if you do have a tendency to swim a certain direction, you can take additional steps to reduce the imbalance. This will require individualized instruction.

If you don't have access to a swim coach, see if a friend will film you with a video camera or iPhone. Once you see yourself swim, it may be obvious why you are going crooked. Some imbalances are easy to fix, but others will be quite difficult. When it comes time to race, it's helpful to know if you have a tendency to swim in a certain direction so you can plan your strategy for the course.

For instance, if you tend to veer left and there is a current in a lake that is also pushing you left, it's essential that you aim to the right of where you want to end up.

Comfort Zone

Athletes coming from a swimming background may be incredibly calm and confident in an orderly swimming pool, but once they are shoved into a mass group swim, they panic.

More: What You Need to Know About Wetsuits

This panic can cause you to loose focus and forget to pay attention to where you're going. Even worse, sometimes you know where you want to go, but you can't position yourself properly because there are flailing arms and legs in your face.

Alternatively, there could be heavy fog or sunlight that inhibits your navigation. In these situations, it is best to stay calm and steadily get yourself back on course.

Practice Set

Free swim frenzy: if your local pool has a free swim time when all the lane lines are taken out and kids are play about and the pool is packed—practice swimming around using your sighting. These conditions are dreadful for an aerobic workout, but the hectic chaos is perfect for testing out your navigation skills.

Finally, be physically and mentally prepared to swim extra yardage if you know the swim conditions could make for difficult navigation circumstances.

More: 6 Ways to Train for a Triathlon Start

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