Thinking of Joining USA Triathlon?

Be a part of our 550,000 member community of multisport athletes. Membership benefits include a subscription to the quarterly USA Triathlon magazine, discounts from USA Triathlon partners, inclusion in the national rankings, excess accident insurance at events, and savings at races. To see why you should join or renew today, visit the membership benefits page. Already a member? Login below.

Forgot Password  |  Forgot Member ID  |  Help Renew Membership Become a Member

Navigating the Swim

By Meghan Newcomer

open water swimmingEfforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.
—John F. Kennedy

No matter your swim speed, one crucial element to the swim portion of a triathlon is navigation. Swimming the shortest route requires attention to preparation for 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 do not have the luxury of having regular access to these bodies of water. 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 is imperative that you pick your head up occasionally to glance forward and make sure you are on course. I recommend that you always spot-check to ensure you are headed in the correct direction. Often, swimmers decide to blindly follow the person or pack in front of them and assume that they are going in the correct direction. This strategy may work depending on the course, but more often than not you will wind up swimming extra yards if you do not personally verify your trajectory. It is helpful to practice sighting in the pool or your neck will be sore on race day.

Practice Set:
500 yard free picking your head up to sight every 8th stroke
10 x 25 — odds: water polo drill (head up the entire length); evens: sight once per lap


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. Whatever the cause, the end result of an imbalance is that you go crooked. When your eyes are open in a swimming pool, it is easier to self-correct this crooked movement. However, when swimming in a cloudy lake or river where you can’t see anything, it is not as simple 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 is important to keep your eyes tightly closed the entire time. 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 do not 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. Thus, when it comes time to race, it is 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 is 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. 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 that the swim conditions could make for difficult navigation circumstances. 

Meghan Newcomer, MPA is a USA Triathlon Level II certified coach. She manages the Cancer Survivorship Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center charged with improving the quality of life of post-treatment cancer patients. She also coaches triathletes ages 6-66 and is an athletic consultant to multiple non-profit organizations in New York, N.Y.