How to Sight in Open Water

By ROKA | Aug. 01, 2019, 10:30 a.m. (ET)

Sponsored Content by ROKA

How to Sight in Open Water

Ask any triathlete their biggest fear or shortcoming in the sport, and it’s likely open water swimming is near the top of the list. It makes sense considering how hard it can be to practice before race day, not to mention common stress-inducing obstacles like currents, waves and reduced visibility (unless you’re in Kona). Following the black line on the bottom of the pool is a great way to prepare fitness-wise, but swimming in open water is another thing altogether. Simply put, it can be overwhelming.

While there’s no better way to overcome these fears than actually spending time swimming in open water, it’s always helpful to train with intention. It can be tricky—especially in less-than-ideal conditions—but here we break down the basics on how to increase your field of view, how to deal with the conditions of the day, and how to ultimately be more comfortable on race day.

Field of View

Just like every triathlete’s freestyle mechanics, no two swim courses are the same. Some follow the coastline with the buoys to the right or the left, while others feature an out-and-back that requires a bit more navigational skills. This is where sighting becomes important.

As with each of the three triathlon disciplines, the idea here is to stay as efficient as possible. Sighting in open water feels different—most triathletes have been trained to keep their heads down while swimming in the pool, so pulling your head up out of the water goes against many triathletes’ natural tendencies.

When you’re ready to sight, force your arm in a downward motion to lift your upper body up, arch your back, and look up out of the water. This is easiest during the “catch” phase. Make sure to give an extra few kicks to keep your lower half from sinking down and slowing your pace.

Be sure to only lift your head out of the water just enough so your eyes break the surface. In choppy conditions, feel the sets as they roll past you and sight at the top of the wave for the best vantage point. This can be a bit tricky and requires more energy, so take your time as you sight and do it less often.

Goggle selection can be an unsung hero when it relates to sighting—for example, ROKA’s R1 goggles include their proprietary RAPIDSIGHT technology that features a forward-facing lens that dramatically expands the forward field of view. The design is built with less plastic at the top of the frame, which sets the lens back an impressive 11 degrees. This means you won’t have to lift your head out of the water as far to sight as you navigate choppy conditions, and since there’s no black line to follow in open water, classic goggles that have flat lenses won’t be as effective.

The first sight should be used to help figure out where you are in the water — look for buoys, other swimmers or predetermined landmarks. Use this information to adjust course, and follow the first attempt up with two or three more to make sure you’ve adjusted your course appropriately.


The name of the game is to maximize the field of vision when your head breaks the surface. A triathlete has less than a second to download this data before continuing the stroke, so every advantage is critical.

If conditions permit, swimming with a wetsuit is not only safer, but a triathlon-specific wetsuit is designed to add buoyancy in the legs. This helps prevent the lower body from sinking too far as the head is lifted out of the water, which keeps your body closer to the surface—ultimately boosting efficiency and speed while sighting.

Triathlons generally start in the early morning hours, which means the sun is low in the sky and can potentially be in the line of vision depending on the direction of the swim. ROKA’s SPCTRM lens collection includes tints for any conditions you may face, from light amber lenses for a foggy coastal morning to arctic mirror lenses for direct morning sunlight reflecting off the water.

Race Day

Race day is where all your hard work and practice should pay off. At this point, you should have practiced sighting at your local pool or have incorporated some open water swims into your training regimen.

Notice the swells and current direction, whether the race is a rolling start from the beach or a mass start in the water, and whether the course follows the buoys in a clockwise or counterclockwise fashion. Look from shore and notice any prominent landmarks or structures you can use while sighting, and visualize yourself in the water looking for these landmarks at certain points on the course.

Now is also the time to choose your wetsuit and goggles for the day. You may opt for a sleeveless wetsuit like ROKA’s Maverick Pro II if the water is on the warm side of wetsuit legal, or get the full benefit of ROKA’s patented ARMS-UP technology with the full-sleeved Maverick X if you’re looking for max benefit and reduced shoulder fatigue. It’s also always a good idea to bring a variety of goggles with different lens tints in case conditions change.

If you’ve arrived to the race early, check in and see when the course is open for practice (usually the day before) or warm-up swims. If so, practice the start and head towards the first buoy, and keep your landmarks in mind as you sight. You’ll be more familiar with your surroundings once the gun goes off, ultimately helping to alleviate some the pre-race anxiety and nerves that come with open water swimming.