Open water racing techniques

Techniques to use in open water races

It’s easy isn’t it? You just transfer you skills from the pool into the open water and away you go. If only it were that simple. Open water swimming involves a number of different techniques, from the start to your stroke, breathing, sighting and drafting – it’s a whole new swimming discipline altogether. Find out how to hone your open water swimming technique by checking out our advice …

Racers in an open water swim

The start

It’s important to start well, so warm up sufficiently and go out hard from the off to avoid as much trouble at the start. You can then settle into your pace after that. To give you the best chance of a good start, especially on beaches where you have to first enter shallow water, you need to high-step through the water and then begin ‘dolphining’ through the water.

Dolphining involves the swimmer diving forward hands first into the water, gliding for a few yards under the water, pressing against the sand to come up, and then diving up and over the water again. This can be repeated until the water is of sufficient depth to begin swimming properly. Many of the top competitors will employ this technique and will have checked the depth in advance to avoid injuring themselves.

Your stroke

You are welcome to use any stroke you like but the most effective and commonly used is freestyle or front crawl. Your stroke might work perfectly well as you clock up the lengths in your local pool, but out in the open water you may need to amend it. Try and relax your stroke and keep the amount of times you look up to a minimum to avoid interrupting your stroke.

The general advice when swimming in open water is to employ a ‘high elbow’ technique. This refers to the recovery phase of the front crawl, where keeping a high elbow encourages better balance and body roll to help you deal with choppy waters. This should help you deal with the difficulties open water present as compared with the pool.


When swimming in open water you don’t have the luxury of lane markers to help guide you. Swimmers therefore have to rely on other markers and landmarks to help keep them on course. Typically buoys are placed across the course, but you can’t always see them. Experienced swimmers learn to stay aligned by picking out landmarks such as a building or a tree and they will sight these before the start of the race.

To stay on track, you need to lift your head, but not too frequently as this will interfere with your rhythm and waste energy. One good tip is to use the bubbles created by swimmers in front of you so you don’t need to lift your head to sight, but use this with an element of caution as you could get led off course by a swimmer ahead of you. Make use of the floating markers in the water when they are visible to stay on course.


Drafting is a technique used by open water swimmers which involves closely following another swimmer in order to reduce the water resistance, much like a cyclist uses the slipstream of another rider. When swimming behind or closely beside another swimmer, the amount of effort required to swim at the same speed is reduced.

Drafting should be used with an element of caution as you may be drafting behind someone going far slower than you want to without actually realising it. You will get a better draft off a physically larger swimmer and the closer you get to them, the better. Some swimmers suggest that the best place to draft is between the ankles and hips.

Breathing on both sides

Bilateral breathing, or breathing on both sides, is essential. Not only does it help you swim straighter if you are breathing on both sides, but it also help you see to both the left and right. If you are swimming in a race where the only visible clues are on the shoreline and you race is down and back along the beach, then you need to breathe on the opposite side on the way back to get you visual clues.

In addition, being able to breathe on the other side is useful if there is a swimmer on one side of you who is constantly making contact with you with their stroke. If you are breathing towards them, then the likelihood is you’ll get a smack in the face and potentially lose your goggles.


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