Open water swimming is not fundamentally different than pool swimming. It differs in details, but many key elements such as swimming straight, changing speed and effort, and altering kick rhythm on demand are all things that can (and should) be learned in an effective pool swimming curriculum.
One major skill I omitted is sighting, because unless it is purposely developed in your indoor environment, the ability to sight is left to stagnate until the environment and logistics cooperate. Don’t wait for spring to practice the mechanics of sighting! If I was asked to identify one culprit of the stroke degradation and general difficulty that otherwise competent pool swimmers experience in open water, my prime suspect is the havoc wreaked on technique by the act of lifting the head to see where you are going. (And anxiety, addressed HERE)
Kick timing has been presented in this Three Part Series, and I can't emphasize enough the degree to which body position and stability can be improved by a well timed kick. Not by altering your head position, “pressing your buoy”, or flexing your butt, but rather proper timing of the kick is the primary driver of stability and position, and it is a potent antidote to the sighting breath, (and other moment to moment challenges that the open water will confront you with). If you have not already, go through those lessons in kick timing and develop the awareness and control to place the kick where it needs to be.
Adult onset swimmers generally have a fragile grasp of this kick timing, (those who have any at all), yet the missing link to proper sighting is a firm and conscious understanding of how timing effects your swimming, and the ability to alter that timing as needed. Make no mistake, lifting your head to sight will alter your kick timing. Lifting the head can feel a bit like "falling off the log"and your kick is the way to catch yourself. If you’re not aware of this, and therefor can’t control it, you’re going to struggle.
Ok, great… you’ve mastered kick timing! Now what? Now you take that new skill into the pool and practice lifting the head to breath, while supporting that motion with a properly timed kick. The head lift will cause a slight change in stroke rate, which must be mirrored by the kick, to maintain as much stability and propulsion as possible.
This is a screenshot at the :18 mark of the above video. We have the right foot about to begin a powerful and stabilizing downbeat, as the right hand is producing high force in the meat of the pull, and the eyes are out to sight but the mouth is still underwater. Absolute perfection.
1. First lift the head forward to sight, then breathe. You want that breath to conclude at the same time in the stroke cycle as it does normally, so time your head lift to make this happen. Breathing late is a big problem in general and sighting can make it worse, or destroy it for those who normally have good breath timing.
2. You don’t have to lift it very high. The eyes are the only thing that need to clear the water. In an open water swim, you need only catch a quick glimpse of that large neon buoy. If you can swim straight, you don't need to see as much or as frequently, and are less likely to experience any “sighting surprises”, where you expect to see the buoy in front of you, and find it is 20° off to the side. (“Is that thing drifting?”)
3. Repetition is your friend so take a lot of sighting breaths. Start with 25s where you do one or more per length. Work up to longer swims, such as a 300 where you alternate one length with three sighting breaths and one length normal swimming. Maybe you can get to a 1000 yard swim with five sighting breaths per length! Remember this is a skill you can weave in at any time. Mix it into your masters practice, or during your warm-up, or even better, your cool down.
Part II will cover "Head Up Swimming with a Two Beat Kick", otherwise known as “Tarzan Swimming”. Not a mandatory skill, but when this is mastered, your sighting breaths will take on the same ease and fluidity of the pros.