A major difference between swimming in a pool and swimming in open water is visibility. In a pool, it’s easy to swim in a straight line because the water is clear, you can see the bottom and you likely have lane lines to help you stay on track. In open water, you don’t have any of that! It becomes easy to swim way off course and end up swimming much further than you planned.

How do you fix that and learn to swim straight? Check out these tips for practicing open water spotting!

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Related: How to Start Open Water Swimming After 3 Months Off

What is Spotting?

Spotting (also called sighting) can help you stay on your chosen route during an open water swim, and also ensures you’re aware of your surroundings. To spot, you’ll lift your head up every 10-12 strokes and look for a reference point in the direction you want to go, such as a tree, a dock, a buoy, a mountain — you name it! 

Open Water Spotting Tips

Don’t Lift Your Head Too High

Related: How to Put on a Wetsuit

You just need your eyes to break the surface of the water — no need to lift your head up super high! Doing so will cause your hips to sink, putting you into an inefficient body position for your swim. 

Spotting properly takes practice. If you’re training for an open water race and can’t get to the lake or ocean frequently, practice spotting in the pool!

Related: 5 Tips for Beginner Open Water Swimmers

Plan Ahead if Possible

If you can, pick at least one spotting point before you hop in the water. Do this while planning your route and you’ll stay right on track!

Try the Closed Eyes Drill

Another way to keep yourself on course is to close your eyes while your face is in the water. It seems like a crazy idea, but hear us out! Swim 10-12 strokes with your eyes closed, and then open your eyes, lift your head and spot your reference point in the distance. 

Related: How to Take Off a Wetsuit in 30 Seconds

After doing this a few times, you’ll begin to figure out if your body typically veers off in one direction. Once you’re aware, you can make a conscious effort to spot and avoid drifting off course. Keeping your eyes closed can also help you become more comfortable in open water. 

This method is ideal for bodies of water that are calm, have minimal current and are not busy with watercraft. 

Related: How to Safely Swim in Cold Open Water

The Workout

Fares hit the beach at Lake St. Clair in Michigan to work on sighting. Before he dove in, he ran through a quick dryland circuit to warm up his body for the chilly water!

Warm Up Circuit (3 Rounds, 10 reps of each exercise)

  • Arm Circles
  • Arm Swings
  • Dynamic Hamstring Stretch
  • Burpees
  • Split Jumps

Related: The Best Way to Track Open Water Swims with the Apple Watch

Fares logged his swim using MySwimPro on his Apple Watch. During the workout, he was able to track total distance, average pace and real-time heart rate! 

For more open water swimming tips, subscribe to our YouTube channel! Download the MySwimPro app on your phone and smartwatch to access advanced open water tracking and analytics, Training Plans and more!



  1. Howdy,
    When in ocean w /chop, spot at top of swell – you will know it, for you feel like you are being pushed out of water.

  2. vincent zamora on

    Hey, nice write up. One thing I’d like to address I always had a concern about swimming in open water is about bad microbes. How do you avoid these or what steps/precautions can we take?

    • Taylor Holmes on

      Hi Vincent,
      You can check with the agency that maintains the lake/beach you swim at to see if there have been concerns about microbes. You may also want to wear a nose clip and make an effort to avoid ingesting water while you swim. Shower off as soon as possible when you’re done!

  3. Andrej Zupančič on

    If you have a good visual cue somewhere ahead on your course, you can get away with lifting your head just enough for your eyes to half-clear the waterline. Don’t lift your head any further but just roll your eyes up as far as possible, and you will be able to discern the contours of your spotting point – which is plenty enough for swimming orientation. If you have any experience with aiming a lensatic compass, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

    • Taylor Holmes on

      So true! Just have to lift up enough to see where you’re going. Takes some practice to find a good rhythm!

  4. Roderick Lagunda on

    Is wearing those training snorkels in practice open water swim acceptable? Found it easy to calm down , and strokes seem to be better and smooth.

    • Hi Roderick, we don’t recommend wearing a snorkel if you’re going for a longer open water swim. It may make it harder to “sight” and look up to make sure you’re swimming straight!

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