Plot your course
Drafting is often touted as the high-priority race technique, but navigation is single-handedly the most important open-water skill, Rodrigues says. If you’re swimming 1:40 per 100 yards or 36-plus minutes for a half-Ironman, drafting has almost no value. At that pace, he says, the person in front of you is not very skilled. Instead of looking for feet to sit on, master your own navigation strategy.
Integrate sighting into your stroke. Most athletes can’t sight frequently because it’s clumsy and interrupts their stroke too much. But if you can learn to make it a part of your stroke, you can do it more often and consequently save time and energy. At the 2012 ITU World Triathlon San Diego race, Rodrigues noted that winner Jonathan Brownlee seamlessly sighted every two strokes heading into the finish, and every six strokes while swimming regularly. For most swimmers, six is the magic number, with exceptions for choppy water. Rodrigues advises to never go more than 10 strokes. “I don’t care how straight you think you swim,” he says. “If you’re not swimming 1:10 per 100 in the pool, you ain’t swimming straight.”
Recon the course. Pro Sara McLarty can never take the follow-the-leader approach in the swim because she’s usually the one leading. “Being the first swimmer has always taught me that it is my responsibility to know the course,” she says. She always knows how many buoys there will be, where the turns are, etc. “Preparing before the race even starts is key to navigation.”
Pick out your sighting points. In theory, aiming for the swim exit should get you to the swim exit. But if currents and visibility are a factor, you should have more than one sighting point. Rodrigues says to think of your sighting strategy as a triangle, with three points of reference: Where you’re going to, where you’re swimming from, and what your lateral distance is to the shore. Choose distinctive tall objects on land instead of relying on small buoys, which will disappear in chop.