When talking about the skills you need to swim outdoors, we often start by making the comparison with swimming in a pool: there’s no black line to follow, the water may be murkier, it’s colder, there’s no wall to grab hold of, you often can’t see the bottom and so on. Still, most people learn to swim in pools and transferring to the natural environment presents some differences. These differences require us to use a few additional skills and techniques to those we use in the pool.

The primary purpose of improving your outdoor swimming skills is to enhance your enjoyment of being in the water – this isn’t just for people who want to race. However, if you do wish to race, mastering these skills will undoubtedly improve your performance.

Simon Griffiths looks at some basic skills that will make your outdoor swim more enjoyable and, if you race, faster.


The ability to breathe both sides, while not essential, can be very useful when swimming outside. For example, if you are swimming parallel to the shore then keeping an eye on the land can help you stay on course. If you can only breathe one side, you may find yourself staring out to sea instead. If you’re swimming early in the morning or late in the afternoon and the sun is low on the horizon, it might be more comfortable to breathe away from it. If waves are hitting you from a particular direction, it might be easier to breathe away from them.

Some people find breathing either side easy. Others really struggle. But even if you’re one of the latter it’s worth persevering. Practise whenever you can. The traditional approach is to breath every three strokes but experiment with other patterns such as breathing to one side for 25m and then switching to the other. Every time you swim, try to take a least a few breaths to your least favoured side.

Bilateral breathing is also good to practise for your development as a swimmer as it helps symmetry in your stroke.


Sighting is just looking where you are going. In breaststroke, it’s easy as your head clears the water and you can look forward with each breath. With front crawl, you breathe to the side, so looking forward is harder. However, it’s a useful thing to do if you want to swim in a straight line. The skill is to incorporate it smoothly into your swimming so it causes minimal interference with your stroke. If you lift too high or get the timing wrong it can all but bring you to a halt in the water.  If you watch the best swimmers, it doesn’t affect their speed at all.

To sight on front crawl, lift your eyes above the water (not your whole face) just before you turn your head to breathe, then turn your head to your regular breathing position and continue swimming normally. Don’t attempt to breathe while looking forward. An alternative method is to lift your eyes just after you’ve taken a breath. Experiment with both to find which feels most comfortable for you. Make the movement swift and don’t break your rhythm. You may need to kick a little harder to maintain your body position.

Don’t worry if you don’t see what you’re looking for and definitely don’t stop for a better look around. Instead, just sight again on the next breath and look in a slightly different direction. Do this as many times as necessary to find your target. Once you’re going in the right direction you should be able to do six to 12 strokes before looking again. In the pool you can easily incorporate sighting practice into any swim by putting a water bottle or a float at the end of the lane and looking at it on each length.


In a pool, we make micro adjustments to our stroke to stay on track, guided by lines on the floor of the pool and lane ropes. When you take those away, it’s surprising how many people quickly veer off course. Some people will swim in circles. The straighter you swim, the less often you will need to sight and the quicker you will reach your destination. Veering to one side or the other is usually caused by asymmetries in your stroke, so practising bilateral breathing will help you swim straighter.

You can check how straight you swim by swimming with your eyes closed – preferably with someone you trust watching you to ensure you don’t have a collision. Try 10 strokes first, then 20 and 30. Do you always veer to the same side? Once you know, you can attempt to fix any underlying causes and compensate for it while you swim.


In a race, pacing is the art of regulating your swim speed so that you arrive at the end in the shortest possible time. Pacing is also relevant on any long distance swim, whether it’s a solo marathon or a leisure swim with some friends.

The biggest mistake is starting too fast. It’s very easy to do. At the beginning of a swim your nerves are tingling and you’re pumped with adrenalin. If it’s a mass start, the swimmers around you surge forwards and drag you along.

If you analyse the winning times in long distance pool races, it’s apparent that the optimum strategy is to swim each part of the race at the same speed. The first length is usually slightly faster because of the dive start, not because of faster swimming, and the final length is often the quickest due to a sprint. Other than that, top swimmers churn out the lengths with metronomic efficiency.

The same principle applies on any long distance swim. The trouble is, swimming at your sustainable pace will initially feel so ridiculously easy that it’s almost impossible to resist speeding up, but you should try.

The best way to master pacing is to do regular timed swims in the pool. Try doing a set of 15 x 100m with about 10 to 15 seconds rest between each one. Aim to swim all of them at the same speed and notice how much easier it is at the beginning than the end. Or notice what happens if you do the first few too fast and how hard it is to maintain that speed. Get a friend to time you for a 400 or 800m swim in the pool and record your time every 50m. After, analyse the times to see if you started to slow down at some point. If the second half of the swim was more than a few seconds slower than the first, you probably started too fast.

Things are different in an open water race because tactics come in to play. You may decide it’s more important to try to stay with the pack and try to live with the surges and changes of speed than to swim your own race. However, if you start too fast you will pay for it later.


If you take part in a mass participation event, you will end up swimming close to other swimmers. Sometimes that will result in physical contact, usually accidental, especially at the start or around turns. This can be quite unnerving. The skill perhaps, is how you deal with it, both physically and mentally.

Firstly, try to minimise the risk. At the start, choose a position appropriate to your speed and race plans. Avoid starting on the front line in your first race unless you are exceptionally fast. Be aware of what’s going on around you and anticipate pinch points. Drop back, surge ahead or take a different line accordingly.

Secondly, stay calm and keep focused on your own swimming. Usually collisions are accidental but even if someone has purposely swum over you, it’s still not worth wasting energy to retaliate. There’s very little you can do about someone else’s swimming so just stay focused on your own. Relax and swim on.

One of the most annoying things that happens with open water swimming is when a person behind you repeatedly touches your feet. They shouldn’t do it, but they do. Some people actually think that you’re supposed to touch the person-in-front’s feet when drafting. Resist the urge to kick harder and don’t try to race ahead. You’ll only waste energy and give the person behind an even faster tow than they are getting already. Unless you want to engage in some advanced race tactics, just stay calm and swim on.

If you can, find some friends to practise close proximity swimming with. You can do it in a pool if it’s not too crowded. Try swimming side-by-side as close as you can without touching and practise swimming one behind the other to get the feeling of swimming in someone’s slipstream.


Drafting works in swimming just like in cycling. If you swim directly behind another swimmer, or in their wake with your shoulders close to their hip, you can swim much faster for the same effort. You don’t even have to be that close. In an experiment we did in a pool with a 4m gap between swimmers, heart rate was about 10 beats per minute lower when drafting compared to leading.

You might think that drafting is primarily a racing skill but there’s no reason you can’t make use of it on recreational swims. It makes it easier for swimmers of different speeds to swim together for example.

The easiest place to draft is directly behind the swimmer in front. The closer you are, the better the draft. However, if you get too close you risk annoying the person in front (if you keep touching their feet for example). A good distance is if your leading hand is about 15 to 30cm behind the other swimmer’s feet.

A more advanced skill is to swim close to the other swimmer’s hips. This is more technical as you have to time your arms to theirs. Drafting next to someone’s hip is particularly useful in a racing situation, as you have a smaller gap to close down when overtaking.


This isn’t a skill in itself, but rather the result of having mastered some open water skills and feeling at home in the environment. The confidence also comes with familiarity. There isn’t any trick that we know to remove the anxiety of being out of your depth and not being able to see the bottom but the more you swim, the less you worry about it.

For more outdoor swimming inspiration and training advice, please visit www.outdoorswimmer.com