Mixing Up Your Open Water Swims by Karen Parnell

Karen Parnell is an ASA Open Water Swimming Coach, and British Triathlon Federation (BTF) Level 3 High Performing Coach and Tutor. She is also a qualified Personal Trainer and IRONMAN® Certified Coach. Karen is based near Malaga in Southern Spain where she runs Chili Tri coaching and camps.

Thankfully, we are now able to get back to swimming outdoors and enjoying the fresh air and total connection to our environment. One of the things I love most about swimming outdoors is that unlike a swimming pool you can overload your body sensors with smells, sound, temperature variations and sometimes tastes plus a visit from the odd wildlife. You can get totally absorbed in the moment and have some really natural mindfulness. Sometimes I like to just float on my back and watch the sky or is that just me? 

But sometimes it is time to just get out there and get the endurance work in if you are training for an event but given the current situation many will not have races and therefore no training focus. This is the time we may need some structure in our swim sessions and there is no better time than to sharpen our open water skills and make sure our kit is optimised for the absolute best experience.


We all have our favourite wetsuit and goggle brand, and this is very personal. For me, its Yonda (extremely flexible and easy to get in to and more importantly get out of!) and Zoggs Predator Flex goggles. But I’m sure you have your favourites. The one product that I always use and never lets me down is Cressi anti-fog, it works and works extremely well! Developed for deep sea divers’ masks, is approved for use on swimming goggles, it makes light work of keeping my goggles fog free in the pool, lake and sea. A key consideration of any product is it’s impact on the environment and Cressi anti-fog is Reef Safe. I’ve heard people recommend things like baby shampoo (not reef safe) and other more exotic concoctions like spitting into the lens (not ideal given COVID-19), but I would recommend using the product designed for the job and it doesn’t cost much. After all would you use vegetable oil to lubricate your bicycle chain? Once you discover this product your swims will be so much more enjoyable, less frustrating, and not to mention clear.

For safety in open water then I always recommend a brightly coloured hat and a tow float like the Hydration Float from Swim Secure which I like for longer swims so I can take some electrolyte sports drink with me. Tow floats make sure you can be seen by other water users.


One of the most important skills to master is sighting and it’s currently even more important as we have to social distance even in the open water.

To gracefully take a “peak”, breath and not impact our streamlined body position is a skill well worth perfecting. This will enable us to keep our speed up and back safe. Avoiding the dreaded banana back!

The first step is to plan what you will sight on. In a race this is usually a brightly coloured buoy. It’s a good idea to take a look at the course and familiarise yourself with the sequence and colours. In a lake or sea training scenario then take some time to pick a large object that won’t move. You will have heard anecdotes of swimmers choosing fishermen to sight on! They have a habit of packing up when swimmers arrive. I usually choose a large rock formation or tree.

The trick to efficient sighting is to just lift your eyes above the water and take a peek at the object you pre-chose to sight on then turn to the side and breath as normal – some call it crocodile or alligator eyes. Don’t worry if you don’t see what you want to sight first time as with good technique you can keep sighting and not impact your speed too much. The key is to extend your arm press down very slightly, look with eyes just above the water then turn to breath in one smooth motion – don’t breath to the front. You will probably have a preference on breathing side to it’s more natural to use that side for sighting. If you push down too hard, raise your head and breath to the front your hips will sink, and you will slow down. You may even take a breaststroke at the front, swallow and loose most of your momentum.

Arm extend – peak – turn head & breath to side – continue with normal stroke

Here’s an example of a training session you may like to try to perfect your sighting technique:


This session focusses on honing your sighting technique.

Distance: 1750m


Wetsuit, Ultraglide lube, brightly swimming hat, Swim Secure Tow Float, goggles & Cressi anti-fog


  1. Single arm rotations: forwards and backwards left and right x 10. Then one forward and one backward x 10
  2. Chest hugs x 10 (bent over)
  3. Arm spinning, side to side, bent over left and right x10
  4. Arm spinning as above but standing x 10
  5. Double arm swings with knee bends – 10 forward and 10 backwards

Splash face with cold water with goggles off and then face in and exhale into water. Open wetsuit neck, wrists and ankles & let water in.

5 mins of approximate 50s of repeated drill into freestyle:

  1. 10m scull #1 into 40m freestyle B3s (light flutter to keep feet high if necessary)
  2. 10m scull #2 into 40m freestyle B3s (light flutter to keep feet high if necessary)
  3. 10m new doggy paddle into 40m freestyle B3s (light flutter to keep feet high if necessary)

4 x 50m deep water sprint starts

Yes you can do drills in open water – it’s fun!

Warm up = 350m


One lap of your course is ideally 400-800m.

4 x 20 strokes eyes closed no sighting – which way to do you veer off to?

3 x 400 as (or 40-80 strokes if open water for 100m):

  1. 100 sighting every breath (left) + 300 settle into sighting every 2 breaths B2s +30s
  2. 100 sighting every breath (right) + 300 settle into sighting every 2 breaths B2s +30s
  3. 400 B3s sighting every 2 breaths swap to sight on other breathing side halfway

Which side to you find it easier to breath after sighting peak?

Main session = 1200m


200 easy swim back to shore.

Warm drink and catch up catch with your fellow swimmers (socially distanced of course).



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