Swimming Gear

The only gear needed to get started swimming in a pool environment is a pair of goggles and a swim suit. A new pair of goggles can be acquired for less than $10. It is recommended that you purchase two: a tinted pair for sunny open water swims, and a clear pair for indoor swimming or cloudy days. In addition, having two pairs of goggles guarantees you a backup pair in case a strap breaks on race morning, as per Murphy’s Law. While goggles are a small purchase monetarily, it’s important to make sure they fit correctly, as ill-fitting straps can give you a headache and let water in around your eyes.

Goggles will fog – it’s what they do. The old swimmer’s trick of spitting in them and rubbing it in before usage is crude but effective. There are also several antifog products available online. I use “Jaws Quick Spit Antifog Spray” personally, but there are other, similar options. Just spray them inside, rub it in, and rinse off before each use.

Any swim suit will do, but form-fitting one-piece suits for women and “jammers” (knee-length, form-fitting suits) for men will provide top performance in the pool. You will most likely not wear your tri kit in the pool, as the chlorine can damage the fabric over time.

If your race will include an open water swim (OWS), you should check the race website to see if it will be wetsuit legal. USAT rules say that competitors may wear wetsuits if the water temperature is 78 degrees or lower; in addition, if the temperature is between 78.1 and 83.9 degrees, competitors may wear wetsuits but will not be eligible for awards. Above 84 degrees, nobody may wear a wetsuit. Note that Ironman-branded races only allow wetsuits if the water is 76.1 degrees or lower, so it’s important to check the rules for your specific race, as the cutoffs can differ. While the ostensible purpose of wetsuits is to warm the body in cold water and protect hypothermia, the actual reason most triathletes wear them during races is for speed. The neoprene of the suit allows a swimmer float higher in the water and offers buoyancy to the legs and hips, reducing drag. General estimates place the speedup at 5-10%; a huge advantage in a tight race. If your race will be wetsuit legal, I highly encourage you to use one. The one exception to this would be for a sprint triathlon, in which case the added time required to get the wetsuit off after the swim portion of the race would negate any seconds earned in the water.

If you are going to use a wetsuit, make sure to do several swims in it before your race to make sure it fits and moves correctly. When wearing a wetsuit for a long period of time, you may want to use an anti-chafing substance like Bodyglide around the neck collar, under your arms, or anywhere else where the suit rubs your body. During my first half-Ironman I did not take this advice and rubbed the right side of my neck extremely raw against the collar from where I turned my neck to breathe while swimming. If Bodyglide isn’t enough, you can try a short length of kinesio tape, or, in a pinch, duct tape. If you do apply an anti-chafing substance, be sure to use one specifically made for triathletes. Vaseline (petroleum jelly) can degrade the wetsuit material.

Wetsuits are very form-fitting and can be hard to get on, especially if they are damp. To expedite this process, put two plastic grocery bags over your feet to help the suit will slide on more easily around the trouble spots of your feet and ankles. I’ve also heard of swimmers using cooking spray on their ankles and calves if those are sticking points when getting the suit on and off. (Don’t get it on your hands.) And don’t make the mistake I made when I put on my brand new suit for the first time – the zipper goes in the back! When you buy a suit, it’s a good idea to write your name inside it with a Sharpie in case it gets misplaced on race day.

After each use, turn the wetsuit inside-out to dry, and then hang it up (still inside-out) by passing the arms and shoulders through a loop-style coat hanger and folding it at the waist. Don’t hang it up with a clothes hanger in the shoulders the conventional way, as the weight of the suit can pull on the contact points of the hanger and distort its shape. If you wear the suit in salt water, be sure to rinse it with fresh water after your swim; the salt will destroy your suit over time.

When you’re training in open water, it would be a good idea to buy a swim buoy. This is an inflatable device about the size of a gallon of milk which attaches to your waist with a thin band. They are generally yellow or orange and provide greater visibility to boaters, jet skis, kayaks, and anyone else who may be on the lake. If you are swimming with a partner, as you should, they also make it easy to keep tabs on each other’s location as you peek your head out to sight your course.

For indoor pool swims, many swimmers like to do drills with pull buoys, flippers, or hand paddles. This is a matter of personal preference, but keep in mind that these are not strictly necessary and are by no means a substitute for doing lap after lap of basic, unassisted, freestyle swimming.

Next: Swimming Technique