Where you swim will impact on the kit you need and having the right kit for the right environment will significantly improve your performance and, more importantly, your enjoyment.
The basics remain the same, you need goggles a hat and either trunks or a swimsuit, but low temperatures or racing triathlons add a wetsuit requirement to the mix. Many training plans need specialist kit, and, like all multisports, there is also a range of gadgets that promise to significantly improve your performance.
From the smallest Swedes to full-face open water swimming goggles, there is a pair to meet your requirements. But if you are racing Open water, don’t forget to take a spare!
Triathlon goggles are an essential part of your swim kit and the rise in participation in open water swimming and triathlon has created a wide range of styles and lenses, so understanding which type suits you best will improve your performance and let you stay comfortable in the water.
The main purpose of your goggles is to protect your eyes whilst you are underwater, so the need to be secure, comfortable and provide good visibility, but open water swimming presents different challenges so you need to pick goggles which suit the type of swimming you do.
But, like with everything from Bikes to wetsuits, fit is everything. If your goggles don’t fit they will leak, which defeats the purpose, and you won’t use them, so try before you buy and make sure you get a pair that you can wear comfortably for an hour in open water.
Ideally, you want different goggles for different environments, but if the budget is an issue, then pick those that meet most of the following criteria based on your own needs
Comfort in the water
Keeping your head underwater reduces your frontal surface area and improves your speed and efficiency, so you have to be comfortable getting your face wet. Water in the eye isn’t just uncomfortable, there is a psychological connection between getting water in your eye and fear of drowning which can lead to panic in the water. If this is the case with you, a mask or larger goggles may help you overcome this and let you get your head under water
The ability to see underwater will also help to alleviate fear, so anti-fogging lenses and getting the right fit will help you keep the goggles on regardless of whether you’re in the pool or out at sea! Don’t forget that open water swims, especially in the sea can be choppy and a more robust seal and the strap will keep the goggles on your head throughout. Just see how long your beloved Swedish goggles will last with all those legs and arms flailing about!
Time of day
Sighting is a key skill in open water swimming, as you don’t have a convenient line on the bottom to guide you along so you need to consider your vision out of the water as well as in it. Where traditional goggles were predominantly clear, modern open water swimming goggles will have polarised, mirrored or tinted glasses for a range of light conditions. The colour can also have an effect, with some being more suited for times when the sun is low in the water, as the denser atmosphere changes the colour of light being transmitted by the sun.
Any sense coating that reduces light transmission suitable for bright sunlight will make the goggles seem dark when swimming inside, however.
There are three general types of triathlon goggles
Traditional pool/racing goggles
Characterised by thin straps and the smallest eyecups. They are designed to offer the least possible drag in the water which increases your speed. The ultimate expression of these is the Swedish Goggles, which are very small plastic eye cups held together with elastic and need to be constructed individually to ensure a tight fit. Gasket goggles are slightly larger and will have a foam/rubber gasket around the edge, which will make them more comfortable.
Whilst these are the lightest weight goggles, they will not have the same seal strength as larger goggles so could potentially be knocked off and tend to have a relatively narrow field of view.
Open Water/triathlon goggles
These are larger than the Racing goggles, and incorporate a larger seal skirt around the eyecups, ensuring a firmer fit. The larger size also allows a wider field of view which is more suited to open water, where an awareness of your surroundings is more important. The straps tend to be thicker and will often be ratcheted to allow adjustment on the fly, which helps if you need to wear a thicker swimming hat for cold water.
These goggles are not too large though, so are still suitable for pool swimming although not as streamlined as the pure racing goggles.
At the largest extent are swimming masks, which are heading up towards snorkel territory. These goggles are intended for extreme conditions or people who are uncomfortable in the water and find it difficult to get their heads underwater. These are extremely stable and won’t be knocked off easily, making them ideal for nervous swimmers, but the large size tends to trap air, so they can get foggy if used in pools.
They aren’t aesthetically as appealing as the others, but if you are very nervous in open water, they will help you relax.
Key features you will see
Photochromatic. Photochromatic lenses will react to the level of light becoming darker in bright light.
Anti-fog. a coating added to lenses to reduce the likelihood of fogging on the inside of the lenses.
Polarised. Polarised lenses reduce the glare from bright sunlight, making it easier for your eyes to adjust when you lift your head out of the water. They also make it easier to see through the surface of the water from above.
Anti UV. This coating reduced the amount of UV light which passes through, which helps to reduce damage to the eye. Think sunscreen for your eyes!
Mirrored. An alternative approach to reducing brightness is to add a mirrored coating which reduces some of the light transmission.
Hydrophobic. This means water repellant, literally “scared of water”. This is a property of the lens which promotes water streaming off the goggles.
Low Profile. Smaller, more streamlined goggles which will reduce drag in the water
Polycarbonate. A hard, tough plastic which will reduce the likelihood of glasses suffering impact damage
Field of vision – the area in front and to the side that you can see through the glasses. The greater the field of vision the more
Thin ones will keep you streamlined in the pool, but you might want to consider a thicker one for open water.
What should I look for in a triathlon wetsuit
You can’t race without one, but what’s the difference between 2 and 5mm neoprene? And do I really need hydrophobic coatings?
With the possible exception of your bike, no other piece of kit needs to be as properly fitted as your wet suit. It has to be snug enough to ensure that it only maintains a thin layer of water between it and your skin, but loose enough that you can actually get it on an off. Most importantly, it needs to b long enough. A short or badly fitted wetsuit at the shoulder will add massive resistance to your swimming stroke and tire you out really quickly!
Like all modern equipment, the swimming wetsuit has become specialised to offer a range of features unique to open water swimming, and whilst the best Huub wetsuit will undoubtedly make you a little faster in the water, you have to balance a budget with a realistic expectation of performance improvement! If you want to swim faster, training and experience will help you more than a special coating on your wetsuit!
Unless you are lucky enough to compete in the Indian Ocean, it’s extremely likely that a wetsuit will be compulsory, but in most cases, the type is not specified except for cold water swims. That means you can happily jump in with you old surfing wetsuit and you probably won’t be alone.
If you are looking for a new wetsuit, but are not going to use it a lot, then there are a couple of options. Firstly, you will find a number of companies doing season long hire of a wetsuit, which means you’ll enjoy newer technology at a more reasonable price. Secondly, search the web for sales stock. Wetsuits are a bit like fashion, and the big companies change designs fast enough that there is often end of season bargains to be had.
Finally, there will always be a number of second-hand wetsuits around, especially at the end of the season, and you might be lucky to find one in your size.
However, the fit is important, so it is actually worth buying new especially if you have a good local supplier.
Some of the features of the wet suit
Wet suits are made of a rubber called neoprene, which can be made into a foam-type material. This foaming makes the neoprene lighter, elastic and more insulating, but also makes it soft and easily damaged.
Foamed neoprene will be used for the majority of the suit, with collars being made of non-foaming neoprene to create a strong seal, which is essential for fit and warmth
Foam neoprene is characterised by its thickness, with thicker foams being lighter and more insulating, making them ideal for open water swimming as they add buoyancy and keep you warm, However, this also makes the rubber tighter and less stretchy, hence you need to find a balance.
Most triathlon wetsuits are made of 3-4mm neoprene for the body with thinner neoprene for the arms and sometimes legs (although having extra buoyancy in the legs helps)
The zip tends to be on the back for two reasons. Firstly, it keeps the zip out of the way when swimming, but mostly because it is easier to bend forward to get the arms out than trying to bend the shoulders back. the zip will extend from the base of the back to the back of the neck and will do up from the bottom to top. The Zip will generally have a long cord so that you can reach it to pull it up and down your self and will often have a velcro end to attach the end to the wetsuit.
Some wetsuits have hydrophobic coatings which make them more slippery in the water by reducing drag. You may also find shaped rubber panels on the wetsuits to achieve the same end.
Neoprene is easy to damage ( yes, you will rip your wetsuit at some point, but don’t worry about it), and to keep the structure intact, wetsuits have a thin inner lining which is tougher and stronger. When putting on your wetsuit, pull it up from the inside to avoid damaging the soft neoprene.
getting eh right fit for the collar is important for to reasons. Firstly, a wet suit is designed to maintain a thin layer of water between you and the suit both to help you move and keep you warm so you don’t want water flooding in. Foam neoprene is very compressive so is not suitable for the neck, hence a rubber neoprene is used, forming a sigh enough seal. Secondly, the necks the only part of the body which moves relative the wetsuit, and there is a risk of chafing at the neck the collar doesn’t fit properly.
This is especially true for sea swims, where salt adds to the chafing, or where there is velcro that can rub against the neck.
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Swimming training equipment
Instilling the right technique is the single most important aspect of swim training programmes. you can cycle well without understanding what circular pedalling or adopting the aero position, but no matter how strong or fit you are, you can’t outrace bad technique.
Rather than focussing on the complete stroke, the creation of proper technique is built up from small sections, it might be getting the kick right or a good pull for example. This is trained through a series of drills which focus on the individual part of the skill in isolation. This often requires additional equipment and the most common are outlined below.
A word of caution though, most of these are designed for pool use and may not be suitable for open water sessions
Pull buoys have a number of functions but are predominantly designed to isolate the legs when swimming. This makes kicking difficult, putting more emphasis on the arms and upper body, and also simulates the buoyancy of the wetsuit.
To do this, the pull buoy is dumbbell-shaped and fits between the thighs. They come in different shapes and buoyancies, so getting on that fits and stays naturally in place will help. Some will have one end bigger than the other which changes the way they sit in the water.
Most people will be familiar with this from learning to swim as kids, and it’s essentially the same. The Kickboard is a piece of foam, shaped to be both aerodynamic and comfortable to use, that acts as a buoyancy aid, isolating the arms at the front of the body and keeping the head above water to make breathing easier. In this position, the only way to push yourself forward is with the legs, making it ideal for kicking drills.
The board can also be held against the side of the head of practising sidekick.
Most pools will have boards you can use, so don’t feel you have to buy one, but if you do, the only real considerations are a comfortable shape that lets you grab the board when swimming and that its a suitable size for you.
You can also use a pull buoy as a float in a pinch
There are a number of products designed to add resistance when swimming or to simulate swimming out of the pool. These are optional, and as mentioned above, the key is technique not strength, so these should only be used when you have a good, consistent stroke. Some are designed to wrap around the legs to make the kick more difficult, whereas others are designed to be attached to a fixed point on the edge of the pol, essentially letting you swim in place.
There are parachutes or inflatable drogues designed to add resistance across the whole stroke, attached the leg.
Finally there are swimming resistance bands for dry land use which allow you to simulate the swim stroke even when there is no pool. These can be useful for general resistance training as well.
Breathing is a complex matter in freestyle swimming and if the stroke is built around the breathing rather than the other way round you risk unbalancing your stroke, reducing performance and risking injury.
One way around this is to use a swimming snorkel to allow you to keep your head underwater all fo the time, focussing on your stroke. These snorkels differ from diving snorkels because the tube comes straight up the centre of the face rather than to the side, which makes sure that you are not catching it with your arm.
These are a great tool if you are having difficulty with your breathing and stroke timing, but don’t forget, you won’t be able to use them in the race.
Swimming flippers are much shorter than diving flippers and have two, seemingly contradictory uses. Firstly they allow you to strengthen your kick by adding resistance and secondly they allow you to increase the propulsive force of your kick when performing drills. You need to make sure that they are not too stiff or big a this can lead to injury however