I think a good place to start with Triathlon 101 is to talk about gear… and since swim is the first leg or the race, we will begin there.
Our expert for swim is Jennifer Harrison! (You can find her bio at the end of this post).
Let’s talk about what gear we need from head to toe. Here is a general swim gear checklist:
- Race Day:
- Swim Cap
- Swimsuit or Trisuit / kit
- Wetsuit (for open water, water temp dependent)
- Speedsuit (again, for open water, water temp dependent)
- Tri-Glide or other wetsuit lubricant
DR: It seems many triathlons tend to supply a color-coded swim cap. And really… If I need to provide my own, I tend to just pick ones that I think are neat. And it is a bonus if it will pull over my long hair. Do you have any personal preference for swim caps? I know they make them from different materials, but I have not experimented much.
My favorite TYR swimcaps
JH: They offer latex and silicon caps. Latex are cheaper and more popular. I personally like the latex ones – I find that they are not too hot or not too loose. I do not like caps that are loose! And, latex caps are less expensive so races usually offer the latex ones. Silicon ones tend to be heavier, hotter but also less restricting.
DR: I have also heard that some athletes wear two swimcaps, to prevent their goggles from being pulled off. Do you find that to be a problem? (Now I am worried about getting beaten up in the big races! Maybe I am lucky I tend to do ones with smaller wave starts!)
JH:I do not personally do this, but many do. If you do this, make sure you practice it in training first. Also, make sure you like the double caps and do not get too hot in the water. BUT, many people like the security of the double caps to ensure their goggles stay on.
DR: Speaking of goggles… I have been thru a lot of pairs of them to try to find the magic pair that won’t fog up, won’t leak water, and won’t leave raccoon rings around my eyes. It seems like since we all like different goggles, it is probably specific to the swimmer, and personal preference on fit. Do you have any goggles that you like in particular?
My TYR swimcap and goggles on the long course
JH: I absolutely LOVE Speed Women Vanquishers. I have like 30 pairs. I used to be superstitious and buy a new pair before EVERY race. I don’t do that anymore, but I still have many pairs. Goggles are a personal preference, but finding the right pair is imperative!
DR: I have purchased TYR anti-fog for my goggles. Do you have any other tips to keep them from fogging up?
JH:Throw it away! The secret is Johnson’s baby shampoo – put a drop in your goggles before you get them wet – and then rinse them out in the pool and they are GOLDEN! Trust me on this! NO anti-fog stuff – it will ulcerate your eyes if you don’t get all the stuff out – not good.
Photo courtesy of Jaime Berry
DR: How about different lenses for a pool swim versus open water, where you might get more glare from the sun?
JH:All swimmers should have a clear pair for very dark/cloudy days and then a mirrored pair or tinted pair for sunny days. And, always carry both pairs for your races!
DR: Do you have any tips to keep the goggles from letting in water? I usually wet them a bit to get a good seal, but that tends to give me rings around the eyes.
JH: We all get rings around the eyes – no getting past that if you want to keep the water out. So, it is a balancing act. I like my goggles tight, so I live w/ the raccoon eyes. To me, way better than water in the goggles – especially “dirty” lake water. So, it is usually one or the other.
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Ann Neumeier
DR: Let’s talk about swimsuits for a bit. I think many athletes just getting started often wear a swimsuit for the swim and then throw on a t-shirt and shorts for the bike and run. And for short races, that is a good option since chafing won’t be as much of an issue. However, if they chose to move onto longer races, they will want to invest in a trisuit or trikit. Do you have a preference for a one-piece versus a two-piece kit? I like to wear a one-piece trisuit when I can because I find it more comfortable. Often, the tri-tops ride up while I run and I have to pull them back down a lot.
Photo courtesy of Susan Cho Oyler
JH:Correct, the one piece is also very aero-dynamic and does not move much from racing. I like the 1 piece too sometimes, but I find that they are hot sometimes. I actually race in the 2 piece more just because I like to have the ability to lift my top up if I am hot.
DR: A wetsuit probably isn’t something an athlete needs right away, but sounds like it is really vital when doing a Half Ironman or Ironman. (People seem to get really upset when the water temperature is not wetsuit legal). What advantages are there to wearing a wetsuit? At some point, it might take longer to get it back off than it would save in the water, right?
Photo courtesy of Lindsey Dillon
JH: An athlete – regardless of their swimming ability, is always faster in the wetsuit and also spends less energy swimming when in a wetsuit. IF the wetsuit is legal, always wear it, no matter how short or long the race is. Even if the athlete swims “easy” in the wetsuit because the water is so hot (76 degrees is HOT) – the athlete will expend less energy and be overall faster in the wetsuit.
If the athlete practices getting the wetsuit off, it is fast and very limited time is lost. However, the GAIN by wearing the wetsuit is priceless.
I always wear it – always when legal.
Photo courtesy of Jaime Berry
DR: Can you tell us about the rules for wetsuits and water temp?
JH:USAT dictates this -→
As per USAT rules, if the water temperature is 78 degrees Fahrenheit or below then wetsuits ARE allowed. At 78.1 to 83.9 degrees Fahrenheit participants may wear a wetsuit at their own discretion; however, wearing a wetsuit in the temperature range will mean that the athletes are ineligible for awards.
DR: I think the first time I put on my wetsuit, it took me an hour (haha! Kidding!) . I used Tri-Glide like I was spraying myself down with Pam! Do you have any tips on how to get a wetsuit on without dislocating a shoulder?
JH:It does take awhile to get into a wetsuit, but if it is taking the athlete an hour to get in the wetsuit, the wetsuit may not be the best fit. It may be too tight and thus too restricting. Suit Juice is a GREAT product for lubrication. Body Glide also works out well.
Photo courtesy of Kendra Krueger
DR: Do you have any experience with speedsuits? When would you wear one of those? And how are they different from a wetsuit?
JH: A speedsuit is what an athlete would wear OVER their tri kit for non-wetsuit swims. They provide no buoyancy but they are aero-dynamic and “speedier” in the water. They are very tight and offer a limitation of gapping from the TRI KITs. I would recommend using them for all non-wetsuit legal swims. My favorite is the ROKA.
DR: So once we are dressed and lined up in the water and ready to race, I like to splash the cold water on my face so that it isn’t as much of a shock when I dive in. What is your biggest tip for a successful swim?
JH: A few good tips:
- KNOW the course. If you can, swim the course the day before (parts of it, of course) and know how the sun will be during your race. No surprises!
- Know the buoys and how the course will flow.
- If you are a timid swimmer, let the gun go off, let the swimmers go and wait just 5 seconds and go. You will get cleaner water and less commotion. It is worth it for 5 seconds.
- Make sure your goggles will not fog up. I mentioned using Johnson’s baby shampoo to clean out the goggles before you start (and fully rinse). Do that!
- Warm up in the swim for 5-10 minutes with a few 10” pick ups if you can. The swim is always a very fast and hard start, so prepare your body for that!
Thank you, Jennifer! If anyone has any questions on swim gear, please feel free to reach out. We will talk more about swimming later when we cover the swim course, transitioning to bike, and training for the swim. Next we will continue our gear talk with bike gear!
BIO: Jennifer Harrison has been racing for 20+ years and has competed in over 200 triathlons from sprint to Ironman distances. Jennifer also coaches fulltime and runs a triathlon company called JHC Triathlon Coaching. Jennifer lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband, Jerome, and her teenage twins, Graham and Morgan.