For a lot of folks, coming to grips with the swim can be the most intimidating part of getting ready for their first triathlon. It takes us out of our comfort zone - you know, walking or biking around surrounded by air - and puts us in a strange environment - you know, bobbing around surrounded by water. Most of us have seen coverage of the Hawaii Ironman with 2400 swimmers all thrashing around like the world's largest human washing machine. During my Ironman swim, I was elbowed, grabbed, kicked in the eye and kicked in the family jewels (twice!).
Sure, the swim can be scary, but it doesn't have to be. If you're new to swimming, the best thing you can do is get comfortable in the water. If your first race has a swim leg in a pool, then hit the pool. If your first tri has an open water swim, then in addition to your pool time, you'll want to swim outside too. Open water is a completely different animal, and takes a little getting used to. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's set you up with some gear first.
What they do: Unless you're Aquaman, you'll need some help seeing underwater. They'll also protect your eyes from chlorine pools.
Need Factor: 10/10
Cost Factor: $10-$20
Where to Shop: Triathlon Shops, Swimming Shops and Sporting Goods Stores will all carry the same brands. If you have questions, definitely check out your local tri shop or swimming specialty store. You may pay an extra dollar or two over the big-box chain stores, but knowing that you got the right product will be more than worth it. I would stay away from department stores like Target or Wally-World. The brands may be the same, but they're often a lesser quality version and not worth any potential savings.
What to look for: Goggles come in a couple different flavors. First, there are your standard competition goggles. They have small individual lenses, a plastic bridge to connect them and 1 or 2 straps to lash them onto your skull. I go with the Speedo Vanquisher, but there are similar products from TYR, Dolfin and a number of other manufacturers. They each have a slightly different contour, so you'll likely find that one brand fits your face better than the others.
The best way to test the fit is to take it out of the packaging (don't worry, it's not stealing) and press the goggles gently into your eye sockets without putting the straps around your head. They should create a solid seal and hold in place on their own.
The other style of goggles you'll encounter are designed more specifically for open water swimming. They are built with larger lenses and sturdier frames. Some still have individual gaskets (the rubber parts that suction cup to your face), while others have a single gasket - similar to what you would find on a SCUBA mask. While they are somewhat more bulky, the larger lenses provide a better field of vision, and the thicker strapping systems can provide some with a more secure fit.
Why Spend the Extra Dough: You'll get quite a bit of bang for your buck with goggles. When properly cared for, they can last years. Spending $17 at a specialty store versus 7.99 at a department store will get you better rubber gaskets, higher quality plastic lenses and more adjustable straps so they're easier to fit to your head.
What they do: Control your mane, make you super hydro-dynamic, warm your noggin and keep your goggles in place.
Need Factor: 6/10
Cost Factor: $5-$12 (or FREE with races)
Where to Shop: See 'Goggles' above
What to Look For: There are two types of swim caps: latex and silicone. They also come as one-size-fits-all, so even you guys with monster craniums are in good shape. So, just pick a color you like and snap it onto your head.
Latex caps are the most common. I've gotten one from every race I've ever done. They're color-coded to match the wave I started with. I shave my head though, so a cap doesn't make me any more streamlined in the water, nor does it contain my flowing mane (unless I pull it down over my eyebrows). The only problem I've noticed with latex, is that after a couple of months in the chlorine pool, the material starts to fade and get thin, which leads me to the other type of swim cap...
Silicone caps usually run a buck or two more than their latex cousins. The material is thicker, and not quite as stretchy. Though, you still shouldn't have any problem putting it on. Silicone's strength is its near indestructibility. I've had the same black cap - seen in my profile photo to the right - for the last 3 years. Do I take care of it? Heck no. I usually ball it up and stuff it in my bag in between my shower sandals and towel. After one quick rinse to knock off any sand, it's ready to wear again.
I'd also recommend silicone if you're prone to ice cream headaches when swimming in colder water. The thicker material helps keep my melon warm. Now, you're probably wondering, "why does he wear a swim cap if he's already bald?". First of all, I'm not bald. I CHOOSE to shave my head as a preemptive strike. Second, since most tris require that each racer wear a cap, I may as well get used to it in practice. Third, if you put your cap on over your goggles, it'll help hold them on your head.
Why Spend the Extra Dough: Don't. Seriously. All swim caps do the same thing.
What they do: Cover your bits 'n' pieces.
Need Factor: 10/10
Cost Factor: $15-$60+
Where to Shop: You know those goggles and swim caps? Well, would you believe that you can get your suits there too?
What to look for: Before I get too far, let me remind you, I'm a boy. I have boy parts. If you are a lady, with all those wonderful lady parts, please consider checking out a swimming specialty store or tri shop if you have any questions about fit. Also, for now, we'll just take a look at suits for training. I'll cover racing clothing later on.
As a boy, I'm fortunate that my suits cost a fraction of those the ladies wear. Why are they cheaper? I would imagine it's because they use considerably less fabric. In any event, training suits come in a few different varieties.
The first is nylon shorts. These are baggy, may have pockets and are conservative enough to wear to the beach without drawing too much attention to yourself. The good news is that nylon is highly resistant to chlorine, so shorts like these can last pretty much indefinitely. However, since they're loose, they'll slow you down in the water. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as training with a little extra resistance can serve to make you stronger.
Next up are your more serious training suits. I'm partial to the Speedo Endurance line of products. You can check out my review of their square-cut shorts here. The longest option are jammer shorts. Wearing these is like wearing cycling shorts without the pad. If you're more modest, but still want a fast suit, jammers may be right up your alley.
As the legs get shorter, you come to the square-cut shorts. I usually opt for these because they're a little less expensive than jammers (less fabric) but they still cover my tushy.
Why Spend the Extra Dough: Honestly, as long as you're comfortable in the water, there's no need to spend a crazy amount of money on a suit. If you do decide to invest more, I would highly recommend the Speedo Endurance line since the fabric will last much longer in the pool than standard brands. Sure, the shorts will run you an extra $10 compared to their standard counterpart. However, they'll last 4-5 times longer.
Well, there you have it. Once you've got a suit, some goggles and maybe a swim cap, you're ready to hit the pool at your local Y, health club or rec center. We've got 2 more sports to get geared up for, and once we've got you set up for cycling and running, we'll be ready to train.