By Alice Hohl
Triathlon can become an expensive pursuit, but it need not be that way at the beginning. There's no need to go broke in order to be race-ready. Here is a rundown of what you absolutely need to train and race the swim leg of a triathlon, as well as some tips on adding to your gear later.
The only thing you really need is a swimsuit and a pair of goggles. That's it. Easy, right?Well, it's not quite that easy. Goggles seem like they are all the same, but they fit quite differently. A little trick is to take a pair of goggles and stick the lenses onto your eyes without putting the strap on. Give them a little push. If you can take your hands away and the goggles stay on your face just from the suction, they are probably a pretty good fit.Goggles come with clear or colored lenses. Clear is great for the indoor pool, but if you are swimming in a triathlon with the sun coming up in front of you, you might want tinted lenses. A light tint or blue lenses are a nice compromise, though some say it's difficult to see orange buoys on the swim course when wearing blue-tinted goggles.
Aqua Sphere Seal Mask
TYR Hydrolite Goggles
Since you aren't going to show up on the beach at your first triathlon without a lot of swimming under your belt, you need to think about training in the pool as well as actually completing a triathlon.The reason this is important is that there are a few pieces of gear that don't switch very well between the two. For example, a nice trisuit or a pair of trishorts is going to deteriorate very quickly in chlorinated pool water, so you don't want to wear your nice race gear for training, unless you train exclusively in open water.
If you don't want to go through swimsuits like tissues, look into a suit made mostly or entirely of polyester. (Don't gag. The fabric has come a long way since the days of the leisure suit.) Nylon will break down in chlorine and quickly become too stretched out (or see-through) to wear.You also don't want something that is going to cause drag in the water and slow you down. For women, a suit that is fine for the beach -- one that scoops low in the back -- might act like a bowl and scoop up water when you are moving forward in the lap lane. Also, swimsuits with skirts and the like are not recommended for lap swimming. You probably don't have the body you want right now, but the people you will run across in the pool and the locker room are more likely to look at you funny if you are swimming laps in a suit with a ruffle than if you are wearing a "real" swimsuit and trying your best, even if you are showing more leg than makes you feel comfortable.The same goes for men. It seems a lot less embarrassing to wear regular old swim trunks, but you will be able to swim much more efficiently in a suit that is tight to your skin. If you don't have the nerve to sport a speedo, the "jammer" style that fits like compression shorts is a great compromise. When trying on a competition suit, it should be tight enough that it's a struggle to get it on. It will loosen up with wear.
Check out BeginnerTriathlete's gear reviews for suits favored by triathletes: men's swimwear - women's swimwear. Our athletes will tell you what they really think, and they also represent many body types and sizes.
Always rinse your suit in clear water and use the swimsuit spinner at the pool, if they have one. Hanging your suit by the straps or wringing it out can cause it to stretch out prematurely. If you must hang a women's suit to dry, try folding it in half and hanging it by the middle so there is not so much weight pulling on the shoulder straps.
If you are certain you are into this sport and you aren't going to do one race and quit, you may want to go ahead and invest in a triathlon suit of some kind. This is an article (or two articles) of clothing that will take you from the swim, through the bike and to the end of the run without changing, adding or adjusting anything. They are very nice to have and they eliminate all those headaches and questions surrounding what to wear if you are completing the swim in a swimsuit. There's no need to pull on bike shorts or running shorts or worry about your swimsuit rubbing you the wrong way, especially with another layer over it.A trisuit is a one-piece suit that includes lightly padded trishorts and a connected top section that covers your torso. Trisuits are comfortable in the waist because there is no drawstring or elastic band to cinch your tummy. (For this same reason, they can be a bit unflattering on all but the leanest individuals.)Some prefer a pair of trishorts (much like bike shorts but with a smaller, quick-drying pad) and a top or shirt of some kind. This is a popular combination because it makes it easier to navigate bathroom stops without completely undressing, and the tops and bottoms can be mixed and matched if something wears out, or if your size changes on top but not on bottom. For trishorts, the main thing to look for is that there is no seam running straight up and down through the crotch. An ill-placed seam is a surefire way to be uncomfortable on the bike. A good pair of trishorts will be sewn (inside and outside) along the edge of the padding, not through the middle of it.
Triathlon tops are meant to be worn on the swim and need to be very snug so they don't take on water. Pockets are a great feature for carrying a gel or something on the bike or run, but make sure they are super tight and don't cause drag in the water. Men's tops are pretty straightforward. For women, some of us can get away with the built-in bra that is part of the top. Others find they need to wear a separate sports bra underneath to have enough support for the run. If this is you, make sure the sports bra is made of a thin, quick-drying fabric and doesn't chafe underneath the tri top.
Trisuit reviews: men womenTrishort reviews: men womenTritop reviews: men women
If cost is no factor or you have a money tree growing in your backyard, go ahead and spring for the stuff the rest of us have accumulated over many, many years in this sport. A wetsuit is a great item to have if you plan any cold water swims. Wetsuits make you more bouyant (and therefore faster) and shield your body from the cold. Many people find sleeveless suits less restrictive. This is especially true of men with big shoulders or broad chests. Others feel that if you really need a wetsuit, it should be very cold, and you may as well go for the long sleeves. If you put the suit on properly, carefully moving the loose material toward your torso, you should be able to move your arms and shoulders without fatigue. Don't try to get by with an old skiing wetsuit. It will slow you down instead of speed you up, and it might be too thick to comply with current regulations.Other nice accessories include your own kickboard, pull buoy, fins and paddles to take to the pool. Most pools have kickboards and pull buoys available for use. Fins and paddles are a less common find, and they can be useful for technique drills or for improving strength.There are a few new products on the market, such as watches that count your laps automatically, and underwater mp3 players. If you've got to have it, get it. Just remember that a good part of triathlon is mental toughness. If you dole out the bucks to make your workouts easier to handle, it might come back to bite you on race day.
Here are a few more thoughts about swim gear. Don't pay money for a swim cap. Almost every race provides one. If you need one to train in prior to your first race, ask for a recommendation of a brand of swim cap from someone at the pool who has a swim cap with a race logo on it. They likely have 10 or 15 in the bottom of their gym bag and will hand one (or more) to you.All the gear in the world won't make you a good swimmer. If you have a choice between buying a piece of gear or purchasing swim instruction (whether it's coaching, the fee for a Masters Swim club, a book of swim workouts, a video or a swim clinic) always choose the instruction. Out of the three sports, swimming is the one you really can't master just by working hard.See our other articles in this series: Beginner Bike Gear and Beginner Run Gear.
And, as always, remember the triathlon mantra: Nothing new on race day. That means don't wear anything or try anything that you haven't used in training!
Editor at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.