The Importance of Open Water Swim Equipment

Open water swimmers transitioning from the pool will have some new equipment variables: primarily this is about a wetsuit, but even goggles and a swim cap have to be reconsidered.


Since most swimming in open water is colder than the average pool, a wetsuit becomes necessary for insulation, especially for longer swims, since the average body temperature of 37°C, is about 15-20° warmer than most Northern hemisphere swims. A wetsuit has other advantages as well: A wetsuit improves floatation, which is an added safety feature for open water swimmers, and it improves the body position. Most open water swimmers have faster swim times in open water due to wearing a wetsuit for this reason.

A wetsuit however ‘can’ have some potential problems, especially for newbie open water swimmers. There can be a feeling of chest and/or neck constriction to get comfortable with, and this may be worsened if the wetsuit is ill-fitting, which commonly happens when someone borrows a friend’s wetsuit. Given that a wetsuit creates a feeling of overall body constriction even before entering the water, it can contribute to swimmers feeling like they can’t breathe as easily. This feeling can cause a swimmer to become anxious and it can undermine an open water swim. Once you make a commitment to regular open water swimming, get a wetsuit properly fitted to your body—many sports shops and wetsuit companies will let you try them even in open water before purchase.

Another common area of restriction is in the shoulders, which, for some swimmers, starts to feel like a fight with your wetsuit with every forward reach or your arm. If your wetsuit is otherwise a good fit, two corrections can help: First, make sure your wetsuit is pulled up into your crotch, to allow as much neoprene as possible for the torso to maneuver in; and second, make sure the sleeves are pulled well up, to allow some redundancy in the shoulders. Try moving your shoulders before getting into the water, adjusting parts of the wetsuit as necessary. Once you have made your shoulder, knee area, and crotch adjustments, lean forward in a toe touching motion. This will provide a little more stretch in the critical areas of shoulder, crotch, and knees.

An old or excessively loose wetsuit can be problematic as well. When excessive leaks or rushes of cool (and especially cold) water continue to affect an open water swimmer, the process can drain the swimmer of energy fighting the cold, and cause more breathing difficulties due to the physiological reflex called the cold shock response. Get a wetsuit that fits, and replace it once the number of holes or zipper problems can no longer be repaired.


Although goggles have essentially the same purpose as they do in the pool, there are some considerations here as well. First, consider using tinted goggles to reduce glare, reflections and direct sunshine when in open water. Second, make sure your goggles are good fitting, since a leaky set of goggles are more of a challenge to clear in open water than in a pool, where it is easy to stand, and readjust the goggles. Since all of us have different-shaped faces, a goggle choice that fits your face is personal, but once you find a brand that fits you well, stay with that brand, and always have a relatively new pair in the wings when your old ones are becoming stained, or scratched or easily fogged up. For larger swim events, you need to have reliable goggles. If you do find yourself with a collection of water in your goggles in the middle of an open water swim, roll onto your back, and just pull your goggles off your face to drain the water, and then push them gently back onto your face to reseal them.

Swim cap

There are two considerations in your choice of swim cap in open water for warmth and for visibility. For water temperatures above 20°C, an ordinary latex cap is usually adequate. Between 15-20°C, a silicone cap would provide improved insulation and can be pulled down to cover most of your forehead. Under 15°C, consider double capping with 2 silicone caps. Under 10°C, consider a neoprene cap. Latex caps tend to fit a bit larger so make sure you have a cap that fits your head properly. A sliding cap while you are swimming detracts from your focus and comfort.

Since swimmers are about 80% submerged, are often wearing black neoprene, and can be hard to see in even light swells by watercraft, a brightly-colored swim cap is important to enhance visibility.

Open Water Swim Buoy

In the last 10 years, the International Swim Hall of Fame in Florida has been promoting the use of the safety swim buoy, an inflated, beach ball-sized, dual-chambered, brightly colored marker than swimmers tow behind them to be seen and monitored more easily. Some versions can also carry personal items in a dry inner chamber for point-to-point swims, or to keep personal effects with you. Most swimming events in Asia have long made them mandatory, as has some in England and now in Canada. Although they cannot be sold as a personal floatation device, since they have the theoretical risk of suddenly deflating, they can nonetheless give an anxious swimmer something to hang on to, to rest or calm down. The only company selling these in Canada at this time is at

It may seem counter-intuitive, but towing a small inflated open water swim buoy does not actually cause sufficient drag to slow you down. The bow wave that is created by your shoulders and upper body creates an eddy behind you, which actually pushes the buoy forward, virtually eliminating any possibility of drag. And because the short lease attachment allows the safety swim buoy to float over the bend of your knees, it is out of the way of the finish of your hand at the end of your arm stroke; and since it does not reach past the upper calves, your kick is also unaffected.

As safety concerns continue to ramp up in the coming years in the sport of open water swimming, expect to see the personal swim buoy as a fixture in both training and races.

Photo Credit: w:hs

1 reply
  1. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    Thank you for the information on goggles as a tool for swimming. My son has just taken up swimming lessons and has been asking for some goggles I wanted to get him some decent ones as know some can leak!


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