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Spring Swim Review

The Marketing Crew tests swim skins at the University of Arizona.

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With the spring thaw it’s time to start thinking about the first swims of the season. Swimming is a delightfully tech-free activity but a few pieces of basic equipment can add variety and focus to a workout. Some newer technology will help you go faster in the water on race day and keep track of your pool workouts. I’ve also picked a few tried and true swim “necessories” commonly recommended from experienced triathletes to first season newbies.

I learned swimming from the late Doug Stern. Stern, an animated New York coach who hosted an annual training camp on the island of Curacao in the Dutch Antilles, was an ambassador of the aquatic. At one of Doug’s Caribbean swim camps both Doug Stern and a strong swimmer, Triathlete and Ironman named Andrew Kennedy noticed my frustration with goggles between pool sets. My goggles leaked, were difficult to adjust and fogged frequently. They were also uncomfortable, especially during long open water swims. My relationship with goggles was so bad I went to swim start of every triathlon with two pairs, just in case one pair broke seconds before the start of my wave.

The southern Caribbean has been a big testing ground for swim equipment for me during open water swims like this one with the late Doug Stern.

Andrew Kennedy told me, after a particularly frustrating ocean swim, I needed to switch goggles. “Try these” he said, handing me my first pair of Aquasphere Kaimans. I notice Doug wore Kaimans too.

The Aquasphere Kaiman is a comfortable, wide field-of-view open water goggle that protects you from hits from other swimmers in a crowded swim start and has a dark tint for early moring swim starts when the sun is low on the horizon.

The Aquasphere Kaiman is the best swim goggle I’ve ever tried, and I swear I’ve tried them all. A few elegant technologies converge to make the Kaiman the alpha predator of the goggle world. The most prominent feature is the comfortable, leak-free fit. Kaimans are larger goggles than pool devotees and “socket rocket” mavens like, but these are triathletes goggles, made for rough swim starts and choppy open water swims into an early morning rising sun. A unique gasket built like a miniature SCUBA mask surrounds both eye cup. The lenses are curved for a lower profile, better fit and a wide field of view. The Plexisol lens is treated with an anti-fog coating that is more effective than not (you’ll still be spitting in them or using toothpaste to knock down fogging in some weather). The mirror lens version of the Kaiman is the best race morning goggle I’ve ever used because of its dark tint and reflective outer coating that makes open water sighting into a rising sun almost tolerable. Strap adjustment on the Kaimans is one handed, super fast and locks securely. A strap keeper controls excess strap length so the goggles can be worn under a swim cap to keep them from being knocked off during a rough swim start. And while the Phelps wanna-bes eschew larger goggle designs the soft eye cups and wide angle lens of the Kaimans are nice to have when the swimmer’s heel in front of you meets your face in a chaotic swim start.

In rough swim starts or for nervous swimmers the Aquasphere Seal XP Mask improves visibility and protects your face. Good visibility in open water and a less claustrophobic goggle can help with open water swim anxiety.

Aquasphere has another unique goggle that may reduce open water swim anxiety in skittish swimmers, provides unmatched face protection and may be the answer for contact lens wearers. The Aquasphere Seal XP mask is a miniature dive mask adapted for open water swimming. While the pool crowd really looks down their noses through their Swedish goggles at the unabashedly dorky Seal XP Mask, some elite military units use the Seal XP for open water combat swims and rescue operations. The Plexisol polymer lens provides a wider field of view than some SCUBA masks. This better vision is less claustrophobic and a welcome sensation for swimmers who are nervous about swimming with the big fish. The Seal XP also provides excellent protection from being hit in the face during crowded swims, and is very difficult to flood or knock lose. Another nice feature to the Seal XP is that it doubles as a mini-dive mask for underwater exploration in resort areas, taking up less space in your luggage than a full size dive/snorkeling mask. You can pack a Seal XP and a pair of short fins into a day pack and be ready to explore shallow reefs during day hike on tropical holidays. I used my Seal XP mask to swim with sickle fin lemon sharks at Buck Island Reef National Monument at the St. Croix 70.3 race.

Cold water in your ear can cause vertigo during an open water swim. Mack's Wax Pillow Soft Ear Plugs prevent water intrusion, prevent vertigo and help you go to your happy place in chaotic swim starts.

When I did the Bonita New Zealand Ironman I consistently emerged from the glacial fed lake swim course with an odd case of vertigo after practice swims. I mentioned it to (then) elite amateur Hillary Biscay at breakfast one day. “Every time I stand up after one of those morning swims I’m dizzy.” Biscay told me it was the cold water in my ear. Using ear plugs would prevent the intrusion of cold water into my ear and prevent cold water vertigo. I was able to find a box of the last Mack’s Wax Pillow Soft Ear Plugs in town. Mack’s Pillow Soft Ear Plugs are made of moldable silicone. You pull one of the blobs of silicone out of the package; break it in half and smush one half over each ear opening.

Mack's Wax Pillow Soft Ear Plugs conform precisely to the shape of your inner ear for a perfect, custom fit. You barely notice them when they are in.

The non-toxic, hypo-allergenic silicone seals out water and noise, preventing cold water from entering your ear and providing a more comfortable, water tight seal than any other ear plug I’ve tried. Mack’s Pillow Soft Earplugs also reduce noise during a long flight to and from your “A” race and help you go to your happy place during crowded swim starts where the sound of the start cannon and splashing of athletes contribute to newbie swim freak-out. Mack’s Wax Pillow Soft Ear Plugs are sold in multi-count packages that can live in your swim and transition bag for swim practices and race day. They are mini wetsuits for your ears and the most important swim accessory I’ve found since the swim suit.

Looking like something from a Jules Verne novel, the Finis Freestyle Center Snorkel helps you rapidly improve your freestyle by enabling you to see your stroke underwater. Learning to breath through your mouth- but not your nose- underwater takes a little work for some people.

And while we’re discussing swim accessories that many swim purists will scoff at but are uber-useful to the real world triathlete (how many rough water ocean swims has the local pool stud done?) the Finis Freestyle Snorkel tops the list for odd looks and super utility. The Finis Freestyle was also introduced to me in Curacao by Doug Stern. Doug used the center snorkel to help us with drills where we became more aware of crossing our hands over during the entry phase, preventing us from swimming straight. The bad thing about the Finis Freestyle Snorkel is you’ll finally see how awful your stroke really is.

The Finis Freestyle Snorkel is angled optimally for flip turns and freestyle swimming. During quick flip turns you may find you do not need to clear your snorkel at all.

With the center snorkel the largest detracting factor to our stroke is dialed out of the equation: rolling our head to breath. We can see our stroke more clearly (through our Aquasphere Kaimans) and make corrections to our entry and catch phase. The Finis Freestyle Center Snorkel is a little odd for some swimmers at first since you have to breathe exclusively through your mouth while your nose is open to the water. This freaks some people out but it is a skill worth mastering on the way to getting comfortable in the water. The Finis Freestyle Center Snorkel makes open water swimming fun once you master the breathing. You simply keep your face in the water and focus on your stroke mechanics. When you do that, you learn to swim better when you return to conventional freestyle breathing.

Aquasphere Zip Fins provide powerful propulsion for stroke analysis and drills and add a margin of safety in open water practice swims. They are compact and easy to pack.

Swim fins perform two functions for open water swimmers during pool training and open water forays. In the pool, fins increase your velocity through the water with minimal effort. The added speed exposes stroke deficiencies in no uncertain terms so you can correct them. In the open water during training swims fins are safety equipment, giving you a chance to swim your way out of strong currents and changing tides even when fatigued. The Aquasphere Zip Fin is a split fin with a SCUBA-like heel strap and foot pocket for adjustable fit even when wearing booties. When combined with an Aquasphere Seal Mask or Seal XP you also have a compact snorkeling ensemble that fits in a day pack for underwater exploration while at a destination race or on vacation.

The TYR Torque Pro Swimskin takes some work to don but is easy to doff in T1 and absorbs much less water than a conventional one piece tri suit while also improving hydrodynamics.

Swimskins turned the swimming world on end at the last Olympics when records began to topple as athletes squeezed into the new hydrodynamic suits. Swim federations promptly banned many of the designs for competitive pool use confirming their competitive advantage. The new generation of triathlon and pool legal swim skins improves body hydrodynamics, absorb less water and provide compression to optimize your swim. The TYR Torque Pro Swimskin uses a high neck and arm holes for improved fit, water seal and hydrodynamics.

Olympic Silver medalist Lacy Nymeyer (left) helps our own Jaclyn Applegate don the TYR Torque Pro Swimskin in preparation for a test run.

The suit is made of 80% Polyester fine weave fabric with a hydrophobic inner and outer layer to resist water absorption. Torque claims a less than .5% water absorption rate. Our tests of several swim skins indicated they all absorbed less water than a conventional stretch fabric triathlon suit. “TYR is going make the best swim skin out there. They know the most about swimming in the tri industry.” said our tester, Jaclyn Applegate, a former elite level swimmer, college water polo player and prolific age grouper. Applegate was also impressed by the quick doffing of the Torque Pro, ideal for a fast T1.

Especially for new swimmers, logging distance swam can be maddening. the Finis Swimsense not only helps you monitor your swim workout it interacts with an impressive on line training log.

When I started doing triathlons in the early 1980’s I had no competitive swimming background. One of the greatest challenges to a neophyte was keeping track of distance in swim workouts. Counting strokes was out of the question. While the need to count laps and intervals may be lost on a trained swimmer it provides a valuable insight for a new swimmer- which is most triathletes. The Finis Swimsense Performance Monitor gives the new swimmer all the data they need and provides experienced swimmers a new way to look at their workouts through the Finis Swimsense Online training log.

The Finis Swimsense was easy to use with in-pool push offs but not diving starts according to our tester, Seton Claggett.

The Finis Swimsense uses a series of motion-detecting sensors built into the case to calculate stroke count and distance swam. Swimsense is not effective in open water, and is intended for pool workouts. Founder Seton Claggett tested the Swimsense Performance Monitor and was impressed that the Swimsense Bridge, downloaded to your computer for data upload to the Swimsense website, worked without issue. He also liked the idea of the feature that enables swimmers to share their workouts on social networks. Claggett did mention that the Swimsense did not work well on an initial lap with a diving start. He also commented on having to use the start/stop button manually at the beginning and end of each set. The device did record data accurately according to Claggett (except for the diving start) and provided a wealth of insight into swim training. The online agent is free and provides a useful training log.

The University of Arizona features one of the most beautiful swim and fitness facilities in the U.S.

The photo shoot for our swim equipment spring survey was done at the University of Arizona’s opulent Campus Recreation Center Pool, a modern exercise and swim facility that also houses an impressive outdoor climbing gym, extensive adventure outdoor resources and the most impressive fitness facility I’ve ever seen. It surpasses the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

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