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Essential Swim Gear List for Beginner Swimmers and Triathletes

Taren Gesell

Gearing up for your triathlon swim sessions is affordable, but it can be confusing. While relatively inexpensive, there's no shortage of swim gear and gadgets you could possess. My goal here is to provide you with an essential list, the must-haves, so you can reduce the clutter in your bag and maximize your time in the water with the tools that’ll give you the most bang for your buck.

In this article you’ll find out:

  • The gear you need to make progress swimming
  • The exact type of gear we recommend and why we recommend it
  • The gear to avoid purchasing

Must have swim gear


Many triathletes have multiple sets of goggles for the different conditions in the pool and in open water. However, for those starting out swimming I recommend a simple pair of mirrored goggles that aren’t too large.

Mirrored goggles are great because they reduce the glare in open water allowing you to sight better. If you don’t get really dark mirrored goggles you can also use them in the pool, the only downside is that they might be a little dark.

We do not recommend you get any of the really large squishy goggles. In theory these goggles seem like they’d work well, but because there’s so much surface area that needs to suction to your face these large goggles often end up leaking more than slimmer swim goggles.

Example of swimming goggles

Amazon $25.99

Swim Cap

Almost any swim cap will do as long as it’s smooth and not made of a fabric that hold water. 

You can use a latex or silicone swim cap which are smooth and keep your hair dryer.  For some odd reason some swim caps are made of fabric and keep your hair in place, but hold water, let your hair get soaked in chlorine, and create a lot of drag. Don’t use these caps, just keep it simple with a cheap latex or silicone cap.

Silicone caps are a little more expensive, but they last longer and pull at your hair less. Although latex caps like what you’ll receive on race day are perfectly fine. You can even reuse your race day swim caps.. 

With the two necessities out of the way, let’s talk about the more interesting and effective pool toys for working on skills and swim drills: a snorkel, ankle strap, pull buoy, and fins

Freestyle snorkel

The Finis freestyle snorkel removes the need to breathe, leaving you only to focus on the most critical parts of your stroke, your catch, and having a proper body roll. This really helps you hone in on body alignment and maintaining balance in the water. 

Make no mistake; this is a critical piece of gear that will allow you to build stability in the water with our sequence of swim drills you can work on here.

Example of a freestyle snorkel, $29.99 USD

Pull Buoy

I like to refer to the pull buoy as the be-all-end-all of swimming. This single piece of equipment does a handful of things.

We always recommend you pair a pull buoy with an ankle strap, they go hand in hand to create a firm and steady core; a critical skill for swimming.

Example of a pull buoy, $15 USD

Ankle Band

The ankle band takes your legs entirely out of the equation. Now, you may be asking yourself: Why on earth would I want to do that? Well, here’s why. 

Much like with the pull buoy, you want to get your legs up as close to the surface as possible. The ankle band makes that more challenging because you have no choice but to engage your core and learn how to get your legs up to the surface. 

If you’ve got a wiggly core, or sinky legs, you’ll find out very quickly when swimming with a pull buoy paired with ankle strap.  You’ll learn how to swim straight and at the surface of the water by working to keep your legs aligned.

In my opinion, this is the single best swim tool as far as really improving your swim stroke. You’ll love to hate the ankle strap.

Example of an ankle band, $5 USD

Swimming fins

The basic swim fin is all you need. 

One common misconception around swim fins is that swimmers feel they should use fins to build leg strength and a strong kick; so they either get really long fins or really short “zoomer fins”. In fact, your goal should be the opposite. The purpose of fins, for amateur swimmers, is just to create a little stability in the water by creating a nice fluid kicking motion.

Fins are also a must-have when learning drills and working on technique because they allow you to kick and get the timing of the kick synced up with your body, while not requiring the kick to keep you from sinking.

Look for fins that are slightly flexible, roughly three to five inches longer than your toes, and feature a stiff side wall. This gives you a little bit of propulsion but not so much that it’s negatively affecting your swim stroke. If you can’t find any fins at the desired length, you can always cut them down yourself. 

Example of swimming fins, $25 USD

Nice to have swim gear


The ROKA SIM shorts, or, as I like to call them, “floaty pants,” are my favorite piece of swim gear. They’re essentially a neoprene wetsuit in short form that mimics a pull buoy. If you’re nervous about becoming too reliant on the pull buoy and not kicking as much, these are an excellent alternative. 

It’s worth mentioning that you can still become overly reliant on floaty pants too. Becoming reliant on them will make you a fair bit slower if your buoyancy comes more from tools than your own body. 

I like to set the personal rule that I only use floaty pants on recovery swim days.

ROKA SIM shorts, $120 USD

Finis Freestyler Hand Paddles

These are not your grandmother’s hand paddles. The most notable difference is in its shape. You’ll notice the big scoop in the middle. That’s because these paddles are designed specifically for your catch.

The fin underneath the paddle forces your hand to enter the water straight and keeps you in a straight line through the pull. The scoop also encourages you to begin your swim stroke with a proper catch. 

Another benefit to this type of design is that it’s a lot easier on your shoulders than larger paddles you’ll see most people using. There's minimal drag with these paddles. You won’t build a ton of strength with them, but you won’t tear apart your shoulders.

Finis Freestyler Hand Paddles, $26 USD

Speedo Contour Hand Paddles

One of the more common hand paddles you’ll see fellow swimmers using is contour paddles. These can do a number on your shoulders. If you don’t have quality technique, I wouldn’t recommend you use these.

But for those of you with a quality swim stroke, they facilitate building additional strength. These catch a lot of water as you work on your pull, increasing the resistance and building strength throughout your stroke. 

These are a popular choice amongst professional triathletes.

Speedo Contour Hand Paddles, $13 USD

Finis Tempo Trainer

This little metronome is designed to sit on the inside of your swim cap or on your goggles strap. You can set it to beep every time you want to take a stroke and speed it up or slow it down to develop a consistent and rhythmic swim stroke. 

One area where I’ve found it to come in especially handy is at the end of a swim session. When fatigue sets in and you begin to lose focus, this maintains consistency with your rhythmic swimming.

You’ll swim faster and thrash around a lot less.

Open water swimmers and triathletes should try to get their swim stroke rate up over 60 strokes per minute, elite open water swimmers will be as high as 90 strokes per minute.  This high stroke rate helps in open water because it’s more forceful and less susceptible to water currents and waves.

Finis Tempo Trainer, $50 USD

Mesh pool bag

The mesh pool bag is critical because it helps things dry out during the day. If you need to take your gear with you to the office, leave it in your car, or dump it in the house somewhere, you don’t want all your wet gear sitting and getting moldy. 

Example of a mesh pool bag, $17 USD

The basics of triathlon swim gear essentials

The beauty of these basic pieces of equipment is that you can develop every aspect of your technique without having to buy more gear. Stick with these and put them to good use. You’ll be far better off for it.

Read more

Learn proper swim breathing techniques when swimming

Learn how to swim panic free in open water

Ready for race day? Download our ultimate race day checklist so you don’t miss anything!

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Taren Gesell
Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MOTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast, Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.

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