What Not to Wear: Open Water Swimming Edition

Because of open water’s specific set of challenges and conditions, selecting the right suit for the adventure is paramount to your success.

My training partner, Jonathan, has become an excellent open water swimmer in short order, largely because he’s a very thoughtful athlete who researches every detail in advance of selecting a challenge to complete. That said, Jonathan sometimes throws caution to the wind when it comes to selecting a tiny bathing suit to cover his assets during an open water swim. During this year’s 4.4-mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, Jonathan wore a white Speedo-style brief with a big gold star on the front of the suit. Cute, sure, but not the most practical attire given where he was swimming and the length of time he was submerged.

When he exited the water, Jonathan’s son captured an image of the suit (we’ve redacted it here to spare readers who don’t want to see the ickyness, but if you’re curious, you can see the image on my blog) and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

See, Jonathan had found out the hard way that wearing white in open water—particularly the salty, brackish water of the Chesapeake Bay—doesn’t usually work out so well. It can leave brown stains on delicate swimsuit fabric, and those stains usually tend to outline places where air separates the suit from skin, i.e. in the various valleys and crevices we all have. Use your imagination, and you’ve no doubt pictured exactly what Jonathan’s bottom looked like by the end of his two-hour swim.

The color of the suit isn’t the only element you need to consider before taking the plunge. Cut, fabric, size, and style all play important roles in making you look and feel your best when you’re swimming. The longer the distance you’re aiming to swim, the more critical finding the right suit for the challenge becomes.

With all that in mind, here are some tips and tricks for finding the right suit for your next adventure. (Please note, I’m referencing one-piece bathing suits below; like most competitive open water swimmers I know, I prefer wearing one-piece suits, but quietly envy the women who can flaunt it prettily in a training bikini!)

  • Choose the best fabric type and durability for your needs. On first touch, most swimsuit fabrics feel about the same: smooth and silky. But on closer inspection—the kind of intimate contact your tender skin will make with any fabric over a long swim session—there are vast differences in the way different types of fabrics will feel and wear against your skin.For open water events, especially long ones in excess of an hour or two, I prefer lycra or spandex-based suits. These are not as durable over time when exposed to chlorine, but in open water, they are much more comfortable than polyester or blend fabrics that don’t stretch as much and can chafe. Especially when swimming in salt water, expect to be chafed somewhere on your body regardless of the fabric; the salt acts as sandpaper against the skin and can rub raw welts along points of contact between your suit and your skin. Add that to rougher fabric, and you’ll have “bathing suit hickeys,” i.e. painful red welts, for days after your swim. (Not attractive, and by golly do they sting when you get in the shower.)

Skin Chafe

  • Choose darker solids or prints to mask “lake stain.” It’s inevitable: Every summer a new swimmer joins us at the lake wearing a brand new, light-colored suit for her first swim. She looks adorable and is excited to take the plunge, but after the swim is over, she’s horrified to find tea-colored stains all over her new suit, (often in a pattern marking the valley between her breasts, the hollow of her bellybutton, and the cleft between her butt cheeks) which will henceforth be relegated to the lake, never deemed the “cute suit” again. Them’s the breaks in open water, and lakes or brackish water tend to be worse for staining than sea water, but all open water leaves some kind of mark on light bathing suits.The presence of organic matter in open water—and by organic, I mean anything and everything from goose poop and snail entrails to downed leaves, pollen, seed pods, and silt—means there are lots of particles of “stuff” floating in the water at any one time. These tiny bits of animals and plants easily get trapped in the fabric of your suit, and they’re difficult to remove afterwards. Rather than being presented with evidence of this junk every time you suit up, choose a darker fabric color that camouflages it. To be sure, that gunk still there, but it’s rarely harmful and when out of sight, it’s out of mind. Keep ‘em guessing about where lefty ends and righty begins.
  • Choose a comfortable cut and style. Every bathing suit manufacturer cuts its suits and sizes differently, and the only way to know whether a suit is truly going to fit you well during your swim is to try it out. (This is why you should never wear a brand new suit on race day. That sucker needs to be tested and broken in during training well in advance of the big day.) Trying a suit out in the water is not usually possible before you buy, but try a new style on at the store before you buy it. How’s it feel in the dressing room? If it’s uncomfortable there, chances are good it’ll be even more uncomfortable in the water once you get moving. (Keep in mind, though, that your suit should fit snugly if you’re planning to wear it for competition, and once in the water, nearly every suit loosens up a tiny bit. Still, you should be able to breathe when on dryland and have full range of motion in your arms and legs.)

Once you’ve bought and swum with a few different kinds of bathing suits, you can make an educated guess as to the projected comfort of a new suit style based on how comfortable similar styles were in the past. For example, make note of the following points when trying a new brand or style of suit:

  • Do you have a preference for thick or thin straps? I ask because the thickness of the straps often correlates to the amount of neck chafing you’ll receive. Thinner straps tend to be a little easier on the neck.
  • Do you prefer a more open-style suit with a sexy, low-cut bottom in the back, or a more buttoned-up suit that exposes less skin all around? If less, opt for a wrestling singlet-style tank suit or a water polo suit that completely covers the back. Added bonus to water polo style suits in salt water: The high neck at the front keeps jellyfish and their gnarly stinging cells out of your business. That’s always a good thing. The full coverage in back can also translate into less sunburn.
  • Do you like high leg openings for increased range of motion or just to project that beachy Pamela Anderson look? Then go for the Baywatch-style French cut tank suit instead of the more modest, fitness bathing suit leg opening that rests farther down on the hips. A lot of lap swimmers prefer this style for comfort, and it’s totally a personal preference in comfort and appearance.

Once you’ve found the right suit, it’s time to get wet. Make note of how the suit feels at various points during your workout. If you picked up any chafing along the straps or other seams, remember to rub some Vaseline, Bag Balm, or zinc oxide on your skin at those points before your next swim in that suit. These lubricants can reduce the severity of chafing and make for a more comfortable swim. If the chafing is very bad, ditch the suit and try a different one. Maybe that suit should be reserved for shorter pool swims and not be used in open water. Or turned into a pretty windsock.

Once your swim is over, after-care for your suit is only beginning. Wrapping a damp suit up in a towel and then letting it sit all day in the trunk of your car while you’re at work is a recipe for destruction. Believe me, I’ve killed who knows how many bathing suits this way. Instead, protect your investment by giving your suit a really good rinsing in cool, clean water. If you can let the suit soak for a few minutes in the sink, that’s even better. Then gently squeeze the excess water from the suit, and hang it in a well-ventilated area to drip dry. Don’t wring it out, and don’t leave it balled up somewhere to rot; wringing out suits kills the stretchiness of the fabric and bacteria and other unwanted critters can grow in a suit that stays damp for too long.

Despite the fact that there’s almost always a residual scent of sea or lake water left in my suits—even after a single swim—I don’t recommend putting bathing suits in the washing machine because I find the soap doesn’t completely rinse out of it and the next time I hit the water, I’m liable to sudz up a bit. Not a good look, and detergents can also break down the fabric over time. And never, ever, ever put your suit in the dryer; even on the lowest setting, the heat will melt the fabric and ruin the elastic properties of these high-tech (and sometimes high-priced) fabrics.

No matter which style, size, cut, fabric, color, or pattern you select in the end, I hope you’ll find one that’s comfortable and keeps you going hour after hour. The right suit can make a world of difference in how you feel about yourself as an athlete and open water swimming in general. When you look and feel good, you’re a lot more likely to perform well and reach your goals.

Happy shopping!

Amanda D

November 08, 2013 at 6:06 pm

Very helpful. Thanks, Elaine!


November 08, 2013 at 8:43 pm

Oh the things you never think of until someone comes along with a helpful post such as this 🙂 Thank you for saving me from a potentially embarrassing situation, you rock!


November 09, 2013 at 8:43 am

Great article! I’d also like to chime in and say that you might not want to choose a light colored suit as they become somewhat transparent when wet.. For my first open water swim, I bought a bright fuchsia pink suit, joking to my swim friends that I wanted the safety crew to be able to see me if I got into trouble. Well, they saw me alright… at the finish, walking out of the water, my bright pink suit resembled pink cellophane, leaving nothing to the imagination. Needless to say, I didn’t buy my finishing photo and that suit went promptly into the trash.

Meghan L

November 11, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Most of my swimsuits are colored so I haven’t had those problems. I do have a white & gold bikini but I haven’t worn it swimming in area lakes.

Amongst the culprits around here are algae blooms, tannic acid & dissolved iron. The algae is a result of the fertilizer & nutrient runoff, tannic acid comes from the trees & leaves around some of the lakes, & the iron is in the ground in the northern part of Wisconsin. In some areas there is so much iron in the water it tastes like blood.

I’ve found Oxyclean is good for getting out most of the discolorations. I stir about half a cup in a half-full bucket of water & soak the swimsuit in it for 15-20 minutes before washing it.

A product called Iron Out helps get iron stains out of fabric as well as getting off other surfaces. They sell it in the housewares & cleaning products aisles of most retailers. But this should not be used on colored fabrics.

Meghan L

November 11, 2013 at 2:47 pm

Oh, thanks for the bon-mots about athletic bikini wearers. I love mine! They are really comfortable, I love how they look & the freedom of movement they allow.


November 24, 2013 at 9:40 am

Another vote for athletic bikinis here, from a marathon swimmer. I swam 18 miles in chop and swells in April in an athletic bikini. Hardly felt it, no chafing, overall a great choice. I’m swimming a 13-mile lake crossing this December in a bikini again. For the marathoners out there, I’d strongly advise wearing an old, comfortable suit for race day, rather than a new one that might dig into your skin.

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