Goggles can make or break a training or racing swim. Although a relatively minor financial outlay, they really are the only protection available for one of the most sensitive parts of the body.
Goggles have been around since man began sub-aquatic explorations. In terms of what we are now familiar with, we need to look back at the exploits of Matthew Webb, the first person to swim the Channel in 1875. His delicate glass goggles, developed specifically for this endeavour, posed a risk almost as great as wearing nothing at all.
The first plastic – and, hence, safe – goggles were developed by a British swimming coach in the 1940s and took a form similar to the Swedish-style goggles that many racers still use today. But what have manufacturers achieved in the past 70 years?
Plastic or, to use the correct term, polymers revolutionised manufacturing in the latter half of the 20th century. Consider the lens material first, which is invariably made from polycarbonate – a polymer with excellent impact properties (it can be bullet-proof) and good optical clarity. In terms of the development of these lenses, most new goggle introductions have concentrated on shape. For instance, flat or curved.
A flat lens will typically reduce your depth/distance perception, whereas a curved lens increases peripheral vision. Some goggles have slanted lenses to promote correct head position and body alignment.
For those not blessed with 20:20 vision who might be worried about not being able to see the turning buoy or the end of the pool, there’s a huge selection of prescription goggles out there. Most prescription goggles have diopter strengths in the range of +8 to -8. Speedo make prescription goggles, as do Zoggs.
Similarly, some offerings don’t cater for different requirements of the left and right eye, which means either the purchase of two sets if the lenses are interchangeable or catering for your weakest eye only.
If your eyesight falls outside the +8 to -8 range or you have problems with astigmatism, then there are optical specialists who can make up any prescription, but these usually cost upwards of £40. And even though you’ll finally be able to see while swimming, there’s still no guarantee that they won’t fill up or cause discomfort during your first length.
All sealed in
Apart from the lens, the next most important component to consider is the seal. Ultimately, this determines your long-term comfort during a swim by stopping water from reaching the eyes.
The Swedish-style goggles don’t have a separate seal, relying instead on your skin and face tissue to conform to their rigid shape. This can create an acceptable seal, though often through a compromise in comfort, which is heightened if you’re particularly sensitivity around your eyes.
The majority of goggles overcome this issue via the addition of a flexible seal placed between the lens material and your face. At the budget end of the scale, that material might be foam, which does a job but isn’t very durable and offers the additional downside of being something of a breeding ground for bacteria and fungus.
The most common solution is thermoplastic rubber or silicone, which is extremely flexible and won’t cause skin irritation. These materials can be injection-moulded, permitting the designer a great deal of form freedom, which results in a huge variation in available shapes.
The method of assessing fit is to press the lenses against your eye sockets. If the fit’s right, a vacuum will hold the goggles to your face for a couple of seconds. However, this suction’s often the cause of discomfort, as many people over-tighten the strap to maximise the seal. A good-fitting pair of goggles means this is unnecessary.
Take it to the bridge
The final components for consideration are the headstrap and nosebridge, which are the only means of adjustment within a pair of goggles. The nosebridge is the simpler of the two, though manufacturers are increasingly opting for integrated, non-adjustable systems. Provided the bridge material is flexible enough, this is a better solution than the traditional three-step solution.
When it comes to the strap, there are two options: mid-strap or frame-edge. The mid-strap, which involves pulling two loose ends behind the head, is more basic but lower profile and hassle-free. The frame-edge solution is usually a simple ratchet or interference mechanism. This is effective but does add bulk.
Sighting a new PB
So can a goggle reduce your swim times? This question needs to be looked at in perspective. If your name is Michael Phelps, then a fraction of a second will make a difference, but in an open-water swim, vision and fit are probably more important.
Obviously a full open-water mask will elicit greater drag than a set of Swedish goggles. That said, this extra drag is fairly negligible compared to the other forces acting upon the body. And, if we’re honest, the Swedish-style goggles wouldn’t stand up well to a kick in the face!
The full wraparound goggle is a common choice for the open-water triathlete, and there are definite benefits associated with the greater peripheral vision and the larger distribution of pressure.
There are also potential benefits for iron-distance races – the generous volume of the wraparound captures more air, thus preventing the eyes from becoming oxygen-starved, as can be the case with smaller, independent lenses. By contrast, this larger goggle may interfere with your swim cap, can be more easily grabbed by your fellow competitors and doesn’t look particularly dynamic.
There isn’t a triathlon-specific goggle out there, but there’s certainly room for a goggle that can cope with the chaos of the start and the desire for speed during transition. Your final choice will probably be a compromise, based upon a combination of your chosen environment – pool or open water – and your personal preference in terms of vision, fit and size.
Care and attention
Assuming you’ve chosen a lens based on the above information, how do you maintain that out-of-the-box performance? Fogging and scratched lenses can ruin a swim, so clearly you need to look after your goggles.
Some are designed with the lens slightly recessed to reduce the chance of scratches from a flat surface. Most come pre-treated with an anti-fog coating on the inside of the lens, which prevents the formation of condensation by reducing the surface tension. But if it’s touched or, even worse, rubbed, this will begin to deteriorate. If this happens – something of a certainty over time – then the application of an anti-fog treatment
can help to restore it.
New technology offers an alternative future for anti-fogging whereby permanent nano-scale finishing of the lens can be achieved. This should, in theory, last forever.