Ask A Gear Guru: Which Type of Goggles Should I Wear Today?

Experienced triathletes know it’s a good idea to have a small quiver of different swim goggles for different situations. We break down what to wear and when.

Photo: Cameron Spencer/ Getty Images

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Triathlon racing, and even training, can be an unpredictable endeavour: You step outside of your house for a bike ride, it’s 80 degrees F and calm one minute, and an hour or two later it’s 60 with hammering wind. Or, you go out for a long run under clear skies, and it starts blasting rain halfway through. Sure there are weather forecasts, but given the amount of ground triathletes cover while we train, the forecast for your house could be vastly different than the one for the next mountain pass over. Similarly, it could be super hot where you leave, but chilly and socked in over by the coast. Fortunately, there is a whole universe of equipment that allows you to dress for different conditions on different days.

Even more simply put, you wouldn’t head out for a ride in the 90-degree sun wearing your thickest cycling jacket, right? You have different clothes for different situations and are ready to adapt them when necessary. It’s odd then that so many triathletes have one pair of goggles that they use for pool swimming indoors, outside in the blinding sun, in the open water, in fog, or when the buoys are tiny and shrouded in background colors against the shore. Goggles cost a whole lot less than pretty much any cycling jersey, and yet most triathletes have probably three to four jerseys for every pair of goggles. While we’ll recommend a few of our top picks, remember the most important thing is that the best pair of goggles will fit your face, so with the exception of one custom pair below, fit may vary from person to person.

Let’s take a look at a few different types of goggles and when you should reach for them. Then, we’ll recommend a few picks based on features.

Goggles for Triathlon: Open Water or Pool?

So this is kind of a matter of style and preference, but the common thinking is that you can wear open-water specific goggles (we’ll get to what that means in a minute) in the pool, but you probably don’t want to wear super pool-specific goggles in the open water. Here’s why: In the pool, specifically if you’re racing in the pool—like think a masters meet—you don’t need a ton of peripheral vision. In fact, you’re probably looking for the slimmest goggle profile possible because you want to be as hydrodynamic as you can to reduce drag and swim faster. It’s the same reason, to a lesser extent, you don’t wear boardshorts when you’re trying to blast out a set of 20x100s. Similarly, you shouldn’t need to wear your pool goggles particularly tight (assuming they fit well, of course) because there’s no chance of someone swatting them off your face. The perfect example of the penultimate pool “racing” goggle is the Swedish goggle that has been popular for decades. These goggles fit right in your eye sockets, probably just graze your eyelashes, have a very small vision area in the center, and don’t even have padding. Great for a high-school swim meet when you want to be/look fast, but horrible for a mass-start Ironman in choppy surf with floating debris.

The ideal open-water goggle is different for everyone: Some may want max coverage—something that resembles a diving mask—for more vision, protection, and unabashed comfort, even when cinched down tightly to prevent accidental removal. Others may want more of a hydrodynamic middle ground that doesn’t feel like a facemask but still gives decent vision and protection. Either way, vision is important, comfort is important, and protection is important. That said, those things don’t matter a ton if you’re sprinting a 200 in the pool. Here, you may want an open-water pair from a brand like Aquasphere or Barracuda, for example; you may also want a pool pair if that bulk slows you down at masters practice (or embarrasses you) from a brand like Nike or Speedo. We’ll get into a few picks below, but the above brands have traditionally been focused on the open water and the pool, respectively.

Goggles for Triathlon: Color Me Crazy

Ok, so we’ve narrowed down the shape for the most part, but things can get even more specific when it comes to tint. You’ll want to choose your goggle tint based on the conditions at the site where you’re swimming. This is an important distinction as tris are often held in coastal areas that can have early morning fog/low light. If you’re staying somewhere that looks sunny, be sure to pack in case it’s not where you’re swimming. There are certainly exceptions to the rules, and of course people see things differently, but below is a quick and dirty guide based on lighting/use conditions, bearing in mind that each brand uses slightly different terms for tints. Though we strongly suggest each triathlete buys at least three pairs of goggles, if you want to start building your collection slowly, we’ve also included a quick note on the type of goggles to buy in order of importance:

Condition: Low light, fog, early morning, late evening open water, with buoys against a busy/non-contrasting background, indoor pool/covered outdoor pool

Possible color names: Vermillion, red, light amber, light blue, blue, cobalt
Buy this type of goggles: First

This is another type of super-essential goggle for triathletes, as we often race in the early morning with buoys that are difficult to make out against the water/land. While you may not use this pair a ton if you train in the open water midday or swim in an uncovered outdoor pool, you’ll still want a clean and unmarred pair in one of these colors in your bag when you head out on race morning. There’s nothing worse than driving to a race, only to find fog or heavy cloud cover has blanked the race area, and all you have is a pair of dark grey goggles. And of course, these work fine in any indoor pool situation anyway.

Condition: Direct sun with buoys against a busy/non-contrasting background, outdoor/indoor pool

Possible color names: Dark amber, mirrored amber, dark jade, jade mirror, polarized
Buy this type of goggles: Close second

This is a pretty common set of conditions for triathletes who are racing later in the day or training midday with tough-to-spot landmarks against a busy background. You’ll still want some level of light reduction to help with glare (polarized will help here) and overall brightness, but you still want some help with highlighting objects against the water/land. Triathletes should for sure have a pair of this type in their quiver, as they also work in pretty much all pool environments. 

Condition: Medium sun open water with buoys easily seen against a contrasting background/no buoys/easily spotted landmarks, outdoor pool

Possible color names: Light grey, grey, light smoke, smoke, light mirror
Buy this type of goggles: Third 

This type of goggle is actually very common, but not an absolute necessity, unless you prefer it for outdoor pool swimming or do a lot of open-water training in places where you don’t need to sight specific objects against a difficult background. For instance, if you swim along a shoreline on the coast. For racing, these are not ideal if you are sighting small buoys or they’re tough to make out (or you have poor eyesight), as they’ll simply mute the colors/brightness of everything equally. 

Condition: Bright, direct sun open water with no buoys/landmarks required for sighting, or buoys/landmarks against a contrasting, non-busy background, outdoor pool

Possible color names: Dark mirrored, dark smoke, dark grey, arctic mirror
Buy this type of goggles: Fourth

This is the “limo tint” of swimming goggles. You should save this pair for bright outdoor pool swimming where far vision isn’t a priority or for super bright open-water swims where the buoys/sighting landmarks are painfully obvious against a plain background. This is not the pair for swimming indoors, early-morning races with low light, fog, cloudiness, or most importantly buoys that are small and/or set against a busy, non contrasting background. I cannot overstate how important it is to know how your sighting buoys will be set against the background from the direction you’ll be swimming and choose your goggles wisely—even if it is super sunny out. 

Condition: Indoor pool, super low light open water with no buoys

Possible color names: Clear
Buy this type of goggles: Fifth

Oddly enough, this is another basic lens tint that lots of triathletes probably own, but could really do without. While these are fine for indoor pool swimming (though really any of the other above options work fine for that too) and very very specific open-water conditions, a pair of clear goggles is actually fairly limiting in that they don’t provide any sunlight reduction or (more importantly for triathletes) increase buoy/object contrast. Clear may seem like a simple choice for your goggle quiver, but it should actually be one of the last tints you get unless you really need to see natural colors for some reason.

So now that you have a better grasp of what to use and when, we take a look at three top picks from the three most essential lens tint categories:

TYR Nest Pro Goggles (Blue)


Type of Goggles

This is a pretty basic pair of workhorse goggles that will last a long time when cared for properly and works well in both open-water and pool swimming. They have a wide enough level of vision to see most of what you need in the open water, but they’re not so big that they attract attention at masters practice. We recommend the blue-tinted clear-framed version as a great race morning pair to have with no gimmicky straps or retention systems or pieces that could fail. The best part about this design is that no matter how bad you abuse them (aside from scratching the anti-fog lenses), you won’t cause anything to separate or come apart.

Roka X1 Goggle (Dark Amber)


Type of Goggles

Consider Roka’s X1 to be a top-tier open-water pair of goggles. Though the size may be a little bigger than you might want for the pool, these goggles are the panoramic-view-with-a-sunroof version of what most triathletes need when it comes to open-water swimming. We love this color because it ticks off a lot of sunny race-day situations where you still need some light/glare reduction, but you still need to make out a buoy against a tricky background. Also, Roka has some of the most crystal clear optics of any other brand, so be sure you pamper this pair and keep the coating scratch free.

Magic5 Smoke Magic Goggles


Consider this super-deluxe pair of goggles the ultimate go-to pair for indoor or outdoor pool swimming. While the lens size isn’t as big as we’d like for an open-water killer, the fact that these goggles are literally custom made for your specific eye socket shape and size means that you won’t be able to beat them on fit. The whole fitting process via a smartphone app is super cool (and just a little dystopian feeling), and the turnaround is surprisingly quick. Bear in mind, this color really is just best for very specific open-water conditions and one of the side effects/benefits of a custom-fit google is that they’re worn looser than a normal pair—again something to consider in a hectic mass start.

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