Can You Use a Snorkel in a Triathlon Swim?

For my Ironman 70.3 race, I used a Finis swimmer’s snorkel. I swam 1.2 miles (probably like 1.8 miles due to poor sighting) through the Atlantic, beyond the surf line, in 1-2 foot wave conditions. Finished in 52 minutes (hold your applause, please).

Before I waded into the choppy ocean waters off Edisto Island in South Carolina, I spent a lot of time surfing the Internet wondering if A) a snorkel was legal and B) I would drown by swallowing too much water?

(Answers are “Yes” and “No,” by the way).

So to save you from tripping into the same digital rabbit hole, I’m going to answer the question for you!

Fair warning: You must abandon your pride. If you approach the starting line looking like a 12-year-old at summer camp, you must have the courage to publicly, silently admit that you are an inferior species, a landlubber, barely worthy to spit on the goggles of those lithe, hairless Titans poised around you.

However … you might find that using a snorkel allows you to try sports, like an Ironman 70.3 triathlon, that you otherwise never would have tried before!

Is Using a Snorkel Legal in a Triathlon?

USAT Triathlons: Yes, snorkels are generally legal. Nowhere in the USAT competitive rules are snorkels banned. In 2018, official Tom Reilly confirmed that snorkels are allowable equipment. You are not penalized or disqualified from awards because of a snorkel.

Ironman/WTC/ITU Triathlons: No, snorkels are not legal. Per the Ironman 2022 Competitive Rules, the use of a snorkel is an immediate disqualification.*

*At one time, Ironman allowed snorkels in competition, but you’d be disqualified from awards. After 2017, however, snorkels aren’t allowed – period. That includes both full Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races. Since Ironman is now owned by the WTC (formerly the ITU), the rules apply across the board.

What Kind of Snorkel Should I Use in a Triathlon?

There are several types of snorkels:

  • Scuba J snorkel: This is the old classic, the one everyone knows! It’s not good for long-distancing swimming, though. The tube dips in the water every time you turn your head, and it’s incredibly sluggish in the water. Don’t use this one.
  • Full-face snorkels: These are like upgrading to floor-to-ceiling windows in your house. You get a great panoramic view! These are available with center-mount or side-mount (“J”) snorkels, but again, most are too sluggish for racing.
  • Swimmer’s snorkel: A swimmer’s snorkel is usually a center-mount snorkel that bisects your face, like a rhinoceros horn.
  • Power Breather: I have not used a Power Breather, but apparently they’re the bees knees. You’ll look like an Evil Super Villain on the loose, but you breathe in one snorkel channel and out the other for 100% fresh air. People with neck or back issues that prevent them from turning their heads to breathe swear by these things.

Summary: I used a center-mount swimmer’s snorkel with a purge valve. I was satisfied with the performance. But if I wasn’t doing things on the cheap, I would have purchased a Power Breather.

Will a Snorkel Restrict Your Breathing?

When I first considered using a snorkel in my Ironman 70.3, I read all sorts of forum comments (like this one) that made me wonder if using a snorkel was going to severely inhibit my breathing. Lots of swimmers said using a snorkel was like breathing the same air in and out, again, and again, and you’d slowly suffocate yourself.

Well … the keyword in that sentence is “swimmers.” Yes, if you’re a trained swimmer who can easily breathe every 2 strokes or 3 strokes, you’ll find a snorkel to be a nuisance.

For the rest of us who struggle to find the “pocket” of clean air behind the shoulder bow wave, the difference is only theoretical. Sure, a snorkel theoretically reduces performance for two reasons:

  • You’re forcing air through a small tube, which increases the resistance;
  • You’re only partially exhaling all the air, which lowers the oxygen content in each breath. This is called “pendulum breathing.”

Does that matter to a triathlete aiming for a podium spot? Yes, it does. If you’re like me, and your goal is to finish above average? Not one whit!

In training, I never got above a 1:45 minute 100-yard time (open turns, 25-yard pool). But I never felt like my snorkel was limiting my performance. It was my technique, not the air available to me, that slowed me down.

And in the race itself, I never once felt short of breath. Then again, I was never breathing very hard … 52 minutes ain’t exactly a speed record, people! 

I don’t want to discount the concern, though. Snorkels are not good for sprints. If you don’t get enough fresh air, you can black out. 

A face only a mother could love …

Will Water Get Inside a Snorkel During a Triathlon?

The next fear I had is that a snorkel would turn into the equivalent of a keg funnel. I’d be swimming through choppy ocean water, imbibing gallons of salt water, and I’d spend the first 12 minutes of the bike leg just throwing up my stomach contents.

Thankfully, that fear never materialized. But it does take some practice.

First, you need a purge valve. And I’m not talking about a “dry-top” snorkel. Most swimmers, myself included, eschew dry-top snorkels because A) they don’t work 100% of the time and B) they severely restrict airflow. In fact, dry top snorkels are often used in training to intentionally restrict airflow to improve lung capacity!

I’m talking about a reservoir at the bottom of your snorkel that you can blow out with a strong puff of air. That’s a purge valve.

A purge valve takes some getting used to. You’ll just be swimming along, taking deep breaths, and suddenly you inhale a tablespoon of water. Your caveman brain will tell you you’re drowning, you’ll freak out, suck in more water, and claw your way to the surface.

Don’t do that. Instead, remember that you may feel like you’re swallowing water, but your lungs still have a decent amount of residual air left in them. Use that air. Clench your abs and blow out strongly. This will force water out of the purge valve, leaving you with an unobstructed airway!

I swam in fairly calm ocean conditions with moderate chop. Only had to purge the valve 4-5 times the entire swim! However, bigger waves and choppier conditions can certainly overwhelm a snorkel. If you really can’t blow out your snorkel, just stop swimming, get your head above water, and either purge the snorkel in the air or open your mouth and let it fall away from your face. It’s mostly a mental game. You may feel like you’re out of air, but you’re probably not even close to blacking out. 

Do I Need a Nose Clip?

Absolutely. It’s easier to get water up your nose while swimming with a snorkel because you aren’t always maintaining positive pressure in your sinuses. 

I used the Speedo Competitive nose clip and the Finis nylon nose clip. Neither one reliably floated, and I didn’t want to bother with a tether, so I brought extra in case I lost one. Here’s a full list of what I bought for my Ironman 70.3 race.

Here’s a hint: Don’t slather your nose with sunscreen before putting on your nose clip!

How to Get Used to a Snorkel While Swimming

Here are some of the tips I learned while training with a snorkel in a freshwater lake:

You might feel like you aren’t getting enough air. Here’s the thing about using a snorkel: You have to exhale and inhale fully. None of this short huffin’ and puffin’. And get into a rhythm, the same as if you were side-breathing. 

You also might have trouble sighting, because if you lift your head too far out of the water, you’ll dip the snorkel end back into the water (which is very uncomfortable). The solution is to sight by just barely lifting your eyes, not your mouth, out of the water. 

Look down, not in front. Don’t allow yourself to get into bad habits because you’re wearing a snorkeling mask. Lifting your head lowers the legs and increases drag. Maintain the same head position you would maintain for side-breathing, and just allow your body to pivot around your neck. Your head should feel like it’s floating.

***

If and when I do a long-distance swim again … I’d rather not use a snorkel. But that’s purely my pride talking. I like the idea of just zipping through the water in nothing but my skin. Man vs. Nature, all that sort of thing. But for all other reasons, a snorkel wins for me!

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