What is legal in marathon swimming???

So let me bring you up to speed on what the biggest contreversy is in marathon swimming… uniformity.  What rules and equipment should be allowed?  It’s a slippery slope… practically everything is an aid to some degree.  The hardcore purists don’t want virtually anything allowed… the triathletes think wetsuits and the like should be allowed.  Ultimately in most cases what is allowed is somewhere in between.

In my opinion, allowing wetsuits is like allowing rollerblades in a marathon… a HUGE advantage… but I find nothing wrong with GPS.  Those are largely agreed upon… but ones like mp3 players or a neoprene cap are more in the gray area.  (I was literally about 3 hours into my swim across Lake Ontario when my crew got a call from SSO to say that they disallowed mp3 players!  I wasn’t using one, as I think it is a very, very big aid in a 21 hour swim… but up until that point several people had used them in Lake O Crossings!)

Anyway, Evan Morrison, one of the top names in marathon swimming these days, took it upon himself to see what other marathon swimmers thought should and shouldn’t be allowed… excellent information (thanks Evmo!)… have a look… you can find more info on his site (http://www.freshwaterswimmer.com/2013/02/rules-survey-analysis)




Marathon swimmers largely agree on what should (and should not) be used in their sport.

What do marathon swimmers agree on?

Some critics and swim-aid proponents would have you believe the marathon swimming community can’t agree on what their own rules are. The implicit argument is typically: “Therefore, we might as well just let people use anything they want.”

Actually, the marathon swimming community agrees on quite a lot.

A. The marathon swimming community agrees on basic channel-rules attire: traditional porous textile swimsuit (including jammers), goggles, one latex or silicone cap, ear plugs, and nose clips.

B. The marathon swimming community agrees that substances or devices that protect the swimmer against dangerous marine life (e.g., sharks & jellyfish) – but unambiguously do not enhance performance – are acceptable.

More than 75% of survey respondents agreed that the following items are acceptable:

Percent of respondents who agree that item should be allowed on marathon swims

Percent of respondents who think item SHOULD be allowed on marathon swims

C. The marathon swimming community agrees that devices or substances that unambiguously enhance speed, buoyancy, or heat retention should NOT be allowed on marathon swims.

(Including drafting off the escort boat, which is allowed in the English Channel.)

More than 75% of survey respondents agreed that the following items are NOT acceptable:

Percent of respondents who agree that item SHOULD NOT be allowed on marathon swims

Percent of respondents who agree that item SHOULD NOT be allowed on marathon swims

D. More moderate consensus exists on the following:


Percent of respondents who think item should be allowed

Some thoughts on why there is less consensus on these items:

  1. Using boat to shield from wind & waves – improves performance, but is already widely allowed, and it’s unclear how a prohibition could be enforced.
  2. Exiting water for safety reasons – allowed in MIMS and Cook Strait, but not elsewhere.
  3. Topical substance that retains body heat – does such a substance even exist? Perhaps a confusing question.
  4. Multiple caps – allowed by FINA, minimally performance enhancing.
  5. Shark sharpshooter – not performance enhancing, but harmful to sharks and thus morally problematic.
  6. Topical substance that warms the body – does such a substance exist? Confusing question.

Controversial items: stinger suits, swim streamers, bubble caps, and shark divers.

A. Shark divers. 59/41 (for/against).

B. Bubble caps. 43/57 (for/against).

C. Swim streamers. 46/54 (for/against).

D. Stinger suits. Tie – 50/50. 

(If you must know, the stinger suit vote was 84-yes, 83-no, with 8 no answers.)

My view: if an item is controversial, it cannot be considered “approved by the sport of ocean swimming.” At best, it might be considered a “local exception” to a more universal set of rules – for example, the use of streamers in Japan.

If an item is controversial, it is in some way approaching a line in the sand. In marathon swimming, if you’re flirting with this line – trying to find loopholes for some extra edge – quite simply, you’re doing it wrong.

Some stinger suit proponents claim that these enhanced-coverage suits are merely protective, not performance-enhancing – and that therefore they should be allowed on marathon swims.

Personally, I’m not sure about this claim. Couldn’t someone easily produce a stinger suit that is performance enhancing? Would we then have to define new rules about what is and is not a performance enhancing stinger suit? Could I put on my old full-body Blueseventy Nero tech suit and call it a “stinger suit”?

About LOST Swimmer

I founded LOST Swimming because I like open water swimming and would like to see it grow and thrive in Lake Ontario. I started as a competitive swimmer as a kid and ended up getting as far as a silver medal at Nationals and going to the Olympic Trials in 1988. But I retired after that, I was sick of swimming. So I got into running marathons and have run over 35 to date, as well as a few ultra marathons, including the Marathon des Sables (7 day, ultra across the Sahara Desert). I also kind of fell into triathlons and have done a handful of Ironman tri's too. This gradually got me back in the water and in 2006 I took the plunge and attempted swimming the English Channel. I didn't quite make it across, but the circle was now complete and after 17 years I was a swimmer again! Although I still do plenty of pool swimming, I now much prefer open water swimming and like to say that open water swimming is to pool swimming, what trail running is to treadmill running! As a result I hope to encourage more people to join me for a dip in Lake Ontario as often as we can!
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