Faster, warmer, more efficient: a guide to wetsuits

Credit: Chris Cole/Allsport
Tri-bikes and running shoes arent the only repositories of the tri-industrys technological storm front.

Triathlon wetsuit companies continue to develop and refine their products to help you get in and out of the water fast, efficient and, of course, warm.

Wearing a triathlon wetsuit simply to prevent hypothermia in the water is like slipping on a jetpack because its chilly outside.

The fact of the matter is, the first priority of designing todays wetsuit targeted for triathletes is to buoy the athlete up on top of the water, which immediately discards the problems of balance and the huge amount of resistance that is created when a weak swimmers legs drag through the water.

Its as if you are out racing on your bike with a deployed parachute tied to your seatpost.

Along with solving the problem of severe leg drag, the rubber produced for triathlon wetsuits is made as slick and slippery as possible, drawing you one step closer to truly being fishlike.

Triathlon wetsuits notoriously drive the sports strongest swimmers crazy, especially when the water conditions arent too cold, but the rules say that wetsuits will be allowed. Why?

Because the advantages offered by the suits reduce the advantages a strong swimmer has over the moderate or weak swimmer, not just in terms of speed, but in all-around efficiency as well.

Remember: Its not just how long it takes you in the swim, its how much the swim takes out of you.

A good triathlon wetsuit (and the suits we describe below all fit that description) will keep you from burning too much energy in the first leg of a three-leg sport, allowing you to charge into transition with plenty of power still in reserve.

While a wetsuit cant (and shouldnt) replace quality swim practice and technique, you might as well partake in the technological edge it will give you.

Rest assured, if the race officials give a green light to wearing wetsuits, you wont be the only athlete wearing one.

The rubber for almost all competition swimming wetsuits is supplied by Japanese rubber manufacturer Yamamoto, the Microsoft of the wetsuit rubber business.

Although the different brands may be using the same rubber, they place it under a different brand name and consequently, your decision seems a bit tougher.

But even though the rubber comes from the same place, it can vary from 2 to 5 millimeters in thickness, depending on design.

The thicker the material, the more buoyant and easier it is to swim. Make it thinner, and it's more flexible.

As such, suit manufacturers tend to make the chest and leg area out of thicker material and use the thinner material in areas where you demand more freedom of movement, particularly in the arms and shoulders.

Suit companies make the rubber faster by adding coatings to further slicken the suit.

From there, it's a matter of how the suits are cut and how this relates to a swimmer's mobility and warmth, with mobility being operative.

Wetsuits that constrict a swimmer's full arm stroke can actually be more of an energy-wasting hindrance, as the swimmer fights tight shoulder rubber to extend his or her stroke.

Based on how the interior stitching is aligned, some rubber is one-directional, meaning the rubber stretches in just one direction, usually lengthwise, while two-directional rubber stretches equally in length and width, allowing for better range of motion.

Suit styles generally remain standard from brand to brand; there are the sleeveless springsuits, which provide swimmers no stroke restriction and are cut to the lower thigh on the leg, and sleeveless fullsuits, which provide more buoyancy with a full leg and protect the swimmer in water as cold as 66 degrees Fahrenheit.

For colder temperatures (down to 56 degrees) fullsuits cover the torso, legs and arms completely.

And while some advanced swimmers contend that full suits take away their "feel" for the water, the covered arms increase surface area, making for a faster swim for average swimmers.

The only way to find out for yourself is to try both. A loaner suit from a friend can be the way to test whether a sleeved or sleeveless suit is best for you.

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