If the Suit Fits . . .

Triathlon wetsuit manufacturers typically have fitting guidelines that allow you to find the right size by gender, height and weight. These are helpful but not perfect.
My brothers and I have nicknamed our father "Sea bass." He completed a number of solo long-distance open-water swims in frigid Lake Ontario before we were born. He beat the Navy SEALs training school's 70-percent washout rate.

My parents live on Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay, in which he swims a mile or so almost every day from May through November.

A few years ago my brothers and I decided to buy him a triathlon wetsuit. However, when I talked to him a week later my dad told me the suit didn't fit. "I couldn't even get it on," he said. "The legs were fine, but the top felt like it was shaped for some kind of mutant hunchback."

So he returned the suit and I set about trying to find a better fit. Then I thought of something and called him back. "When you tried on that wetsuit, was the zipper in the back or in the front?" I asked.

"In the front," he said. Just as I'd thought. He had put it on backwards. Now, my dad is not an idiot, just a wetsuit newbie.

Here are a few tips to help the newbies feel less like mutant hunchbacks.

Sleeves or sleeveless?
First decide whether you want a wetsuit with sleeves or without. I recommend sleeves, because they keep you warmer and reduce drag compared to sleeveless suits. Some say sleeveless suits allow more freedom of shoulder movement, but sleeved wetsuits are still faster due to the drag factor. Some say sleeveless suits are more comfortable in warmer water, but I say if the water is too warm for sleeves, it's too warm for a wetsuit.

Rely on the fitting guides -- but not completely
Triathlon wetsuit manufacturers typically have fitting guidelines that allow you to find the right size by gender, height and weight. These are helpful but not perfect. There is often some overlap between height and weight ranges, so the guides frequently narrow your choices down to two sizes instead of one. In these cases, choose the size that fits your weight ahead of the one that fits your height.

Go for comfort without gaps or pockets
Wetsuits are supposed to be tight. If it's so loose that it's gappy at the cuffs or neck or has air pockets at the groin or armpits, it's too loose. The ideal fit is the most comfortable one you can find that has no gaps or pockets.

Try on more than one suit
When shopping at brick-and-mortar retail stores, try on every wetsuit in your price and size ranges. You might like the first one you try on, but you might also love the last one you try on.

Test it out
Standing around in a wetsuit in a store changing room is one thing; swimming in one is another. Take it home and use it. If you like it, keep it. If not, take it back. Many stores offer a demo period for wetsuit purchases (minus a restocking fee). If you're a beginner, you probably won't like the feeling of swimming in your new wetsuit even if it's a perfect fit. Test it more than once.

When ordering online or by phone, ask questions
There are several excellent online retailers that carry a wide selection of wetsuits. The staff at these organizations tend to have valuable knowledge. Take advantage of this by calling the toll-free sales number first and asking questions -- or, more likely, answering the questions your salesperson needs to ask you to find the perfect fit.

Know the return/exchange policy
Whether you buy from a physical store or an online retailer, check out the seller's return and exchange policy before you hand over any money. To make up for the fact that you can't try on a wetsuit at an online store, online retailers tend to have the most favorable policies -- usually something in the order of a two-week no-questions-asked full refund.

Use lubricant
Always apply a neoprene-safe lubricant to body parts that might experience friction against the wetsuit before you put it on (typical hotspots include the neck and armpits). If you're a first-timer, you might be amazed to feel how much better your wetsuit seems to fit after you eliminate the friction.

Put it on correctly
And finally, be sure to put your wetsuit on the right way. I'm not only talking about major errors like putting the thing on backwards. Smaller errors such as failing to pull the legs of the suit high enough to eliminate gapping in the crotch area or behind the knees are more common and can also make a well-fitting wetsuit seem like a mismatch. Follow the instructions that come with your suit. If that doesn't work, seek help from a coach or training partner.

Take-home message

Triathlon wetsuit manufacturers typically have fitting guidelines that allow you to find the right size by gender, height and weight. These are helpful but not perfect. The ideal fit is the most comfortable one you can find that has no gaps or pockets. Always apply a neoprene-safe lubricant to body parts that might experience friction against the wetsuit before you put it on (typical hotspots include the neck and armpits.)

Failing to pull the legs of the suit high enough to eliminate gapping in the crotch area or behind the knees are more common and can also make a well-fitting wetsuit seem like a mismatch.

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