Triathlon 101: Tri Suit or Wetsuit?

Q: Hi Gale, I will be doing my first triathlon this summer and I'm embarrassed to say I'm a little overwhelmed by all of the gear choices and names. I am not a strong swimmer and I think I need a wetsuit for the race, but I see advertisements for wetsuits and "tri suits." Some of them look the same to me, but there must be differences. Can you help? Thank you, M.O.

A: Hi M.O., First, congratulations on your decision to do a triathlon. I hope you have fun. Some of the gear choices can be confusing, so let me try to help. A "tri suit" is one choice of garment that you can wear through the entire race. These suits come in different styles, a one-piece style and a two-piece style. Whether people prefer a one- or two-piece is personal.

In both cases, the primary suit material is thin and breathable. The top is usually sleeveless. The bottom is similar to a cycling short, with jammer length legs; but, the pad in the tri short is lightweight. This helps make the suit more comfortable for swimming. After the swim, the thin pad dries out quickly and doesn't feel like a big, wet diaper on the bike ride. Because the pad won't be as thick as a cycling short pad, some, but not all, triathletes find it less comfortable.

More: What You Need to Know About Wetsuits

A wetsuit is made of neoprene material and is very buoyant. A tri suit is not buoyant at all. Wetsuits also come in different styles. They come in full suits (long sleeves and full-length legs), sleeveless (no sleeves and full-length legs) and what used to be called "shorties" that were just-below-the-knee-length legs and no sleeves. Those are the main categories. Beyond the main categories, there is nearly every leg-length and sleeve combination imaginable. There are also new styles and cuts coming onto the market all the time such as t-back, short legs and tank top.

If your triathlon is in open water and that water is predicted to be cold, I suggest you get a hold of a wetsuit. Wetsuits are most beneficial to weaker swimmers. The wetsuit keeps you warm and helps you float more easily.

Getting a wetsuit doesn't necessarily mean you have to pay a lot of money for one, especially for your first race. Begin by asking around to see if someone has a wetsuit you can borrow. Be sure it fits correctly—not too loose and not too tight; but just right. A wetsuit that is too tight often makes people feel like they are suffocating and causes unnecessary anxiety. This is particularly true if the suit feels tight around the collar, shoulders or chest area.

If your wetsuit is too big, it will take on extra water between the wetsuit and your body. It is common, and expected, to have a small amount of water between the wetsuit and your body. Too much water makes the suit feel heavy and sloppy.

More: A Swim Plan for Beginner Triathletes

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