You're probably asking: Do I really need a wetsuit? Will a wetsuit make me faster? Like most answers, it depends on a few factors. Overall, when the water is cold and you want to be competitive, the answer is a resounding yes. But novice swimmers in open-water conditions may struggle with a wetsuit, potentially causing more problems than they solve.
Certain body types will benefit more from a wetsuit than others. Athletes' bodies will naturally either sink or float in the water. For those who struggle to stay on the top of the water, a wetsuit adds buoyancy and is a beneficial tool. For those who have a high body position, the wetsuit can potentially put them too high in the water, making it difficult to get propulsion.
Here are a few basic ideas to help you find the right wetsuit for you and your race conditions:
1. How a Wetsuit Helps1 of 7
Not all wetsuits are triathlon-specific and are made for swimming on the surface of the water. Dive or water sport wetsuits are designed for protection from the elements, and they do not provide much buoyancy. It is the buoyancy, or lift on the water, that helps you conserve energy while riding high on the surface.
You will be more hydrodynamic in a triathlon wetsuit because it promotes lower drag forces, which enables you to swim faster. Neoprene makes the wetsuits naturally warm, and triathlon wetsuits are more flexible to allow both range of motion and speed of movement at the shoulders.
For those new to wetsuit swimming, know that some water will always get inside the suit. This is normal and why it's called a wetsuit (vs. a dry suit for super cold temps). Your body will warm the small amount that gets between your skin and the suit.
2. Fit and Sizing2 of 7
A proper fit is the key to swimming faster and more comfortably in a wetsuit. It needs to be snug and fit like a glove, but not too tight, as this can restrict breathing and cause a sense of panic and claustrophobia. A wetsuit that is too loose means you'll probably be dragging gallons of water along with you, resulting in a much higher effort level and slower swim times.
The crotch and shoulder areas are the main places to check for fit. You will need space in your torso to swim without restriction, and loose areas around the shoulder will allow you to reach fully and rotate--allowing full range for the arm pull and recovery. The wetsuit needs to support your swim stroke, not restrict it.
USAT, ITU and WTC (Ironman) have rules restricting the thickness of the wetsuit to no more than 5mm. Most brands will put the thickest rubber on the front torso and legs to give the heaviest areas of your body the most buoyancy. Thinner rubber (1.5-2mm) at the shoulders allows for greater flexibility and arm speed.
3. Sleeveless vs. Full sleeves3 of 7
Tri wetsuits come in different styles, and sleeveless or long-sleeve suits are the most common. A sleeveless wetsuit is best for warmer water temps and for those who feel too much restriction in the shoulders with a sleeved suit. Full-sleeved suits are more appropriate for colder water. New technology and thinner neoprene has allowed long-sleeved suits to become more flexible and have less restriction on arm turnover. Train with your wetsuit to get used to the extra effort wearing neoprene on your arms and shoulders creates. Full-sleeved suits are the most popular and provide the best option for swimming faster because they are more buoyant and create less drag. Sleeveless suits let in more water.
4. Pricing4 of 7
If you're just getting started in the sport, watching your budget or just want a suit to get you through training and racing, you don't need to spend a lot of money. Lower priced suits will fulfill the basic requirements needed to help you with your swim and protect you from cold temperatures. These suits usually fit looser and have uniform neoprene thickness.
If you come from a competitive swim background or are looking for improved performance, a mid-price suit will work best. You can enhance your speed and comfort in the water without breaking the bank.
High-end wetsuits feature the newest technology, high-quality buoyant rubber and offer a high degree of efficiency, flexibility, buoyancy and performance. At the highest end, there are suits that feature every new innovation and the latest technology to improve performance and give you an edge.
5. Try Before You Buy5 of 7
Renting is an easy and affordable option when you don't own a wetsuit,and it's a good way to test out a wetsuit before buying one. The downside to renting is that it's not yours and you need to plan ahead for when you want to use one for both training and racing. On big race weekends, shops can sell out.
Wetsuit rentals are available at your local tri, bike, run or swim shop, and online retailers offer rental options throughout the country. Wetsuit companies or retail stores will often offer a test day at your local open water venue throughout the summer. You can test out different brands, styles and sizes to determine which fits you and your budget best.
6. Care6 of 7
Taking good care of your wetsuit will give it a longer, more useful life. Rinse your suit in clean water after every use. Allow it to dry inside out. Avoid leaving it in direct sunlight and hang or fold to store. Avoid contact with sharp objects: This includes fingernails when putting on or taking off your suit. Wetsuit glue or rubber cement can be used to repair minor cuts. Repairing them when they are small prevents bigger, un-repairable rips.
A wetsuit is an important purchase. Take your time, do some research, try a few different brands and styles, swim with it often in the open water and watch your performance improve year after year