As a coach, I’m often asked questions about wetsuits. In the early days of triathlon, a wetsuit truly was an optional piece of equipment. More and more, it is becoming a required piece of equipment.
To the most basic questions: Do I really need a wetsuit? Will a wetsuit make me faster? I respond: it depends. Overall, when the water is cold and you want to be competitive, the answer is a resounding yes. Novice swimmers to 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. Some athletes’ bodies naturally sink and some bodies naturally float in the water. For those who struggle to stay on the top of the water, a wetsuit is an angel from heaven. For those who have a high body position, the wetsuit can potentially put them too high on the water, making it difficult to get propulsion.
Here are nine guidelines to help you find the right wetsuit for you and your race conditions.
1. How a wetsuit helps you
Not all wetsuits are triathlon specific made for swimming on the surface of the water. Dive or water sports suits are designed for protection from the elements, 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.
Tri wetsuits come in different styles: sleeveless and long sleeves are the most common. You will be more hydrodynamic in the wetsuit as drag forces are reduced enabling you to swim faster. They do provide warmth and protection from cold waters, but they’re designed more for performance than protection. Neoprene makes the wetsuits naturally warm. Tri wetsuits are more flexible to allow both range of motion and speed of movement most importantly at the shoulders.
For those new to wetsuit swimming, 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. Note: water and air temperatures for training and racing
Water is a perfect conductor of heat from the body. This is why water is so wonderful when we are overheated. Air and water temps are not equivalent. A 65-degree day is quite comfortable, but 65-degree water temperature is very cold. Most pool temps are between 78 and 82 degrees. We can swim comfortably in temperatures from the mid-70s and above. Temps in the 60s are uncomfortable and may not be tolerated for long bouts in the water without a wetsuit. The 50s and below are dangerous without proper protection from a wetsuit. Everybody is a little different in what they can tolerate. All bodies can be trained to adapt to the cold.
3. Proper fit and sizing
This is key to swimming faster and more comfortably in a wetsuit! It needs to be snug, fitting like a glove, but not too tight as this can cause a sense of panic and claustrophobia from the restriction to breathing. Too loose means dragging gallons of water along with you resulting in a much higher effort level and slower times.
The main areas to check for fit are crotch and shoulder areas. You will need space in your torso to swim without restriction. Shoulder areas should provide the ability 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.
A note on comfort: a high-performance wetsuit may not feel comfortable as it is designed for speed. A lower end model may fit a little looser and feel more comfortable. Be careful not to go too lose as this can cause chafing. A suit may become looser over time and you want to avoid carrying too much water with you around the course.
Sleeved or sleeveless? A sleeveless wetsuit is best for warmer water temps and for those who feel too much restriction in the shoulders with a sleeved suit. Colder temperatures make a full-sleeved suit much more comfortable. New technology and thinner neoprene makes the long-sleeved suits very flexible providing no restriction to arm turnover. Do train with the wetsuit to get used to the extra effort wearing neoprene on your arms and shoulders creates to push your arm through the water repeatedly. Full-sleeved suits are the most popular and provide the best option for swimming faster as they are more buoyant and create less drag. Sleeveless suits let in more water.
4. Pricing: Are the more expensive suits worth the higher cost?
Not all wetsuits are created equal. The reality is that mid- to high-price range suits have more benefits and features to help you swim better and faster. Higher quality rubber and a range of thicknesses throughout the body are main features in higher priced suits.
Buoyancy comes from a combination of thickness and type of rubber. USA Triathlon, ITU and WTC (IRONMAN) have rules restricting the thickness of the wetsuit to no more than 5 millimeters. Most brands will put the thickest rubber on the front torso and legs to give the heaviest areas of your body the most support and lift making it easier to swim. Thinner rubber (1.5-2mm) at the shoulders allows for greater flexibility and arm speed.
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. If you come from a competitive swim background or are looking for improved performance, a mid-price range 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 help those looking for every edge they can find to improve performance.
5. Try before you buy
One option when you don’t own a wetsuit is to rent one. You can rent them easily and at a much lower cost than buying one. This is also a good way to test out a wetsuit before buying one. The only down side is that it is 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.
Wetsuits are available to rent at your local tri, bike, run or swimming shop. 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 suits you and your budget best.
6. Train in your wetsuit
Training in your wetsuit in the open water is the best way to optimize return on your investment. The more you acclimate to the suit and the open water, the greater your comfort and the better your performance. If you can’t get to the open water before your race, try it out a couple of times in the pool. I know this goes against manufacturer’s recommendations as the pool chemicals can compromise the integrity of the rubber. But, feeling confident and comfortable in your wetsuit will be worth the very minor impact one or two pool swims will have.
Train in your wetsuit, even if it’s just once or twice in the pool. Work toward being 100 percent comfortable and confident in that wetsuit in training before your race. I guarantee you will be glad you did!
7. Putting on and taking off your wetsuit
Putting on your wetsuit before a race or training takes a little time so no need to rush to get in it. If you have any areas that get chafed (neck area) or are extra snug (wrists and ankles), lubricate with a product like Body Glide. Get into it when you are dry (wet skin makes it nearly impossible to put on). Once you have it all the way on, before you zip up, snug it up. Pull all the excess material (arms and legs) up and in toward your torso millimeter by millimeter. This will optimize your fit and comfort.
In order to get out of your wetsuit quickly and efficiently, you will need to practice this in training. Well worth the extra time to do this as getting stuck in your wetsuit on race day is no fun and adds time to your overall race time.
As you start to stand up at the end of the swim, quickly scoop water into the neck of your wetsuit. This will make it easier to strip as the water runs through and creates space in the wetsuit. As you stand up, put your goggles on your head, unzip and pull down your arms and torso while running to T1. When you get to your bike, pull off the legs of the wetsuit. If you struggle getting your feet out, consider cutting the legs on your wetsuit. The legs taper toward the ankle thus the leg opening is very narrow. You can cut them as high as mid-calf and still get full buoyancy from your wetsuit. Start with an inch or two at a time.
8. Care, maintenance and repairs
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. 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.
9. The rules: when can I wear a wetsuit in a race?
USA Triathlon wetsuit policy: 4.4 Wetsuits. Each age-group participant shall be permitted to wear a wetsuit without penalty in any event sanctioned by USA Triathlon up to and including a water temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit. When the water temperature is greater than 78 degrees, but less than 84 degrees Fahrenheit, age group participants may wear a wetsuit at their own discretion, provided however that participants who wear a wetsuit within this temperature range shall not be eligible for prizes or awards. Age-group participants shall not wear wetsuits in water temperatures equal to or greater than 84 degrees Fahrenheit. The wetsuit policy for elite athletes shall be determined by the USAT Athletes Advisory Council. (20/68)
What if the triathlon is not USA Triathlon sanctioned? They will still follow these rules, except IRONMAN wetsuit rules are a bit different.
Wetsuits cannot measure more than 5 mm thick.
Wetsuits are permitted if the water temperature is up to (and including) 76.1 degrees Fahrenheit (24.5 degrees Celsius) or colder.
Wetsuits will be prohibited in water temperatures greater than 83.8 degrees Fahrenheit (28.8 degrees Celsius).
Athletes who choose to wear a wetsuit in water temperatures between 76.1 degrees Fahrenheit (24.5 degrees Celsius) and 83.8 degrees Fahrenheit (28.8 degrees Celsius) will not be eligible for age-group awards, including IRONMAN World Championship slots or roll down slots.
Full wetsuits are permitted (arms and legs covered).
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.
About the Author
Melissa Mantak is USA Triathlon Level III and USA Cycling Level 1 Certified Coach and has a master's degree in sports science. She's a former ITU World Cup Series overall Champion, USOC Triathlete of the Year and USAT National Coach of the Year. Contact her at email@example.com or triathlontraining-coach.com.