“Choosing the right Triathlon Wetsuit can be very tricky as this will make or break your swim performance on race day. What are the things you need to consider when buying one? Read on!”
If you are a poor swimmer or a beginner to triathlon, listen to this: “You MUST get a wetsuit if you plan on racing.” A good wetsuit will allow full range of motion in the shoulders, chest, and legs while providing maximum buoyancy. When you float higher in the water, you will go faster and save energy, period.
Why a Wetsuit?
Warmth– The neoprene or rubber material traps a small layer of water close to the skin that is warmed by core body temperature and delays hypothermia in water less than 80 degrees.
Buoyancy– The wetsuit provides safe and fear-reducing buoyancy, but should not be relied upon as a life preserver. However, increased confidence in the open water can be another benefit.
Speed– Reduction of drag, the effects of providing buoyancy to the hips and legs, and the ease of breathing and sighting all contribute to a 10% or greater reduction in time over an Olympic distance swim (3-5 minutes!).
Energy Conservation– This should be your goal on the swim, since you still have some biking and running left to do!
So now you know you need a wetsuit, but what type, what brand, when should you wear it, and how much should you spend?
USAT Wetsuit Guidelines
The USAT guidelines state that everyone may wear a wetsuit if the water temperature is 78 degrees or below. You are welcome to wear a wetsuit if the temperature is 79 degrees to 84 degrees but you won’t be eligible for awards. Anything 85 degrees or over, no wetsuits are allowed.
Therefore, if the water is 78 or below, wear a wetsuit – even a short sprint distance race. You will be much quicker in a wetsuit and save energy. Of course, you also have to deal with taking it off in the first transition to the bike, but if you’re well practiced, you’ll more than make up for the additional time in transition.
For those that aren’t strong swimmers, wetsuits can (and should) give you more confidence. Have you ever tried swimming underwater in your wetsuit? If not, try it sometime. You’ll pop back up like a cork! This is great for someone that has a fear of drowning.
If you are entering a triathlon and are using a wetsuit for the first time, there are a few important things to know about whether you are planning on purchasing a wetsuit for the race, borrowing a wetsuit or renting one.
Triathlon Wetsuit Styles
Swimming wetsuits come in 3 primary varieties and can be one piece or two:
Full Cut– Coverage from head to toe. Made for 50 degree + water temps.
Sleeveless– i.e. Farmer John, Farmer Jane. Made for 75 degree +.
Short Cut– Knee length Farmer John. 75 degree +.
The wetsuit you want to use for swimming is different from wetsuits that you would use for surfing, scuba, or windsurfing. The main difference between a triathlon or swimming wetsuit and a wetsuit you would use for surfing or other sports is how they interact with the water around them. The purpose of a non-swimming wetsuit is generally warmth and protection. Because of this, they are designed something like a heavy, flexible sponge. These wetsuits hold water close to your skin and allow your body heat to warm the water, and then retain that warmed water. If you try to swim in this, it is literally like swimming with your clothes on—heavy and slow.
A swimming wetsuit is a neoprene-rubber blend composed differently by each company—this is usually a proprietary blend that each company has designed in order to meet the requirements of certain levels of triathletes. The neoprene/rubber is coated with a special, slick material that is “hydrophobic” which means “water-fearing”. In other words, the exterior of these wetsuits repels water and thus should move through the water faster. These neoprene blend materials are cut into sections that fit each different part of your body very tightly. These different sections are different thicknesses of material that therefore provide different amounts of buoyancy. For example, most entry-level triathlon wetsuits have 3 mm of material around the legs and 1.5 to 2 mm around the chest/arms. This is designed to bring swimmers to the surface into a more appropriate position in the water by buoying the legs.
Most companies sell an entry-level, middle and higher-end wetsuit, and often have sleeveless versions of one or all of these. There are a few differences that are important to note between the price-levels as well as brands. These include the seams/stitching, blend of rubber, thickness of material, amount and structure of specialized materials and any special designs across the entire wetsuit that have been incorporated to enhance swimming speed. Higher-end suits have extremely specialized materials and each body section has special coatings and structure designed to be more hydrodynamic.
Good examples are the more expensive Blue-Seventy Helix TST, which uses Torsional Stretch Technology, and Orca Alpha with Nano SCS-Coating and 4-Way Free-Stretch Lining.
Factors When Purchasing a Triathlon Wetsuit
When purchasing a wetsuit, especially for the first time, there are some important factors to consider. Obviously there is the issue of price—wetsuits are pricey and even entry-level longjohn/sleeveless wetsuits are around $200. The most important thing is fit. Fit may decide for you whether you want a full or sleeveless wetsuit. It is important to take time and try on every wetsuit you can for appropriate fit. Depending on your body shape, you will probably find that different brands will fit better than others—not all wetsuits are cut similarly.
Depending upon where you live, the temperature of the water may determine whether or not you want to use a full or sleeveless wetsuit (see below on full suit vs. sleeveless). Regardless, many people I know have never felt comfortable in a full wetsuit with sleeves and opt to swim even in cold water with a sleeveless suit. It cannot be over-emphasized to try on every wetsuit you can in the company of someone who knows how a wetsuit should fit. Much like buying a bike, a properly fit wetsuit will be comfortable and effective in the water, and will last for many years with proper care.
How should a wetsuit fit?
Snug but not tight.
No folds or excess material.
Retaining shoulder mobility is important!
The fit of the neckline is a consideration so that you don’t feel like you are being suffocated.
Make sure that the arm an leg holes are equally snug so they do not act as scoops to pull in water = extra weight.
Zippers! Many wetsuit styles offer different zippers for the back and even legs. This comes down to personal preference for when you put it on and take it off during a race.
So as you can see, actually going to a store to try on different triathlon wetsuit brands and models is very important. Another option is to rent a wetsuit for a race. There are a few companies such as Wetsuitrental.com that allow you to try on many makes and models for a race before you commit to buying one.
Fullsuit vs Longjohn (Sleeveless)
The frequently asked questions section of the Blue-Seventy website is a terrific resource for wetsuit information. I have read the information they provide and I would essentially describe the general qualities of wetsuits with the same language. From blueseventy.com:
“So what are the major difference between Fullsuits and Long Johns (LJ)?
Fullsuits are more Buoyant. There’s more rubber in a Fullsuit, which makes it float more. If you’re balanced and higher in the water you’ll go faster (there’s less water to swim through). Another reason Fullsuits are more buoyant, is that they let in less water. Its virtually impossible to get a completely water proof seal around the shoulders of a Long John. LJ’s let in more water. This increases weight, which in turn reduces buoyancy.
Fullsuits have less drag. Regardless of how good your LJ is, it will still leave areas around the shoulders in particular that are open for greater water entry. This creates a parachute effect, and more drag equals less speed.
Fullsuits are Warmer. Perhaps the greatest area of use for LJ Wetsuits is in warmer climates. For high water temperatures over long distances, some athletes can overheat in a Fullsuit. This is probably the best instance where a LJ is appropriate.
It’s easier to get out of a LJ. There are no sleeves involved in the removal of your Long John, which can make transitions a little bit quicker. If you practice though, you’ll find that you can get out of the top half of your suit while running to your bike, whether it’s a Fullsuit or a Long John.”
Just like buying a triathlon bike, assuming you are looking at equally good wetsuit manufacturers, the fit of the wetsuit and getting the sizing right will make all the difference in the wetsuit working or not. The brand will matter more for aesthetics, zipper/velcro placement, service and warranty. More at Choosing a Triathlon Wetsuit