Article - Tuesday May 28th, 2019

Wetsuits & wetsuit swimming - Do I need one? 

Open water swimming often requires the use of a wetsuit and the swim start at a triathlon event almost always has a high percentage of neoprene-clad participants.  The primary reason for wearing a wetsuit is the insulating properties it provides, thus providing you with protection from cold water temperature. However, there are a few other reasons athletes opt for suit over no suit.  Before discussing these reasons, it’s helpful to understand what type of suits we are talking about and the various styles and thicknesses available, because depending on the location and time of year your event is held, a wetsuit may be a safety prerequisite for participation.  The first critical piece of information regarding wetsuits for multi-sport swimming is that there is an important distinction between suits for swimming and suits for diving or water sports.  

It’s fantastic if that old wetsuit suit you have hanging in the closet, which you used for kneeboarding a decade ago still fits.  But it’s not going to be the ideal choice for you as a swimming wetsuit.  These suits are great for water sports, although they are not designed with drag reduction in mind.  The only possible outcome of any increased resistance or drag in the water is going to be either to slow you down or force you to work harder to maintain the same speed. 

There are a multitude of wetsuits on the market including different types of neoprene with varying degrees of properties which reduce drag and promote comfort.  There are full suits, partial suits (shorty) and sleeveless suits (overall style). Often you will see suit thickness referenced as a combination number such as 3:4 or 5:6. This is referring to the thickness in material, with the lower number indicating thinner areas such as the arms and legs. But there also may be areas which are thicker. These are generally in the torso area, which helps with buoyancy. Buoyancy adds speed in most cases.

As mentioned, your goals often dictate the choices you may make around wet suits.  If speed is the primary goal it is important to consider the added buoyancy a wetsuit can provide.  In fact, swimming wetsuits are now designed with buoyancy panels to aid in getting your body into a better position, higher in the water where you will experience less resistance.  Some estimates give a speed increase in the range of 5-7%.  This is significant if you consider for example, at the upper percentage, on a 30 minute 1500 meter swim, you could knock 2:06 minutes off your time.  But keep in mind you will have to take that suit off - and that takes time.  If your event is a sprint and you are not fast at wetsuit removal, it might not be the way to go.   

Another very important thing to consider here is your budget.  Used suits are tempting if you are on a budget but remember you need a snug fit.  The fit is going to be slightly tighter than you probably initially expect it to be. Resist the notion that it is too tight unless there is something glaringly uncomfortable. The total body squeeze is normal and most manufactures provide a sizing chart related to weight and hight.   Avoid spending money on a less than perfect fit.  Please note, this article is not intended as a buyer's guide (there are lots on the internet) but sticking to established brands is a good idea.  It is possible to find new suits under $250 dollars which will keep you warm and slick in the water.  TYR has a variety of price points in their Hurricane series for example.  Ask around the pool or at events and see what other experiences have been.  Wetsuits are a great conversation piece if you are new to the sport and looking for some social engagement. 

Often there can be some ambiguity over what is considered cold water. To some degree, water temperature is a subjective sense experience. However there are guidelines to follow and it is best to check with your Provincial Sport Organization in regards to rules for events. Generally they will follow the International Triathlon Union’s mandate on westsuit use. The ITU stipulates wetsuit use as follows.  For age group athletes - Up to 1500 meters, suit use not allowed at 22 ºC and above.  Suit use is mandatory at temperatures below 14 ºC.  So what this means is that if your event is an Olympic or sprint distance, you have the option to not wear a suit if the temperatures fall between 14 and 22 degrees. The guide lines are different for long distance swims (1501 meters and longer). Suits are not allowed at 24.5 ºC and above. They are mandatory at 16 ºC or below. 

You may still be wondering if you need a wetsuit and how to decide what is comfortable?  There are multiple factors to consider.  Age, Body Mass Index, and rate of exertion while swimming comes into play.  If you are a person who seems gets cold before everyone else at the pool, you’re an older athlete, or you are extremely lean you may consider a suit for comfort even at those higher temperature zones. Further, a wetsuit provides a sense of security in the water.  Open water can be intimidating and having a suit on gives that little bit of extra flotation.  Wetsuits also have the ability to pull things on your body together into a tight streamline package which can feel quite flattering and even boost confidence in that regard.  Not everyone is comfortable showing up in a crowd wearing a bathing suit.  Keep in mind, triathlon and multisport are possibly the most inclusive and supportive sport environments available.

Purists of open water swimming often swim with the intent to enjoy the sensation of the water moving around their bodies.  Often the less suit the better if this describes you. Although do make sure to have something on at your event! At least having a wetsuit with you is a good idea - just in case.  If you live in Canada, you are likely going to swim in cold water at some point.  If it is your first event and you have the option to wear a suit, it's probably going to make the swim more comfortable and safer for you.    

Finally, don’t let choosing a wetsuit or the decision to use one be intimidating.  Try one out and if you need to change it up next year, that’s always an option.  Visit your local tri shop and ask some questions.  Ordering online works in some instances but with the nuances of fit, it’s better if you can try-on before committing.  If you are all about the sensation of water on your skin - that liberating feeling of you and the lake, with nothing in-between, then as long as you are confident in your abilities and the water is in that upper range – go ahead and swim without!               

R.L.

References

Harnish, Chris. (2018). Methodology for Testing the Influence of Buoyancy and Hydrodynamics on Swim Performance with and without a Wetsuit. Research & Investigations in Sports Medicine. 2. 10.31031/RISM.2018.02.000545.

International Triathlon Union Competition Rules. (n.d.). Retrieved May 28, 2019, from https://www.triathlon.org/uploads/docs/itusport_competition-rules_december20141.pdf