If you compete in triathlon, chances are you’ll need to wear a wetsuit. The benefits of swimming in a wetsuit are widely recognised: more buoyancy, a better body position, and a more streamlined position mean faster times for less effort. In fact, British triathlon race organisers will insist you wear a wetsuit if the water temperature dips too low (14*C - 16*C depending on distance).
Like it or not, a wetsuit is about to become a significant part of your life. You’ll need to train in it, race in it, and learn how to put it on without creating those annoying semi-circular tears (step one: cut your fingernails).
With that in mind, you need to know how to choose the right style, fit, and design of wetsuit for your life as a triathlete. Let’s get into it.
It makes sense to try before you buy, so go to a triathlon shop (or head to one of the Triathlon Expos where you’ll be able to see and try plenty of wetsuits). You should consider how easy the wetsuit is to get on and fit properly, but also how easy it is to get off. Don’t forget that you have plenty of time to get into your wetsuit on race day (and can have someone assist with that). But once it comes to getting it off again, you’ll be on your own - and in a hurry. Ideally, your wetsuit should slide off in a flash with no tugging or wasted seconds in T1.
How to Know If Your Wetsuit Fits
A well-fitting wetsuit should feel tight but not restrictive. The armpits, groin, knees, and elbows of the suit should fit snugly into the contours of your own body (you definitely don’t want that baggy look going on). Remember that any gaps in the suit will soon gather water, which will only slow you down. Once you have the suit on, and fitted into your groin and armpits, consider how well it moves. Can you turn your head without it chafing, pinching, or restricting you? Can you move your shoulders and elbows through a full arm stroke? There should be no bunching or pinching of fabric behind the knees, and no gap at your lower back when you are in a swim position.
Different Styles and Designs
You will find a massive difference between styles, designs, and price points. Entry level wetsuits tend to be simpler in design, with the focus on thicker material (for buoyancy and warmth), and fewer smart design features. The aim of these wetsuits is to get you through the swim safely, rather than shaving milliseconds off your time. At the other end of the scale you will find wetsuits that include panels of different thickness neoprene (some very thin to facilitate movement), and design features which boost specific parts of your stroke like the catch, pull, or recovery.
Go into it knowing your swimming ability, likely race distance, and what you want your wetsuit to help with. A good wetsuit retailer should be able to advise from there.
6 Things to Consider When Buying A Wetsuit
Neck: the neck hole of your wetsuit shouldn’t rub as you turn your head to breath and sight and shouldn’t press on your larynx when your head is down in your streamlined swim position.
Zipper: make sure you can reach behind you to do your zipper up (it will fasten upwards with a long cord), to press the flap closed, and to undo the zip again when you want to get the suit off.
Shoulder sections: your wetsuit can be thick or relatively thin around the shoulders. Thicker neoprene will help with buoyancy, but thinner panels will allow you to get more movement around the shoulders.
Arms: expect thinner material here, and if you are an advanced swimmer you could look for design features which help your catch and pull.
Legs: again, you might expect thicker material here to aid with warmth but primarily to help buoyancy and avoid leg-drag.
Shins/calves: the neoprene here will be thinner as you don’t need as much help with buoyancy. Make sure the length is easy to get on and off.
Hire vs Buy
You can hire a wetsuit for a race or for an entire season if this suits you better. Before you make the decision, ask yourself:
- what’s my budget?
- will this be my only race/triathlon season?
- am I in this for the long run?
- is my body shape and size likely to change significantly?
- how often will I use a wetsuit?
- would I be better off prioritising budget for other kit?
Tip from The Top: How to Get Your Wetsuit On (And Off) Quickly
You should be in no rush to get your wetsuit on, since you do this before the race starts. You can do it in T1 or outside the area, and you can have someone help you with it. Put it on a long time beforehand if the weather is chilly or leave it until a few minutes before if it’s a hot day. A good middle ground is to put it on up to the waist but leave the arms and torso until it’s nearly time to go.
Inch the suit up your legs until the groin area fits snugly to your body. Try not to jab and pull at the suit, this can create little tears (which can soon become big holes). Check there are no folds of fabric behind the knees. Put your arms in and inch the fabric up your arms, just as you did with the legs
If you need a hand, don’t be afraid to ask. Triathlon folk are good people and will know how to help you. It makes sense to ask for help doing your zip up. Even if you are flexible enough to do it yourself, why risk twanging your shoulder muscles just before the swim? Ask your helper to pass you the long cord attached to your wetsuit zip, so you are confident you can find it after the swim.
Now bend forward and see if there is any spare material around your belly and chest. If there is, inch it up until it’s near your upper chest. The the only place you want any spare material is in front of your shoulders and upper chest.
Getting your wetsuit off is another matter. The clock is ticking and speed is important (but so is safety). Practice taking your wetsuit off during training (do at least one swim/T1 drill leading up to race day). A wet wetsuit slides of much faster than a dry one does, so get used to practicing after a swim.
You’ll want to stand up and find your feet after the swim exit. Put your goggles on top of your head and reach behind you for the zipper as you run/walk into T1. Pull the zip open, then take one arm out, and then the other. The suit should be around your waist by the time you enter T1. When you are at your bike, stop and roll the suit to your knees. Lift one leg until you get one foot free. Use that foot to stand on the wetsuit and pull the other leg free. And you’re done!
(If you feel dizzy or unstable, just get the zip open and then sit on the floor by your bike to take the suit off your arms and legs. Better safe than sorry.)