Other than a new bicycle, chances are the most money you’ll spend on equipment is purchasing your wetsuit for triathlon.
While many companies are making very good entry-level wetsuits, they still don’t come cheap. A wetsuit made of high-quality neoprene from a reputable triathlon wetsuit brand typically starts at over £150, with the most advanced suits topping out at well over £600. So it’s important that you know what you are buying, how it should fit and why you need a wetsuit at all.
Why a wetsuit for triathlon?
There are five good reasons why you need a wetsuit if you plan to compete in open water triathlons:
- Warmth – wetsuits function by trapping a small amount of water between the suit and your body. The technology used when making the neoprene fabric of the wetsuit (air pockets, special high-tech linings, etc.) helps the water to quickly heat up, allowing you to swim in colder water longer than you could comfortably otherwise.
- Buoyancy – wetsuits are buoyant. This is great both for safety and swimming form. Safety-wise, the buoyancy keeps you floating, and while your wetsuit shouldn’t be considered a substitute for good, solid training, it does help to increase confidence in the open water. Wetsuits are also designed to keep you high in the water in the right places, assisting with swimming form issues such as dragging legs or too little rotation.
- Energy Efficiency – because of their hydrodynamic (think aerodynamics in the water) properties and swimming form assistance, wetsuits can help save you energy in the water. Helpful when you still have cycling and running to follow your swim!
- Speed – most triathlon wetsuits are made with a hydrophobic (water-fearing) outer coating. This helps you to move through the water more quickly and combined with higher body positioning in the water thanks to enhanced buoyancy, you’ve just ended up with a faster swim split.
- British Triathlon rules – most importantly, at the time of writing, British Triathlon rules state that in water temperatures under 14C, wetsuits are mandatory (in races where the swim is up to 1500 metres). As the races get longer, the temperatures at which wetsuits are required are even higher.
It seems pretty clear that you need a wetsuit for triathlon. So what should you look for?
Perhaps the most important thing when buying your wetsuit is fit. No matter how buoyant your wetsuit makes you or how warm you are, if the suit doesn’t fit, you can’t swim well in it. Firstly, do not buy a surfing wetsuit for triathlon. They are not made the same, do not have the same properties and will not provide the benefits listed above. They may keep you warmer, but they’re not made for swimming and will most likely cause drag and be restrictive to your stroke.
A well-fit wetsuit should feel like a second skin. It should be tight without being restrictive and without any folds or excess fabric. When trying on a wetsuit, it’s important to ease into it a bit. Plastic bags (or keeping your socks on) can help to get the suit over your feet. Start at the ankles and pull up little-by-little as you would with tights. Continue to work the legs up until the crotch is as high as it can go, then employ a similar technique for getting the sleeves up. There should not be extra fabric in the armpits.
To avoid nail marks and other damage, a helpful hint is to wear gloves- lightweight cotton or disposable rubber gloves work well. And always put your wetsuit on dry- it’s MUCH easier!
There are other points to think about when looking for the right fit. Is there a women’s-specific option? Obviously these are cut with a woman’s shape in mind. However, many manufacturers don’t cut extra large size wetsuits for women. Sometimes it’s better to spend a little more as some of the higher-quality wetsuits offer more flexible areas, helping create a better fit. How does the neck opening feel? If it’s too tight, breathing will feel constricted, but too low can allow excess water in and cause drag. Are ankles and wrists fitted closely? Exactly where they hit is not too important, but having a close fit to keep excess water out is.
Another feature to look out for in your wetsuit search is mm neoprene thickness. The thicker the fabric in millimetres, the more buoyant, but also the less flexible. Maximum thickness allowed for triathlon is 5mm, so most manufacturers will use this in the body, where buoyancy is most important. Other areas including back, shoulders and arms will typically range from 1.5 – 3 mm, allowing for maximum mobility. Each company pieces their wetsuits a bit differently, so you may have to read up and/or try a few to know which feels more comfortable for you.
Another option that you will see is long-sleeve versus sleeveless. The two benefits to sleeveless are that they are easier to get off and more comfortable in warm water, but they therefore aren’t as warm or as buoyant. Unless you have the budget for both (or plan to swim only in warm water), Trigirl recommends a long-sleeved wetsuit.
Additional features that vary from company to company are: type of coating, grip/texture on forearms (to help grip the water), different fabrics to help with fast transitions, and zipper styles. Of course, each company thinks they have worked out the best combination of these details; take some time to read triathlon wetsuit reviews, ask around and figure out what is important to you. If a tall, skinny guy with low, dragging legs tells you that his wetsuit is amazing, but you’re a curvy woman with great leg buoyancy, you might disagree with his assessment.