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Triathlon wetsuit guide
Posted on: Wednesday 17th January 2007
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Next to buying a bike the wetsuit is going to be one of the more expensive purchases that you make as a triathlete. The market has changed totally over the past five years and instead of suits being owned by a few and hired by the majority for the occasional open water event we now have the reverse. Of course, this assumes that you are planning an open water event -- with one or two notable exceptions you will not be allowed to use a wetsuit in a pool-based event.
Prices of suits range from an entry-level around the £170 mark through to top-end suits that any pro would be delighted to use for £300 and more. If you are on a budget it's always worth looking into end-of-year or end-of-range bargains in the winter sales or considering an ex-hire suit. Major races like London actually operate their own hire fleet of suits for those people who are aiming to do just the one event and will let you keep the suit for the entire season for training in for a fraction of the cost of buying it. They aren't very glamorous suits but they are more than adequate and offer a sensible alternative to purchase for one-off triathletes.
Of course, we hope that you'll be in the sport for many years to come so this feature concentrates on suits that you can buy rather than rent.
Yes, there are regulations... You can't wear a wetsuit under the following conditions:
Wetsuits become 'optional' (unless other arrangements are in force, such as at events like London) at 14 degrees C and below this the swim distances are limited with 500m being the maximum recommended distance at 11 degrees C and no swimming should take place at all if it's colder. Theoretically you won't ever need a wetsuit in a pool swim but we know of three pools; Wellington College and Eton College (must be something about English boys schools!) and Tooting Bec Lido, where the water is definitely wet-suit legal for almost the whole year!
Wetsuits may be constructed of up to three separate parts (that's legs, top and hood but you cannot wear just the legs), and you are not allowed to use boots or gloves in a race. The maximum thickness of the neoprene is also limited to 5mm and there are some other highly technical bits about distribution of the various thicknesses but for normal use we can ignore them. Any suit from the major manufacturers listed below will be a legal suit and you can check the official list on the ITU's website: http://www.triathlon.org
The big investment
A wetsuit is a significant investment, especially when you consider that you'll probably only use it half a dozen times a year. Like all such investments it's sometimes hard to justify spending more than a bare minimum but it's definitely worth it. The more expensive the suit the more flexible it will be and, generally, the better it will fit. Not all wetsuit makers use the same body proportions so do not rely on the fact that two different makes describe a size as Medium - they may be wildly different in fit. Do get advice on the fit of the suit and do be prepared to try on several, and allow time for this. Once bought and worn it's unlikely that the shop will be willing to take it back if you decide that it is the If you are outside of the 'norms' in terms of body size or shape you can opt for a made to measure suit. Getting a made to measure suit means that you can, within the limits laid down by the BTA/ITU, choose your suit to match your swimming style. If you have a good leg kick you'll need less rubber on the legs, if you have a lousy leg kick and get cold very quickly then you might go for thicker rubber and a thermal lining. The elite, who can literally win or lose a race in transition, might go for special panels so that the suit slides off easier or different zipper configurations. You can also opt for different suit types such as sleeveless or even a shorty but you need to be pretty tough and a good swimmer to get by in one of these in most of the British waters
For the majority of triathletes reading this, however, an off the peg suit will be more than adequate and they now come in such a range of sizes that it will be hard not to find one to fit.
The small investment
If you are on a really tight budget and you've just been conned into doing your first, and possibly only, open-water swim then the sensible answer is to hire a suit. Several of the big triathlon shops do offer suit hire for the major events and, as previously mentioned, London operates its own fleet of suits. DO NOT hire a suit from a surf or sailboard shop other than as a last resort. Triathlon wetsuits are very different to watersports suits and are specifically designed to swim in - most other suits are too restrictive.
Another alternative is to go for a second-hand suit or ex-hire suit but there can be problems with this route. Many athletes use petroleum jelly to lubricate the collar and cuffs of the suit to reduce chafing and speed transition. This can, and does, literally rot the suit by weakening the rubber and slowly dissolving the glue that joins the bits of the suit together. The trouble is, you can't really tell that the rot is there until you start tugging and stretching and then it's usually too late! That said, many second-hand suits are in good condition and often a bargain. The shops that hire out the suits often sell them off at the end of a season and they are unlikely to have been too badly abused in one year.
A wetsuit is, as its name suggests, not going to keep you dry! The whole idea is that a thin layer of water gets in between the neoprene and your skin where it gets warmed up by your efforts and then this warmth is kept in by the rubber. And, in terms of fit, that's one of the key indicators -- the suit needs to be tight enough that there are no baggy bits, wrinkles or obvious air pockets (the small of the back is one area you always need to check as are the armpits).
One way of describing the perfect suit fit is that the suit should feel like a surgeon's glove -- not constricting but like a second skin. However, because the suits stretch so much getting this fit is not simply a matter of squeezing yourself into the smallest suit that lets you breathe, your arms need to be able to move freely so that you can swim properly and the body of the suit certainly doesn't want to pull between the neck and the crotch.
Women, having a different body shape to men, should look for suits that are made for them first. That said, there are plenty of women out there swimming in a man's suit because, for their body shape, it is a better fit. Wetsuits are, all said and done, just neoprene body bags and, for the sport of triathlon at least, gender neutral. As with choosing a bike, get one that fits right and ignore the label.
Putting one on
There is a trick to putting on a wetsuit which, once learned, makes life in transition so much easier. First, always make sure your nails are trimmed short -- long nails rip through rubber and will result in a lot of bad nicks or worse. If you have to have long nails then consider wearing thin gloves when putting the suit on (something like the De Feet Dura Glove is ideal). So, for the trick itself, you need a typical supermarket carrier bag; Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsburys or whatever takes your fancy but the thinner the better. Now, prepare the suit by unzipping and rolling it inside out down to half a leg. Now put your foot in the bag and then slip it into the leg pulling the suit up as you go. Peel the bag off your foot and repeat for the other leg. Easy, wasn't it! The trick is that the bag acts as a barrier between the clingy lycra interior fabric and your skin and makes it almost frictionless. Now roll the suit up to the crutch and make sure the legs are fully pulled up and there is no nappy gap. Finish off by repeating the bag trick with the arms and then get a friend to do the zip up for you.
To make things easier for removing the suit you can use a little lubricant round the ankles but many seasoned triathletes also cut a bit off the bottom of the legs, usually angled front to back, which makes the home a bit bigger and so stops the suit balling up around the ankle when you pull it down. As long as there is still water inside the suit it will come off pretty easily once the zip is undone. Just get the arms out first and the roll it all the way down to the knees and step out of it. Once you have one leg out you can tread on this to help get the other leg out. In races where T1 is a long run from the water you may decide to take the suit off immediately but do make sure you get well out of the way first as impeding other athletes often leads to abuse and even a possible penalty. Some races, London is one example, make you take the suit off and bag it to stop lots of water getting onto the transition flow while others, IMUK being an example, may even provide neutral helpers to assist in stripping off the suit. Whatever the race, this is something you need to practice.
Looking after it
With proper care and attention you will get several seasons of use out of a quality suit. Indeed, apart from physical damage there's little that can fail other than the rubber itself or the stitching. Do check the seams, they can usually be re-taped, glued and stitched if they show signs of wear, and if the suit seems to be holding water like a sponge then it's a sign that the neoprene is failing.
Who makes suits
If you want a custom made suit then there are really only two choices. Snugg, based in Newquay, can work miracles with rubber and many pro suits which appear to be a sponsor's branded suit have often been seriously altered by Malcolm and his team. They also offer a repair service which can fix pretty much anything from a nick to a completely torn off leg or arm. Terrapin, run by the redoubtable Biddie Foord and based up in Leicester will also craft a suit to your desires and fix most sorts of problems.
The major brands, at least in terms of UK market share, are Orca, Blue Seventy/Ironman, Foor (exclusive to Tri-UK) and Quintana Roo although this latter brand has declined in both popularity and availability quite markedly in recent years. Adding to this quartet are a whole raft of new and non-so-new brands: 2XU, Aquaman, De Soto (T1), ProMotion, XTERRA and Zoot.