At some point in your triathlon career you will most likely venture from local pool-based events into the world of open water swimming. This pretty much guarantees (in the UK at least), that you will need a wetsuit, and you will need to look after it to ensure it pays you back with a long life as some suits are a significant investment.
Wetsuits and Trisuits
For the swim stage of your race you will ideally need a tri suit and a wetsuit. The tri suit you can wear throughout the whole race, including under your wetsuit in the swim stage. Your tri suit can be a one piece suit, ideal for shorter races, while a two piece suit may be better for longer distances where you may need the practicality for a comfort break! Either way, look for kit with a functional chamois protection in the shorts, enough to provide comfort on the bike but not too padded to hinder your run or become too water logged after your swim. Less is more for triathlon purposes!
Triathlon wetsuits are made of neoprene, a special rubber that is very flexible and buoyant. These suits differ from surfing or dive suits and are designed to make you as fast a possible in the water, not hinder your swim stroke due to their flexibility and provide the required insulation properties to keep you warm in cold water.
The main reason you will use a wetsuit is temperature control. The wetsuit will help you keep warm in the colder water, hence on warmer swims the use of a wetsuit may be prohibited – in which case, you just swim in the tri suit.
The use of wetsuits is governed by the various triathlon ruling bodies around the world and this ensures clear guidance for event organisers and athletes to adhere to avoid any confusion. Water temperature is the main criteria (though air temperature does play a factor too), and this is what will be of interest to you as a swimmer and is designed to keep you safe in extremes of water temperature.
In addition to water temperature for use of suits, some technical advice that is worth bearing in mind:
- Wetsuits cannot exceed 5mm thickness anywhere. If the wetsuit is made in two pieces, the combined thickness in the overlapping areas may not exceed the 5mm thickness limit
- Propulsion devices that create an advantage for the competitor, or a risk to others, are forbidden
- The most external part of the wetsuits will fit to the competitor’s body tightly while they are swimming
- A wetsuit may cover any part of the body except the face, hands and feet
- There is no limitation regarding the length of the zipper
- Competitors may wear ‘shorty’ style wetsuits, but should be aware that they offer less protection against the cold
Buoyancy and Fit
The major brands produce a range of suits designed to fit the majority of body shapes and sizes. These offer the best general fit and most people will not need worry too much as the suits are designed to flex and it should be a pretty straight forward job finding your best fit. If you have measured yourself and still are unsure, then you would be advised to visit your local triathlon retailer or see if there are any wetsuit tester days at open water venues near you.
The next important reason to wear a wetsuit is buoyancy. This will be a major help to newer or weaker swimmers allowing you peace of mind so you will not sink and probably swim faster too! The neoprene material used to make the suits will really help support you in the water and beginner suits will often have thicker panels of more buoyant material, to compensate for lower body positions of less efficient swimmers.
The major brands will supply you with a race-legal wetsuit, so there is not much to concern yourself on that front. The main choice will be between sleeveless or full body cuts. In the UK the vast majority of swimmers will go for full body cut. This has several advantages, being warmer and offering additional buoyancy. If you are swimming in warmer climates, perhaps consider a sleeveless suit but check out the typical temperatures in case it is too warm and no suit is required!
- Full body cut – Full arm and leg coverage for maximum buoyancy
- Sleeveless – No arms for maximum range of movement and buoyant legs
- Short cut – No arms for best movement, short cut off legs
- SwimRun – Mix of long, short or removable arms, typically short legs. Often with inbuilt pockets for storage. Some are two piece for good flexibility whilst running. Some of these might not be legal for triathlon races however.
Type of swimmer
The type of swimmer you are will play a part in the suit you require. Consider this akin to a gait analysis to analyse your run style and therefore determine potential shoe selection. Wetsuits are made from many panels of differing thicknesses of neoprene to help in two ways. Thicker neoprene offers more buoyancy and keeps you afloat. Thinner neoprene allows better movement and flexibility. Depending on the type of swimmer you are will help you determine the type of suit designed for you. Simply assuming “more buoyancy” is good, will not suit all swimmers.
By having differing panels at specific areas of the suit you can alter the position of the swimmer in the water and provide differing degrees of flexibility. This is something that tester sessions to try out various suits will help you with, as well as guidance from an expert. The correct suit for you will pay dividends in the water. More experienced swimmers should benefit from more flexibility and will not need as much buoyancy. For example, thicker neoprene in the legs will help keep you more horizontal in the water and reduce drag. A wetsuit may well feel tight and restrictive on dry land, but work for you in the water.
How to put on your wetsuit – tips
How to take off your wetsuit – tips
Cleaning and storing your wetsuit
Looking after your wetsuit can start before you hit the water in your triathlon. It is recommended that swimmers use lubrication to reduce any chaffing around the body especially the neck area. To reduce any damage to your suit you should look to avoid petroleum lubes and stick to water based or products specifically designed for neoprene suits. These are readily available and will probably be suggested when you buy your wetsuit.
A few other words of advice on wetsuit care:
- Do not use solvents or other chemicals to remove stains or marks from your wetsuit as they can cause damage
- Avoid sharp finger nails whilst pulling up the wetsuit, neoprene is delicate!
- Do not force the zips, if possible get someone to do up the zip for you
- Pull the zip in the direction intended, not across. This will damage the zip
- Ensuring the suit is the correct size will make it easier to put on and do not pull ends of sleeves or legs to remove
After every swim you should thoroughly clean your wetsuit, using clean, cold or luke warm water is best. Avoid hot water to ensure you do not damage the material. Rinsing off saltwater or fresh water from your suit will help prolong its life and keep it from developing an unpleasant odour!
Every once in a while it is advisable to treat your suit to a proper clean and there are plenty of wetsuit shampoos designed for neoprene available, these will remove salt, sweat, bacteria, pee, suit lube and other open water nasties! The better you look after your suit the longer it will last you. Treat it like your work suit or office clothes; do not put it in the washing machine or tumble dryer, don’t iron, don’t wash with detergent or bleach.
Hopefully this will give you a little more information about triathlon wetsuits and the best way to keep them in great condition. If you look after your wetsuit, it will look after you.