Open Water Swimming Wetsuits

Published: 07th July 2010
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The wetsuits are constructed using a mix of different density neoprene panels, for flexibility and buoyancy, to deliver a fitted and comfortable yet efficient suit (some may say performance enhancing!). Today's wetsuits are the result of multi-million dollar research and investment programmes which focus on 3 main objectives:

1. Provide the swimmer with additional flotation - you may hear many swimmers say that they find it easier to swim longer distances in a wetsuit....this is often because the wetsuit provides the flotation that might usually be achieved through a strong leg kick (many Triathletes have a much reduced leg kick and rely on the suit to keep their legs afloat).

2. Reduce 'drag' through the water - a well fitted suit will not allow excess water to enter or collect in the suit. Neck lines are designed to be snug and silicon arm cuffs may be built in to the suit to stop water from entering when the arm is extended during the stroke. The silicon material used is also designed to be fast through the water by reducing drag.

3. Regulate the swimmers body temperature in cooler water - much akin to the 'surf style' wetsuit, the swimming wetsuit adds a layer of protection and insulation against cold water (the neoprene used is allowed to be up to 5mm in thickness). Swimming wetsuits not only keep the cold water out, they also keep the warmth in (many people find that they actually get too hot whilst swimming in a wetsuit in the summer months).

Triathlon wetsuits come in a number of different styles: Shorty - has full torso coverage but short legs and no arms, ideal for warm water swimming.

Sleeveless - has full torso and leg coverage (sometimes have 3/4 leg design) but no arms, thus providing protection against cooler water and buoyancy in the torso and legs with maximum range of movement in the arms and shoulders.

Fullsuit - has full torso, leg and arm coverage. This is the most common design of suit used in the UK and provides the best protection against cooler water and maximum buoyancy in the torso, legs and arms. These suits are practical for most swimmers although then can lead to overheating in warm water conditions.

Swimskin - typically a shorty or sleeveless design using the very latest technology neoprene for optimum range of movement, hydrodynamics and ease of removal. These suits are designed for performance.

Key Considerations & Next steps

1. Budget - the majority of wetsuit manufacturers will produce a range of triathlon wetsuits to fit different budgets (these will typically be up to £200 / £200 - £300 / £300+). As a general rule, the higher priced triathlon suits will have more design features aimed at improving the performance of the suit.

2. The main purpose for buying a triathlon wetsuit - are you looking for an entry level suit to get in to the triathlon sport? Are you already hooked and are looking for a suit that will be suitable for training and racing? Are you purely looking for a wetsuit that will deliver speed?

3. What is the water temperature you will be swimming in - there are different designs of wetsuits available (see above) choose the suit that is appropriate for your intended swimming conditions.

4. What level of swimmer are you currently and what are your triathlon aspirations - be honest with yourself about your current swimming ability BUT also make sure you think about where you want to go with your swimming.

5. Will a wetsuit solve your swimming issues - the wetsuits available now are the result of massive research and development programmes and have some fantastic technical features HOWEVER they will not fix fundamental technique problems which can only be solved through training. A strong swimmer in an entry level suit will always swim faster than a weak swimmer in a top end suit!

6. Do you look after your gear - if you know that you are prone to 'abusing' your kit then this should probably influence your decision. Top end triathlon wetsuits are designed for performance and as such they are made using softer materials - if these materials are not treated with a degree of care then they can be damaged.

Next steps:

Once you have taken these considerations in to account, try and find somewhere that offers a range of wetsuits for you to try as each manufacturer's sizing will be different. If possible you should also try to swim in the wetsuit before you buy it (this may be hard if you are buying mail order but most open water swim centres will offer this facility).

FAQ: Here is a selection of frequently asked questions that we hear from novice swimmers at the Tri20 Swim Centre. If you have other questions you would like answered then please contact us - if in doubt.....ASK!

* Do I need to buy gloves to wear when I put the wetsuit on? Cotton gloves are available but are not usually necessary if you are careful. Finger nails and excessive force are the major cause of damage to the suit but if you exercise caution then you should be fine. Take a look at our guide to putting the wetsuit on for further information.

* Will a triathlon wetsuit help me swim? A triathlon wetsuit will provide buoyancy and improve the triathletes body position however it will not really help technique. If you are looking for a fix for your technique then a lesson with a good coach will probably represent a better investment.

* What should I wear under my triathlon wetsuit? If you are training then we would recommend you wear whatever you find comfortable, typically either swimming trunks, jammers or a trisuit. If you are in a triathlon race then you need to decide whether you want to wear the garments you will be wearing on the bike under your wetsuit or whether you will change in transition.

* How long will a triathlon wetsuit last? If you look after your wetsuit then there is no reason why it shouldn't last for a number of seasons (see the Tri20 guide to caring for your suit) we have many swimmers at the Tri20 Swim Centre who are training and competing in triathlon wetsuits that are 3+ years old.

* Will a triathlon wetsuit make me faster? A triathlon wetsuit will provide buoyancy, improve your body position and may have certain features that will enhance certain parts of your stroke such as the catch. These benefits will typically mean you are marginally faster over a given distance however you may also find that you are able to swim for longer as the effort you are expending is reduced.

* I already have a wetsuit that I use for surfing, can I swim in this? Yes you can swim in it however it will not feel anything like wearing a triathlon / open water swimming wetsuit which has been designed for this specific purpose.

* Is it ok to shorten the legs of the wetsuit to make it faster in transition? You can cut the bottoms of the legs off the suits and if it is done carefully it often does not damage the suit's integrity in any way. HOWEVER we would always recommend you consult with the wetsuit manufacturer directly before doing this.

* Do I need to wear anti-chafing lubricant or Vaseline? There is not an easy answer to this question as we have found that every suit will chafe some swimmers and not others. Whilst this can be very painful, it is easy to prevent by using anti-chafing lubricants. Vaseline (other petroleum jellies are available!) & baby oil is often used by swimmers but we would always recommend you consult with the wetsuit manufacturer before using these products that are not specifically designed for this purpose.

* Will the fit of my suit improve with use? Triathlon wetsuits will 'flex' over time and will mould marginally to the shape of the swimmer with constant use; neoprene will also stretch with use and regular immersion in water.

Jargon: every triathlon wetsuit manufacturer will use different jargon and technology names that are exclusive to them which make their suits faster and better than anyone else's - we will not attempt to list these but most are self explanatory with a little imagination. Here are some more common terms you will find are used by most:

* Drag - the level of resistance you create against the water as you move through it.

* Panels - sections of material that are combined (stitched and glued) in the build of the suit to improve buoyancy, range of movement and comfort. Typically the number of different panels used will be greater in the higher priced wetsuits, these panels are normally sections of neoprene of different thicknesses.

* Body position - refers to the position of the swimmer in the water; a better, more streamlined body position will mean a more efficient and faster swimmer.

* Yamamoto - neoprene that is used in many of today's triathlon wetsuits. Yamamoto is actually the manufacturer's name.

* Buoyancy - yes, this does refer to the level of buoyancy that the suit offers the swimmer. Typically, a higher body position in the water means less drag (as there is less of you in the water).

* Flexibility - wetsuit manufacturers will focus on flexibility as this provides a greater range of movement in the swim stroke and less restriction against your natural stroke.

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