As we move into late spring the open water season is starting. Water temperatures are now in the double digits and the lakes/lidos are starting to open to the public. It is also the time of year when novice triathletes will look to purchase their first wetsuit, which can be a very daunting and confusing choice.
I spent two years working in triathlon retail where I fitted hundreds of customers into wetsuits, trying on different brands, different sizes, it can be a real trial to find the right wetsuit so I recommend doing this at a triathlon retailer if possible, to avoid sending wetsuits back and forth to online retailers. That being said, don’t treat the retailer as a fitting service then go and buy online, every retailer I know price match the online competitors.
I generally recommend against borrowing a friend’s wetsuit for a race, you wouldn’t borrow a friend’s pair of running shoes for a marathon, so why would you borrow a wetsuit? You’ve even got the knowledge that your friend has probably urinated in their wetsuit multiple times to seal the deal. If you’re unsure whether you’ll do a triathlon again (I’m 99% sure you will) then I recommend looking at hiring a wetsuit. The four times Ironman World Champsion Chrissie Wellington borrowed a friend’s wetsuit for one of her early races, when she started swimming the suit was too big and began to flood with water, requiring her to be rescued by a safety vessel. If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone…
Some of you may be questioning why you need a wetsuit, there are a number of reasons you’ll find a wetsuit beneficial to your open water swimming:
This is the big one for myself and many other athletes, it’s simply impossible to drown in a wetsuit. Try swimming under water and you’ll see what I mean! If you get yourself into trouble, simply roll into your back to catch your breath and relax, flagging down a safety vessel if required.
Generally speaking triathletes are not cold water swimmers, this is compounded by the fact that we can be in the water for up to two hours which makes hypothermia a concern. A well-fitting swimming wetsuit keeps you warm by trapping a layer of cold water against the skin which then warms itself up to body temperature. The thickness of the wetsuit isn’t as important as it is for surfing wetsuits, sailing wetsuits or dry suits because of this, but a thicker wetsuit will keep you ever so slightly warmer, at the expense of flexibility (more on that later). If you really suffer in the cold like I do then consider investing in a wetsuit with heat reflective properties.
Neoprene creates less drag in the water than skin, so putting on a wetsuit improves the distance you travel with each stroke, as the water encounters less resistance. The very best open water swimmers will swim faster in a wetsuit purely for this reason.
Let’s be honest, the budget you have for your wetsuit is going to play a huge factor in your decision. Confusion can stem from the price points though, why are some suits £120 and some suits closer to £700? Here’s what you get for your money:
1. Quality of materials
We’re not simply talking about neoprene here, some suits like the Orca OpenWater suit are a mixture of neoprene and fabric, which does not stretch as well as neoprene and will provide less flexibility. Once you move up to top end suits, most will use different grades of Yamamoto neoprene which range from 39 cell to 41 with cell counts providing more flexibility. The freedom you experience in a top end suit can’t be understated.
2. Thickness of Neoprene
This is somewhat counterintuitive, but the thinner wetsuits are more expensive. The thicker the neoprene the more buoyancy it provides, but the less flexible it is. As a result many top of the range suits will have thin neoprene (sometimes 0.75mm) in the shoulders and 5mm on the legs to ensure that weaker swimmers get a better body position. Some suits are thin all over and designed for the total swimmer who does not want the extra buoyancy, such as the Orca Predator or the HUUB 4:4 suits. When we talk about less buoyancy in these suits, you won’t find yourself in any danger of sinking, but your legs won’t float on the surface in the same way.
It seems trivial, but the quality of lining in a wetsuit can make for a more comfortable swim with less chance of chafing, as well as being easier to remove.
4. Buoyancy Foam
No, I’m not joking, many wetsuit manufacturers have started incorporating foam into the legs of their wetsuits to lift an athlete’s legs up even higher in the water. This can be especially appealing for newer swimmers, or those who struggle to build an efficient leg kick in the water due to stiffness in their ankles or heavy, muscular legs.
5. Heat Retention
Some long distance specific suits such as the Zone 3 Victory D have coatings or panels designed to reflect lost body heat back to the wearer. This can be a real game changer for lightweight athletes such as myself who struggle in low temperatures, either due to body composition or lack of cold water acclimatisation.
6. Marginal Gains
From the breakaway zipper to catch panels and fabric areas on the forearm to help you feel the water better, top end suits will have all sorts of little technological developments in them that will make very little, if any difference to your swim. Triathlon wetsuits have turned into something of an arms race with each manufacturer pouring tens, if not hundreds of thousands into R&D to get the edge on competitors. My advice is not to get caught up in these details and focus instead on the suit that offers the best range of movement.
If you’re new to open water swimming I would actually advise against dropping too much on your first wetsuit, as you’ll no doubt end up putting your fingernail through it a few times, and you don’t know how well you’ll take to the sport. Most people will develop a lifelong love for it, but I’d hate for you to go over budget on a suit that you end up using less than a dozen times. By starting with something at a more sensible price point, when you upgrade further down the line it gives you one suit for training and one for racing.
Finding the Correct Fit
This is the most important bit to get right, the world’s most advanced wetsuit will not help you if it doesn’t fit, and you’ll be left either gasping for breath in a wetsuit that’s too small or slowly sinking in a wetsuit that is too large.
I cannot recommend going to a bricks and mortar triathlon retailer for a wetsuit strongly enough. Not only does it allow you to try numerous suits and brands on, it also allows for you to try different suits on back to back. You don’t want to have to be forced to buy a wetsuit that doesn’t fit because you don’t have time to return it before race day. I’m going to take you through how to put a wetsuit on properly as well as what to look for in a good fit.
To start with remove everything except your swimwear/trisuit and put on a pair of light gloves to avoid damaging the wetsuit. Some use the gloves before every swim, which I find slightly excessive, but it’s definitely worth doing when putting a suit on for the first time.
Unzip the wetsuit and step into it with the zip at the back. It will take a bit of wriggling to get your feet through, this is fine, if your leg goes in too easily it can be a sign that the suit is too big. If you’re having trouble here, try putting your foot in a plastic bag to reduce friction and avoid the possibility of your toenail going through the lovely box-fresh wetsuit.
Now your feet are sticking out of the bottom you need to lift the cuffs so they’re at the bottom of your calf muscle, rather than sitting on your ankle. The reason for this is we want as much flexibility in the shoulders as possible, we do this by moving all the material as far up the body as we reasonably can.
From here we pull the material from our lower body up towards our chest until everything is nice and tight downstairs, we don’t want any gaps between the suit and our skin or any rolls of neoprene
Next up place your arms through each of the sleeves- which will again be a bit of a struggle. Once your hands have made it through the sleeves it’s time to bring more material up from the chest towards the shoulders, without doing this it may be difficult to do the zip up. Again, this follows the theme of moving any slack material up towards the shoulders. Below you can see a before and after of moving the slack from their legs, body and arms towards their shoulders.
By now you’ll be looking like an open water swimmer, whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate! Next up is the zip itself. I highly recommend getting someone else to zip you up, as there’s less chance of the zip coming off in your hand this way, nobody wants to be stood at the swim start with their zipper on the floor and a cord in their hand.
Next up are a two more tests to ensure that the wetsuit fits, the first is to lift your arm straight above your head. Were you able to move it with very little resistance? Is the neoprene flush with your armpit in this position? If the answer is no, then you need to move more material towards the shoulders, this can be from the arms, chest or legs; grab some and move it towards your chest. You may be worried at this point about the cuffs moving further and further away from your hands/feet, this is not a problem at all and common in taller athletes. What’s far more important is that your arms have freedom of movement and your chest is not compressed.
Those with a stockier build may end up with excess material bunched around the legs and arms. This can be solved with a pair of scissors, cutting the cuff back by an inch or two. Many of you will gasp at horror at the thought of this, how could you take a pair of scissors to your brand new investment? Well, manufacturers have actually accommodated for this and, along the seam on the inside of the arm/leg cuffs of all wetsuits I’ve seen, you’ll find a piece of black tape running over the seam. You can cut the suit short up to this piece of tape without invalidating the warranty of the suit in most cases. It may be worth checking with the manufacturer before you do this just in case they have a different policy.
Assuming the arms are correct the next thing you want to check for is the small of the back, get somebody to see if they can grab a handful of neoprene, if they can the suit may be too large for you. Finally bend over at 90 degrees and get someone to check if an opening appears at the nape of your neck. If you have a large opening at the nape of your neck and a large space in the small of your back the chances are water will gush down from here and start filling your suit with large amounts of water, not ideal as it prevents the water inside the suit from warming up to body temperature.
As you will have noticed, this list is quite extensive, with lots of caveats and to make things even more difficult, you only truly know if a wetsuit fits you when you take it for its first swim. The chances are there will be a compromise in some aspect of the fit. I have a space in the small of my back due to the curvature of my spine despite wearing the smallest size available. Some people’s suits will have a neckline slightly higher than they’d like, others will find the ankles so tight it’s a fight to get it off every time. Do not feel that you have to tick every single box, as a wetsuit may not exist that works perfectly for you. As long as you have freedom of movement in your upper body, this is the single most important thing.
You can help yourself out here by picking the right brand for you as they all have a slightly different fit. Please note that the following is incredibly general, based purely on my opinion/experiences and about as unscientific as it gets, but it may help you save yourself going back and forth with different wetsuits. I’ll break it down brand by brand with the kind of swimmers the suits tend to suit. Listed in alphabetical order to avoid giving any brand preference.
BlueSeventy- These suit taller, slimmer swimmers as they have a higher neckline which tends to press into the Adam’s apple on shorter swimmers. The Helix is an incredibly popular suit.
Huub- A more generous fit than other suits, a popular choice with swimmers who come from a less athletic background. Large amounts of buoyancy in the legs of most of their models help those with sink legs. Many women find the fit of their suits better suited to the female figure than other manufacturers.
Orca- Popular with pool swimmers who tend to be blessed with broad shoulders, they also have the lowest neckline of any suit I’ve worn, I sold a lot of these suits to those who just couldn’t get on with other manufacturers.
Zone3- These suits are the closest I have ever found to an all round fit, if someone walked through the door with a general athletic figure I would normally steer them in the direction of the Zone 3 suits. The Aspire is probably the most popular triathlon wetsuit out there.
2XU- I don’t have a huge amount of experience with this brand, but you can’t do a shakedown of wetsuit manufacturers without including 2XU. These suits tend to fit taller, more athletic figures than other brands.
Zoot- I have not found their wetsuits to fit many people especially well, with the majority of people who tried the suits on encountering chafing under the arms. This was a couple of years ago now, so these issues may have since been addressed.
This is a list of the big players in the swimming wetsuit market, but that’s not to say they’re the only manufacturers. There are brands such as Sailfish, Roka and DHB, who whilst not quite as prevalent as the others in the UK, does not mean they are necessarily inferior suits. I personally have very little knowledge or experience of these suits so have decided not to cover them here as I don’t know enough about them, but they’re certainly worth checking out if you have the ability to try them on. Brands such as Gul, RipCurl and O’neil should be avoided however as they are surfing wetsuits and this means that not only will they come with a huge amount of restriction in the shoulders, they may well have panels of over 5mm which is against the regulations of every race series/governing body I have come across.
To conclude, here are some final bullet points:
- It’s all about the fit, it’s better to have a cheaper, well fitting suit than a top end suit that chokes you or chafes.
- Try to visit a triathlon retailer if you can. If you have to buy online it’s best to order a small selection of suits and return the ones that don’t fit.
- Always take great care when trying on suits, if you put a hole through it while trying it on, the decision on which suit you’re buying will be made for you.
- Go for the the snuggest fit you can that doesn’t restrict movement or breathing. Remember it will relax slightly in the water.
- Always get someone else to zip you up, as I said earlier you don’t want the zipper to break off in your hand on race morning! Don’t be put off suits that require someone to help you zip up, as you should never be swimming in open water alone anyway.
- Try on different brands, don’t just settle for the first one the salesperson brings out. I always used to allow 30 minutes for a wetsuit sale.
- Don’t be temped by an ill fitting bargain, even if you’re only planning to use it once, you can always sell it onto someone else.
Finally; the swim causes so much anxiety in athletes that you don’t need an ill fitting suit to add to the stress on the day. If you’re anxious about getting started in open water why not join one of our coached sessions at Shepperton Open Water? Secure your place here: Open Water Swimming