Choosing a Triathlon Wetsuit

One of the most intimidating choices facing a new triathlete is choosing a triathlon wetsuit. They’re expensive, confusing, and by the time you get it in the water to see whether it’s comfortable it’s too late to return it. The right wetsuit is paramount to your triathlon swim (assuming the race is wetsuit legal), so I want to make sure you make the right choice, giving you one less thing to worry about when you lineup on the start line.

I spent two years working in triathlon retail where I fitted hundreds of customers choose triathlon 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 will 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:

Buoyancy

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. From here you can flag down a safety vessel by waving your arm in the air.

Warmth

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. By choosing the right wetsuit, the water actually helps 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.

Hydrodynamics

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. Wetsuit swimming is more hydrodynamic, but this can be offset by the increased resistance in shoulders.

Price Point

Let’s be honest, the budget you have is a big factor when choosing a triathlon wetsuit. 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. This ensures that weaker swimmers get a better body position as it lifts the legs higher. 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.

3. Lining

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.

Bad Ankles.jpg
Cuffs too close to ankle
Good Ankles
Correct suit height

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

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Grab handfuls of material and move it towards your shoulders

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. 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. 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.

Bad-Armpit.jpg
Here the wetsuit is so taught it is restricting the swimmer from lifting their arm above their head. It’s difficult to make out from the photo, but there is 4-5 inches between the suit and armpit
Good Armpit
Here the material has been worked from the wrist towards the shoulders, allowing for a snug fit with the neoprene flush to the armpit.

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. 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.

blueseventy-Helix-Wetsuit-Wetsuits-Black-Blue-2018-170-000-000

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.

HUUB-Aegis-III-Internal-Black-Red-2018-AEG35ST

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.

Orca-Sonar-Wetsuit-Fullsleeve-Wetsuits-Black-Red-SS18-HVN20901.jpg

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.

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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.

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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.

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Other brands
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.

Choosing a triathlon wetsuit is a minefield but I hope this puts you in a well informed position to find the best wetsuit for you. If you are based in the home counties and anxious about your first open water swim, check out our coached sessions.

How to Avoid Lane Rage

A lot of people dislike lane swimming, and I can’t say I blame them, it’s a necessary evil to share the same piece of water with others pounding up and down the lane, which can be frustrating for all involved as fast swimmers get held up and slower swimmers feel mobbed. If you’ve been swimming for a while, chances are you’ve either experienced, or been subject to the phenomenon of lane rage, where a swimmer becomes so agitated at having others interrupt their workout that they lash out at others. This is completely avoidable, so let’s dive into these murky waters to find the best way for such unpleasantries and to help everyone have a great swim.

Warning, may contain opinions

Be considerate
This should be the underlying message to take away from the article, you want your swim to be as enjoyable as possible, and you want everybody else to enjoy your workout as much as possible. In the same way a good driver spends more time focusing on the behaviour of other drivers than on themselves, the same is true for swimming in close confines. Everybody’s trying to get the most out of their session, treat people as you’d expect to be treated yourself.

Communicate with swimmers
If you find yourself at the end of the lane at the same time as your lane mate(s), make an effort to engage in some kind of conversation, even if it’s just asking if they want to go first. Adding a bit of humanity to the situation can help diffuse any potential tension.

Swim in an appropriate lane
This is the subject closest to my heart, people swimming in in the wrong lane. If you want to swim heads up breaststroke to keep your hair dry, that’s fine, it’s a free world, but please stay in the slow lane. Even if the fast lane is empty and you decide to hop in there instead to reduce the chance of getting splashed, if Adam Peaty turns up for a quick training session, he’s going to get in the fast lane and be held up by your leisurely swim. You’ll also get soaked by his powerful breaststroke kick. Please swim in the lane that best reflects your ability, and if you absolutely must swim in the fast lane as the slow lane is chock full, move back down as soon as a fast swimmer arrives. The same goes for michael phelps wannabes who decide that the fact the slow lane only contains one pensioner makes it perfect for a 400 IM.

Make other swimmers aware of your presence before entering|
This can be as simple as dangling your legs in the water for a minute or two before you enter the lane while you sort out your goggles and hat, but will make others aware that there will soon be another swimmer joining them. Especially important if the swimmers have split the lane rather than swimming in a circular fashion.

Check before pushing off
All competitive swimmers have been there, in the middle of a fast 400M time trial, on track for a rapid time, when a swimmer who lowered themselves into the fast lane and spent 10 minutes doing his pre flight checks decides to gently push off and begin his warmup just as you approach for a tumble turn. Read the lane check for other swimmers approaching before you push off, in the same way you look both ways before crossing the road.

Give way at the end of lengths
If a swimmer is directly behind you, he may inadvertently or otherwise give your feet a gentle tap. A light toe tap is generally considered to be a polite request to let them past at the end of the length, all it takes it to hold onto the wall for a second while they complete their turn, allowing you both to get on with your swim. Even if you don’t get a toe tap but sense a faster swimmer has been behind you for the majority of the length, giving way is polite and allows everyone to get on and enjoy their swim.

Don’t rest in the middle of the lane
If you are taking a break at the end of the lane, stand to the side of the to allow others to tumble turn easily. If you stand in the middle of the lane it becomes very difficult for others to continue swimming.

Consider moving down a lane for drillls/kick sets
This depends very much on how busy the lane is and the calibre of swimmers you’re sharing the water with, but if they’re doing sprints and you have 25M of sculling coming up, consider moving down a lane for a few minutes to avoid making enemies.

Swim in the correct direction
Most pools will have a clockwise lane next to an anti-clockwise lane, next to a clockwise, alternating across the pool. This is to prevent swimmers from clashing arms and legs, especially prevalent when swimming breaststroke or fly. Pay attention to the direction of travel which is normally advertised at the end of each lane to avoid agitating/confusing others.

Stick to your side
We know what it’s like, you’re 2K into a swim set and your mind starts to wander, you’re not paying attention in the same way as you were at the start of the set, and as you start thinking about what you’ll have for dinner you begin to migrate away from the rope. Before you know it you’re squeezing another swimmer against the opposite lane rope as you swim down the middle of the lane. While it happens to the best of us sometimes, it’s worth continually checking your proximity to the black line to ensure you’re swimming to the side of it rather than on top of it.

Only swim backstroke if you’re confident
As triathletes few of us will swim backstroke with any regularity, but it’s a good choice for swimming down as it loosens out the shoulders from the repetitive action of freestyle swimming. However if sharing a lane with others think carefully before you start breaking out backstroke, as it takes considerable practice to stay swimming in a straight line. I’ll put my hand up and admit my backstroke leaves a lot to be desired, so to avoid swimming into another lane companion, I practice it during quieter periods when I only have the lane ropes to contend with.

Put your ego in a box
One of the frustrations of swimming is how those who are young and very fit can flounder in the pool, and find themselves passed by people three times their age who they would leave for dead in other sports. Suck it up, and allow faster swimmers to overtake you. If a faster swimmer appears alongside you, back off a little bit to allow them to make the pass, rather than surging forwards in an effort to prevent them getting past you. The swimmer overtaking you is probably sprinting to get the pass made before a swimmer coming the opposite way hits them, back off momentarily and let them get on with their swim, you’d expect someone else to do the same for you.

Give the swimmer in front space
If you’re getting ready for a fast set and a swimmer you’re sharing the lane with is 5 seconds per 100 slower than you, give them a lot of space ahead of you in the pool before you start your set so you don’t immediately end up on their feet. It’s not rocket science but you’d be surprised how many people do just this.

Consider splitting the lane
If there are only two of you in the lane, consider communicating and splitting it down the middle, sticking to one side each. This can create issues with swimming adjacent to swimmers travelling in the same direction in other lanes, but it the two of you are the fastest in the pool yet still swimming at very different speeds, splitting the lane may be the most sensible way to ensure you both enjoy your swim. Keep an eye out for new swimmers arriving, as you’ll have to return to circular swimming to accommodate a third swimmer.

Butterfly is acceptable
Contentious I know, but those who want to swim fly have to train somewhere, and there aren’t butterfly specific pools or lanes. Many see it as an anti-social stroke due to the splash created from an effective fly kick, but as long as you’re not tearing up the middle of the lane, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. It’s great fun and very rewarding to learn, while the dolphin kick saving you valuable seconds in shallow water during races.

Don’t be a dick
You won’t be able to get the swim you want to every week due to other swimmers who are slowing you down or otherwise interfering with your set, this is a fact of life and unless you rent a lane or swim in a private pool, you’re going to have to put up with other swimmers. If someone is swimming very fast and is in the fast lane, they’s well within their rights. If someone is swimming slowly in the slow lane, they’re well within their rights. If somebody’s swimming is really irritating you and interfering with your set, just try talking to them between lengths, they may be unaware of the impact their actions are having and you should be able to find a compromise.

Just like driving or cycling on the roads, nobody wants to have to slow down for others, but a bit of consideration and patience goes a long way to a positive swimming environment. If you swim at the same time each week you’ll slowly get to know the swimmers you share a lane with, make an effort to learn their swimming patterns and do what you can to ensure a harmonious environment for everyone to swim in. If it all gets a bit much, consider joining a swimming/triathlon club where things are better regulated and rules enforced, you’ll also have the bonus of coached feedback and other swimmers to compare yourself against.