Why a tri wetsuit is worth the investment and what to look for when buying. You’ve already splashed out on a bike, triathlon bag and run shoes, and your Cornish pal’s offered use of his surfing wetsuit. ‘That’ll do,’ you think. ‘They’re essentially the same and it’ll save me a hundred quid or so.’ Your neck after your first race will disagree with you, if you’re not reading this at the bottom of a lake.
When surfing, you’re primarily looking for insulation and durability. That’s on the triathlete’s checklist too, though you’re also after flexibility, especially around the shoulders and beneath the armpits for ease of stroke movement. Buoyancy’s important too, as is a form of coating – usually SCS – that reduces drag through the water. That said, all wetsuits in all aquatic sports have one thing in common…
What to look for in a Tri wetsuit
Despite its name, many new to triathlon are disconcerted by the sudden rush of water into the wetsuit. Don’t be. “The idea is that a thin layer of water enters the suit and warms up next to your skin,” The fit should be as such that your might need to “crack the neck” when you enter the water to let in a small amount of water to act as your insulation while you race.
“What you don’t want is an exchange of water flushing through. That’s why fit is so important [which we’ll come onto later]. Of course, there are triathlons that don’t require a wetsuit. These are either pool-based or if the water’s too warm.”
That’s where the British Triathlon Federation rule book comes in. Like bicycles and the UCI, triathlon wetsuits must adhere to certain specifications directed from on high by the International Triathlon Union. It’s a pretty exhaustive tome, but the highlights include:
■ Maximum permitted thickness of neoprene is 5mm.
■ Minimum water temperature at which wetsuits are optional is 14°C.
■ Wetsuits are deemed unsafe and banned if water temperature is above 22°C for a 1,500m swim, up to 24°C for an Ironman swim.
Of course, if you’re lucky enough to swim in warmer climes, you can always wear Speedos. That’s what Bill Phillips did en route to winning the first documented triathlon, in San Diego in 1974; in fact, it took another 10 years before French firm Aquaman produced the first commercial tri wetsuits. In 1987, the founder of Quintana Roo, Dan Empfield, released America’s first triathlon wetsuit and a new product was firmly established.
Fast-forward to today and, as you’ll have discovered there are many good- quality manufacturers to choose from, including Orca, Huub, BlueSeventy, Speedo, Zone3 and 2XU. Despite their unique qualities, each will tick off most – if not all – of the features listed on the following Wetsuit Essentials page (see below).
What to buy
Over the past few years, many manufacturers have dropped their entry-level models to around the £100 mark. A quick scan of Wiggle and you can purchase a dhb tri wetsuit for £85 and a Speedo Event effort for £96. These are perfectly adequate. As the price rises, you can expect better materials (Yamamoto 39 neoprene instead of 38, for instance) for lower drag and improved flexibility, increased durability and an array of marginal-gain innovations like catch panels.
Wiggle and their online brethren inevitably offer greater discounts on shop-bought wetsuits. However, in tri wetsuit world, this could be a false economy. Each manufacturer cuts and binds their swathes of neoprene differently, so trying before you buy is essential.
“You can slip one on in a shop and do some arm swings, and some even have an Endless Pool to really test it out,” says Stannard. “However, the ideal is that you head to a lake that offers open-water swimming mornings and wetsuits to sell for you to test in.”
A number of lakes, like Heron in Middlesex, sell one brand of wetsuit (in this case Xterra). Others, like Stannard’s sessions at Marlow, now offer a number of test wetsuits, from BlueSeventy to Zone3.
Once you’ve acclimatised to the different feeling of swimming in a wetsuit, mastered open-water technique and are confident in your stroke, how much time can you expect to save covered in neoprene compared to swimming au naturel? Research from France showed that in well-trained triathletes, a wetsuit saves 70–80secs over 1,500m in just trunks. That rises to 90secs for weaker swimmers.
In both groups, fit proved vital, and it’s a sentiment echoed by Stannard. “For years I used off-the-peg suits, which were great, but nothing compared to the custom-made suit I’ve got from Snugg. I led out every swim last season and I’m 40! I’ve tested every suit I’ve ever worn in a lake and gauge their proficiency by measuring times over a set loop. I was shocked by how much quicker I went in the Snugg. And I’m not being paid to say this!”
Whichever wetsuit suits you, you should look to hit open water as soon as possible, which could mean late April. The water’s still nippy then, so a few accompaniments will increase your enjoyment and comfort. These include booties, gloves and a neoprene cap. However, note that neoprene gloves and booties aren’t allowed at the races.
Finally, once you exit the water, keep your suit in top condition by listening once more to The Fish. “Don’t fold it; roll it from the ankles up into a tube and store in a bag. When you’re home, hang it over a clothesline through its middle so it drip dries and doesn’t crease.”
Quick fit guide: the tri wetsuit
If you’re new to wearing a tri wetsuit, you’ll be pleasantly surprised—the thick layer of neoprene acts as a full-body buoy in the water. There is no shortage of wetsuit options, with manufacturers now designing and marketing to different levels of swimmers as well as varying body types and comfort preferences.
Fit is by far the most important aspect of choosing a tri wetsuit. Don’t be shy about trying on multiple suits, taking advantage of demo swims, and studying the size charts and customer reviews. The right suit is not the most expensive one you can afford—even a £500 wetsuit will not help you swim faster if it makes you feel uncomfortable and restricted. Although it’s one of the pricier triathlon gear purchases you’ll make, with proper care, the right suit can last multiple race seasons.
How to put on your wetsuit
Start by sliding on the legs and pulling the crotch of the suit as high as possible. Many people use a plastic bag on their feet and hands to make the “sliding” part smoother.
Put on the sleeves and draw the excess material up to your shoulders so you have full range of movement.
Finally, do not over-tighten when cinching the rear neck strap. What feels comfortable on dry land is very different from what feels comfortable while you are breathing hard in the middle of a long swim.
How should it fit?
The perfect suit will be snug but not constricting. A suit that is too small will pull down on your shoulders, while one that is too big will hang loose between your legs. A small amount of water should get inside your suit while you swim; it is necessary for the suit to do its job. The wetsuit is designed to hold a small layer of water against your skin. Your body warms up this water and the suit keeps it from escaping. A suit that is too big will let water flow in and out, preventing you from staying warm in cold swims.
Whether you’re buying your first tri wetsuit or replacing an old favourite with a newer model, it can be easy to get lost in the choice of wetsuits on the market. Each manufacturer has several to choose from, ranging from entry-level tri wetsuits for beginners right up to top-end wetsuits for faster, more experienced triathletes. How can you be sure you’re making the right choice?