The basics of a wetsuit, in 10 questions. Have you ever wondered how a wetsuit works? Why triathletes wear a wetsuit? How to choose your wetsuit? How should a wetsuit fit? etc… All the answers are here!
1. Why do triathletes wear a wetsuit?
In triathlons, the swim part most often consists in an open water swim. It can either be in a lake (or pond), or in the ocean. In many regions, open water bodies temperatures can be chilly and uncomfortable for swimming. A neoprene wetsuit will keep you warm in cold waters. Indeed, the neoprene material has an isolating role between the athlete body and the water. As a consequence, thanks to their wetsuit, triathletes can swim comfortably and longer in low water temperatures.
2. How does a wetsuit work?
A wetsuit is essentially made of neoprene, a material which has good stretching properties and comes in various thicknesses. Additionally, its internal structure is made of many small cavities which can fill-up with air or water (just like a sponge). When the athlete enters the water, the neoprene fills up with water, hence the cold feeling at first. Shortly, the material is saturated with water, imprisoning a layer of water within the neoprene. This layer is in contact with the athlete’s body and will heat up until it reaches close to body temperature.
Throughout the swim, the athlete’s body will be constantly keeping this layer of water warm. That’s how a wetsuit works: it wraps athlete’s body in a warm layer of water.
3. Does a wetsuit make you float?
Technically, yes! A wetsuit keeps you afloat, although it should not be used as a safety flotation device. Due to its neoprene composition, a wetsuit has a significant buoyancy. Most triathletes highly rely on this buoyancy to help them go through the swimming leg. Indeed, the suit lifts the entire body to the surface, and more importantly, the legs. In fact, it is like swimming with a giant pull buoy. This means that it considerably reduces the body drag and easily improves swim speed!
So, if you are anxious about swimming in a triathlon, keep in mind that you can highly rely on your wetsuit to get you through it!
4. Do all races allow wetsuits?
Not always: triathlons can be wetsuit legal or illegal. This decision depends on the temperature of the water and the race organizer’s policy. The USAT wetsuits rules are as follow:
- For water temperature below 58F a full wetsuit is mandatory.
- If water temperature is between 58F and 78F, athletes can wear a wetsuit.
- If water temperature is between 78F and 84F, athletes can wear wetsuits, but if they do so, they won’t be eligible for awards.
- For water temperature above 84F, wetsuits are not allowed.
For safety reasons, below a certain temperature (usually around 50F), the race organizer may cancel or shorten the swim.
5. How to choose a wetsuit?
Wetsuits come in many lengths, thicknesses and fits. Choosing the right wetsuit will be based on three essential criterias: water temperature, confidence with the swim, and personal feel with neoprene compression. A thicker material offers better protection from the cold temperatures, and more buoyancy, but less overall flexibility. For cold water, a full wetsuit may be mandatory. It consists in a full body coverage: long legs and long sleeves. For warmer water, multiple cuts and combinations are offered; short sleeves, short legs, sleeveless.
At first, a lot of athletes will consider a full and thick wetsuit to benefit from the buoyancy. However, more neoprene means more compression and less freedom of movement, which may not feel comfortable. Indeed, a thick suit may feel a bit stiff at the shoulder, and lack overall flexibility. To address this point, most wetsuits come with a thinner material around the shoulders and on the arms.
Sleeveless models will offer less protection from cold water, but will greatly increase the comfort, by offering a total freedom of movement for the arm rotation. However, a sleeveless wetsuit must fit perfectly to avoid any gap under the arms, where water would enter and cause unwanted drag.
6. How should a wetsuit fit?
Above all, keep in mind that, on the dry land, a wetsuit is one of the tightest thing you can ever put on. However, once in the water (and over time) the neoprene will stretch out and feel much more comfortable. With respect to the level of tightness to expect, it should be similar to compression garments (like running compression socks for example). However, it should not be tight to a point where breathing is difficult, or blood circulation is constricted. Pay specific attention to the comfort of the collar. There are different cuts for wider necks, to ensure that the neckline does not constrict your throat and compromise the breathing comfort.
Ultimately, the shoulders and arms comfort is critical. A properly fitting wetsuit should not get in the way of your swim comfort, especially for the arm motion. Make sure that the fitting is tight (so water does not fill in and drag you down) but does not compromise the shoulders rotation and motion range.
7. Where to buy a wetsuit?
If it is your fist time buying a wetsuit, or trying it on at all, multisport shops are your best bet. They generally offer multiple brands and fits so you can try them all and decide which cut and model works the best for you. However, if you are confident with the size and the cut that will fit you, buying a suit online is probably the easiest option. Wetsuits manufacturers did a great job updating their size charts and giving directions for finding the appropriate size.
One of the most popular brand is Roka, although it is quite recent (less than 10 years old company). There is an agreement with USAT to give discount for members. They have a comprehensive offering of models and options at variable price points.
8. How much should I spend on a wetsuit?
In term of price range, an entry level model will start around $100 and then can rapidly cost over $500 for the most technical models. Even for your very first wetsuit, it is very important to not cheap out and make sure that the model you are buying fits you and feels comfortable. For sure, a wrong suit is the best way to have a very negative experience on your first race and badly impact your triathlon journey.
What’s more, investing in an expensive full suit if you don’t plan on racing in cold water is not necessary. If you are mainly looking for the extra buoyancy, a shorter (and cheaper) model with thick front and back panels will nicely do the job.
9. What are the alternatives to buying a wetsuit for my first triathlon?
You can rent a wetsuit. This option is great if are new to triathlon, just willing to try your first race, and not ready to invest in the equipment yet. Renting a wetsuit will also give you the opportunity to try different models on and see what is the most comfortable to you. The downside of renting is that it can become quickly expensive after a couple of time, to a point where buying your own makes more sense. Furthermore, owning a wetsuit will allow you to practice open water swimming at any time.
Wetsuits rental services are often offered by race organizers. Generally, they arrange for a service to be on-spot on race day, where it’s possible to try on, pick-up and return conveniently the suits. More rental services are available online with different price points and packages options. For example, among others: wetsuitrental.com, triwetsuitrentals.com, or wetsuitwearhouse.com.
10. How to take care of a wetsuit?
There are some precautions to take if you wish to prolong the lifetime of your wetsuit.
First, always rinse your suit with clear water after every session, whether it is in the ocean salt water, in a lake, or even in a pool.
Second, never dry your suit directly under the sun. In fact, neoprene is a fragile material and does not like the exposure to direct sun. Unfortunately, it is common to see wetsuits left in plain sun on the transition areas racks, until the end of the race. When stripping off your suit in transition, try as much as you can to put it away from the sun (for example, roughly rolled up under your transition mat).
Third, be careful with your finger nails when pulling on your wetsuit to put it on. The external rubbery neoprene material easily cuts and tears and cannot be mended. Somehow, it is possible to fix a tear by patching it up, but it is costly and not easy depending on its location.
Lastly, do not fold the wetsuit for storage. Indeed, the folding lines may mark over time and become weakness points where the wetsuit is susceptible to tear. Instead, gently roll up the suit, not too tight, and store it in a bag, in a dry location.