Of all the kit we need to buy when starting out in triathlon, a wetsuit can be one of the more confusing. For those new to the sport, it’s not always obvious what makes a triathlon wetsuit specific to the requirements of swimming, and what to look out for when shopping for one. At RGActive we help hundreds of athletes every year conquer their first open water triathlon, through our training days and open water coaching sessions. A big part of being comfortable in open water is making sure you’re in the right wetsuit for you. Together with our wetsuit partner Blueseventy, here’s our guide on what to look for when getting a triathlon wetsuit.
Do you have to buy one?
Not at all. If this is your first year in triathlon and you’re not sure how much you’re likely to do, or if you want to hold off on committing to buying one, there are some great rental options available. The advantage of renting a suit, is that it’s a much cheaper initial outlay, and if you do get the sizing wrong you can swap it out more easily. Be careful though since you will probably be liable to any damage to the suit. Sometimes you can pick up a bargain from ex-rental suits at the end of the season too, so keep an eye out.
What does a wetsuit do?
Wetsuits work by trapping a small amount of water inside, which then warms with your body heat and acts to insulate you against the cold water outside the suit. This extra warmth is important when you’re submerged for long periods in training and racing, keeping your working muscles warm.
Secondly, a swimming specific wetsuit provides buoyancy so you effectively float better in the water. This makes swimming easier since you’re using less energy to stay afloat.
How does a triathlon wetsuit differ from a surf or diving wetsuit?
Triathlon wetsuits are generally cut to be a lot tighter than a surf or diving wetsuit since baggy suits are more difficult to swim in. Combined with tighter collars and cuffs, this also serves to prevent excess water entering the suit, causing you to lose body temperature. They’re also covered in a layer of rubber which not only increases the heat retention, but also makes the suit a lot more hydrodynamic, so that you move through the water much more easily.
While specific features differ between entry level suits and the top end ones on the market, they all have some universal adaptations that make swimming easier. Variations in thickness of neoprene around different areas of the body, for example; thicker in the legs and torso, with thinner shoulder and arm panels. This improves the flexibility of the suit, giving you more freedom of movement.
Because of these adaptations we strongly recommend that you use a swimming specific wetsuit for your races. This is one area where getting the wrong equipment can make you day a lot tougher.
What should I look for when buying a wetsuit?
If possible try the suit on before you buy. Most good triathlon shops should have staff trained in fitting your wetsuit. If buying online, order from a site with a good returns policy so you can swap it out if the sizing isn’t quite right.
Have a budget in mind and shop around and see what deals you can get. If you buy at the end of the year you can often pick up a bargain. Second hand wetsuits could potentially be a good deal, but check for wear and tear since the suits are easily damaged if not looked after.
How important is the fit?
In short; very! For anyone who’s never worn a triathlon wetsuit it will feel very tight. Even for those of us with a few seasons racing under our belts, it still feels tight getting a suit on for the first time each year. Although that could be the results of some off-season indulgence. Watch our video on fitting your wetsuit.
Tom, from Blueseventy, advises that if the suit feels too tight on dry land, then it’s probably about the right fit for when you’re in the water. Making sure you take time to get your suit on properly each time you wear it will make a huge difference to how comfortable you feel and how well you swim. Take your time putting your suit on, as not to damage it. Pull it up your legs in small sections and do the best to make sure it’s fitted on your legs and hips before proceeding with the rest of the suit.
Once you’ve got the upper part of the suit on, before you zip it up, try to get as much mobility through your shoulders as possible. You can do this by feeding excess material from the waist and hips up the suit to your chest and shoulders. You should immediately feel the difference in the movement.
Do I have to wear one?
Triathlons governing body, British Triathlon, has guidelines on when wetsuits can and cannot be worn, these are:
However please note that most races will enforce wetsuits up to 22 °C without the option for a non-wetsuit swim as it is safer due to the buoyancy the wetsuit offers.
Most of us will be a lot quicker in a suit than without one, so when the option if given to you we advise you wear one since any time added in taking the suit off will almost certainly be made up for by a quicker swim time, not to mention the energy saving.