How To Buy A Triathlon Wetsuit

Wetsuits are a must for triathlons in the Northern California area. You can buy one from Coach Neil (with a great discount), or from Sports Basement. Here are a few guidelines from the TRIMORE team on how to choose the right wetsuit for you.

First and foremost: a triathlon wetsuit is not the same as a surf wetsuit. Don’t confuse the two. A surf wetsuit protects you from the cold and potential scrapes while surfing. It is thick, and somewhat restricting in movement. A triathlon wetsuit keeps you warm, but also delivers a swimming speed boost and built-in energy conservation.

What is the primary way that a triathlon wetsuit helps you swim faster? Flotation – (aka drag reduction). The wetsuit should put your body in the great swimming position Coach talked about this weekend. Normally, your head position generally controls your body position, and a good head position generally results in a good body position. As Coach says, if the head goes up, the legs go down…and you create drag. This is why we spend a great deal of time NOT looking up when we breath. But with a swimming-specific wetsuit on your body, the wetsuit keeps your lower half of your body floating on the top of the water. This means you use less energy kicking (you almost don’t have to), and your head position is almost taken out of the equation. The wetsuit material also delivers a slicker surface than your skin, further reducing drag.

Where do you start? First – decide how much you want to spend. Dollar for dollar, each price level of triathlon wetsuit is relatively equal to its competitor. They tend to use the same type (or a similar type) of neoprene across any particular price level, and the higher price levels use a neoprene that is more flexible or somewhat more slick. BUT – be prepared, you have to spend some minimum amount to get something that will work, and in a full-sleeve design that is around $200. Once you get near $300 for a suit, how much more “speed” is another $100 or $200 going to buy you? Not a lot, but if the difference in your race finish place is vital, then buying the top-end is the way to go. If you feel you are at mid-pack, a top-price triathlon wetsuit will not move you up any higher in the standings than if you bought a mid-priced wetsuit.

If you can’t afford to buy a triathlon wetsuit, rent one (Sports Basement will do that). Whatever you do – do not try to swim in a surf wetsuit.

Once you decide about how much you want to spend, be prepared to spend at least an hour trying on wetsuits. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO BUY OR RENT A WETSUIT WITHOUT TRYING IT ON. You can’t shortcut the process. You will only have yourself to blame when, on race day, you’re in the middle of Lake San Antonio and can’t manage the stroke you’ve spent 10 weeks working your butt off on because the wetsuit doesn’t fit right. It takes at least 10 minutes to properly get into a wetsuit and begin to evaluate it for fit. Another few minutes to get out. Budget ~ 15 minutes per wetsuit. This is NOT a zip in / zip out sort of thing. Bring some water, maybe a snack, and the clothes you plan on swimming in (your tri suit, or similar).

Different brands have different fits and design methodologies, resulting in a different feel. You may be looking at two great choices. One may be designed to feel tighter or snugger, while another may be less snug, but both could help you swim better. The one that feels the best to you is likely to be the best one for you, while another buddy might feel better in the other one – and that one is the best for them. I bet that either of you would be equally well in either one, but as long as you are spending the money, you might as well get the one that feels the best to you, right?

Note: spend the time to decide, but don’t lose yourself in the decision-making process. Take comfort in knowing that it is hard to make a bad choice if you are willing to take the time to try on the wetsuit.

What are the features you should look for in a triathlon wetsuit?

  • Proper fit
    The suit must be comfortable from crotch to shoulder; it must not limit your mobility or shoulder/arm reach. If it does, then it will hinder your swimming ability instead of helping it. It needs to fit in the torso – chest, waist, etc., but the most important fit dimension is crotch to shoulders. Arm length and leg length are not very important. Additionally, while some find it odd, shorter legs and arms on a wetsuit can make it faster to remove, too – but that is a function of the brand design, not something to look for in choosing a size.

  • Material layout
    A wetsuit should have differing thicknesses of material in different parts. The shoulders and arms should be thinner; the chest and parts of the legs a bit thicker. How much thicker or thinner is different from brand to brand, but a wetsuit that is the same thickness throughout is going to be inferior in some way to a wetsuit that has varied thicknesses. You need more flexibility (thinner) in the parts that move a lot (usually the arms and shoulders, sometimes parts of the legs if you are a big kicker) and more floatation (thicker) in the right parts (generally the torso and the upper legs). The ends of the arms and legs should be extra-flexible, both to afford a good watertight seal, and to allow stretching to get the suit off faster. Remember, generally speaking, within any one price level the wetsuits will use types of neoprene with similar performance factors. You pay more for neoprene that “does” more.

  • Neck and wrist seals
    A triathlon wetsuit should not let water flow in and out, and it should not hold water next to your body. That water becomes extra weight that you must carry with you during the swim. No one wants to add pounds to their race weight! A good neck-seal is paramount. Without that seal, the neck becomes a water scoop and the suit will fill with water. Same thing with the wrist – a loose wrist cuff becomes a water scoop (note that the ankles should have a good seal, too, but they can act as a release in some brands, too). All the mid and top-end suits have this, but they might do it with a different method. Trying on a suit is the best way to find out if the way they wrap around your neck will work for you, or will make you feel like you are being mugged.

  • Ease of exit
    Can you get out of the wetsuit? If the suit makes your swim one-minute faster, but it takes an extra minute to get the suit off, there is not much gain. 🙂 Back to that neck, wrist and ankle seal – the suit must seal, but it must also allow you to get out – you don’t want the suit to become handcuffs or legcuffs.

  • Sleeved or sleeveless?
    That is more of a personal preference, but almost everyone is faster in a full suit (with sleeves) than in a sleeveless suit, no matter what they say or think about losing some feel for the water. Sleeves reduce drag, sleeves help with float, and that adds up to more potential speed.

  • Construction
    A glued and stitched wetsuit should be more durable than a wetsuit that is just glued or just stitched, and for the price you pay for a tri-specific wetsuit, you want it to last for a while.

Which features don’t you need?

Well, anything that doesn’t focus on giving you the best fit for your buck. More zippers, less zippers, break-away-zippers, different color panels, or extra-super-duper-super-metal-ceramic-carbon-fiber-silicone-impregnated-patented-double-secret-neoprene extras don’t make suits in the same price range slower or faster, just different. The number one concern is fit, crotch to shoulders. The rest are all personal preference.


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