If you are thinking of dipping your toe into the world of open water swimming, either as a pure sport or as part of a triathlon, there is one thing that you are most certainly going to need – a wetsuit. The decision to buy a wetsuit is a simple one, the difficult part is finding your way through the huge choice of brands, sizes, styles and prices that are available. The purpose of this guide is to provide you with an insight into this rubbery world and hopefully leave you feeling a little more confident that you are making the right buying decision.
What are wetsuits and how do they work?
Unless you are fortunate enough to live in sunnier climes, swimming in the open water can be cold. The main job of a wetsuit therefore, is to keep you warm when swimming in the open water. Wetsuits also offer other benefits to swimmers, they reduce the changes of picking up abrasions from rocks (and other people!) but one of the greatest benefits to swimmers is the increased level of buoyancy they give you.
Most wetsuits are made of neoprene. The neoprene itself acts as an insulator but most of the insulating benefit comes from the way wetsuits trap water in between the skin and the inside of the suit.The swimmers body warms the water which then acts as a kind of radiator. How good wetsuits are at keeping you warm depends on the fit and thickness of the suit and the temperature of the water you are swimming in.
Neoprene is filled with tiny air bubbles and as such is very buoyant. This means that most people will swim with a slightly higher body position in the water than when swimming normally without a suit. This raised body position can make some substantial improvements to swim times, especially for those who have a tendency to swim ‘low’ in the water and/or drag their legs if they have an inefficient kick. Having said that, very good and efficient swimmers may actually be slightly hampered by a wetsuit that is too buoyant. For these swimmers being too high in the water can reduce the amount of purchase the they can get. Swimming too high in the water can also cause unwanted additional drag and water turbulence. Basically, it is best to choose a suit that is most suitable to you and the way you swim.
Should I Hire or Buy a Wetsuit?
Wetsuits can be expensive. If you are new to open water swimming and are concerned about spending hundreds of pounds on a new suit, it may well be that you would be better considering hiring a wetsuit. Wetsuits can be hired for differing periods of time from a single race/event right through to a full season. Hiring is a good way to ‘test the water’ and decide whether open water swimming is for you longer term.
If you are confident that you will get plenty of use out of a suit, buying is definitely the way to go. Having your own suit that is well fitted and selected personally to suit your individual swimming style and ability will make your open water swims a much more enjoyable experience (you should go faster too!).
Which suit should I buy and how much should I spend?
There are many different wetsuit brands, each with a multitude of different suit models. In simple terms, most brands offer an entry level suit, a few mid-range suits and then a top-end model. Entry level suits are usually fairly basic and come with few features. Usually, if you spend a little more and go for a mid range suit you actually end up getting a much better suit for not a huge amount of extra money. When deciding how much to spend on a suit, our advice would be to take a realistic look at how many times you plan to use it. If you are a regular open water swimmer and will get good use out of the suit, then spend as much as you can afford. If you are new and/or uncertain about who much use you will get out of it, go for a cheaper option (unless money is no object!). Suits at the top of the mid-price range usually offer the right balance of cost/quality/features. Top of the range suits are usually very expensive and offer cutting edge features which will eventually filter down to the lower models as time progresses. Back to buoyancy. As mentioned above, suits currently come with a whole host of features, most of which will make fairly minimal differences to your performance in real terms. The biggest and most important factor when looking at suits is the buoyancy. Get this right and you could be in line for a good performance boost! In general terms, the thicker the neoprene, the higher the level of buoyancy. Some suits have different buoyancy levels in different areas. Some have more buoyancy in the legs than the upper body so are great for poor kickers (and triathletes with big, heavy, but powerful legs!). Size Selection The next issue once you have chosen your suit is size selection. Wetsuits come in a whole range of sizes depending on your height and build. It is important to make sure you get the right size as incorrectly fitted/sizes suits will be uncomfortable and inefficient. Wetsuits should be tight, but not so tight as they restrict breathing. They should fit the shape of your body and have no baggy areas or ‘voids’. When trying on a wetsuit for fit, particular attention should be paid to the neck, shoulder and under-arm areas. These are the areas that have the highest amount of movement when swimming and can lead to chaffing/rubbing when swimming. The friction can lead to soreness, particularly on the back of the neck. Usually a good way to test the fit of a wetsuit is by using the 'zip-test’. You should just be able to zip the suit up. If you can zip it up easily, or need the help of half a dozen helpers to crowbar you in, chances are the suit doesn’t quite fit!
Other Useful Hints and Tips
Wetsuit Shortening for Triathlon – Getting your wetsuit on and off can be made easier by shortening the arms and legs slightly. This makes little difference to the effectiveness of the suit but reduces the amount of ‘tight suit’ to pull off, particularly at the ankles. However, before you do this please consider a a few things: Are you completely happy with the suit (as you won’t be able to return it once trimmed); trim and test, trim and test. This makes sure you don’t take too much off (as there is clearly no going back!); watch out for catch panels and other suit features, cutting these may make reduce their effectiveness. If in doubt, don’t trim your suit!
Anti-Chafing Rubs and Creams – No matter how well your suit fits, you may stiff get some rubbing and soreness, especially when you swim longer distances. Using an anti-chafing rub on the problem areas prior to swimming will reduce the problem and make for a more comfortable swim (and the rest of your race).
Plastic Bags! – If you have trouble getting your wetsuit on, particularly if you are already wet, try using some plastic carrier bags. Pop them over your feet and them put your suit on. The bags help your feet slide through without catching. Don’t forget to take the bags off prior to swimming!
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