Way back in July 2003, I attended a wetsuit clinic at Sports Basement. They covered several topics including why you should wear a wetsuit for swimming and how to choose one. I have finally typed up my notes which are primarily taken from a handout they distributed. I've reformatted it slightly and elaborated on some of the points with my own commentary.

Triathlon Wetsuit 101

Why Buy a Wetsuit?

  • Keeps you warm: small amount of water enters the suit & creates an insulating layer of warmth.
  • Makes you fast
    • Buoyancy = body higher out of water = better water displacement = reduced surface friction = enhanced speed!
    • Weight & drag of legs eliminated.
    • Hydrodynamic material & design (slippery like a seal).

Construction & Materials

  • Neoprene rubber (naturally buoyant)
    • Infused with air bubbles (like microscopic honeycombo with tiny air pockets).
    • Manufacturer is largely Yamamoto from Japan.
    • Varied thickness of multi-directional rubber.
    • Generally 5mm front torso to knee, 3mm back/lower leg, 3mm arms.
      • 5mm is maximum thickness by International Triathlon Union regulation.
    • Blind stiched and taped (in high stress areas) for least amount of chafing.

Surf Wetsuits vs. Triathlon Wetsuits

  • Fit
    • Surf suits are made for warmth, wind chill protection & paddling motion. Looser fit.
    • Triathlon suits made for warmth, buoyancy & full stroke motion. Tighter fit.
  • Material
    • Surf suit is tough. Laminated with nylon fabric on both sides of the material. Holds up to abrasion. Chafes.
    • Swim wetsuit is relatively delicate. One side is left raw rubber and coated with a low friction coating called "composite skin". It's like a non-stock coating for pans. Makes it slippery, stretchy & fast.

Full vs. Sleeveless (Long John) vs. Two-Piece

For some/most races, wearing a wetsuit is optional. I've seen some where for safety reasons, you're not allowed to wear one if the water temperature is above 75F (in case your body overheats).

  • Full
    • Cold to moderate temperatures (50-78F)
      • Perfect for San Francisco Bay waters (average temperature is 55F).
    • Faster
      • More rubber = more buyoancy & more hydrodynamic.
      • Less water entry. 2-3 minutes faster over 1,500 meters (Olympic distance triathlon swim).
  • Sleeveless
    • Warmer temperatures (66 to mid-80F).
    • Not as buyoant & arguably more flexible.
      • Some say it eliminates chafing around the armpit area, but this usually isn't a problem with newer, properly fit wetsuits.
  • Two-piece
    • The benefit of a two-piece suit is that it doesn't have a zipper up the back, so it's lighter. However, lack of a zipper can also be a drawback as it can be trickier to put on and remove. Most two-piece suits have a v-shaped torso designed so are more suitable for men than women.

Proper Fit

  • Firm but comfortable = second skin
    • Contours the body (including underarm). Friction will cause rash.
      • Very little or no air pockets.
      • Should create a suction when pulled away from belly.
    • Good seal at neck
    • Little extra fabric under armpit.
  • Size chart - each manufacturer has their own unique system.
    • Good starting point but not always "perfect".
    • Aim within the height & weight.
  • Too small? Vertically (crotch to torso) will feel very uncomfortable.
    • Pulling down of the shoulders.
    • Pulling up of the crotch.
  • Too big?
    • Folds or wrinkles of rubber in midsection, rear or crotch.
    • Lots of air pockets = lots of water = heavy!
      • Reduces buoyancy & drag. Should not balloon out more than 0.25" from skin.
      • Get the smallest size that fits.
      • Know where the suit starts, e.g., some come down to your calf, some down to the ankle.
  • Try on an entry level suit (e.g., Xterra, Orca) and then a high end suit (e.g., Ironman Predator) to see how they compare. I've also seen people wear T1, DeSoto, Quintana Roo, etc.

Trying It On

  • Take your time. Pull on small section by small section.
  • NO FINGERNAILS or sharp jewelry.
    • Trim nails.
    • Only use the pads/sides of fingers or palms to pull up outside rubber.
    • The inside of the suit is resilient & tough. When possible hold onto that instead of the smooth outer surface.
  • Skin should be dry.
  • Keep socks on or use plastic bags.
  • One leg at a time like pulling on trousers.
    • Pull opening well over anklebone.
    • Crotch should be pulled up as high as humanly possible (like panty hose).
      • If there is an air pocket continue to inch suit up until it's gone. Don't worry where the ankles of the suit finish.
      • Legs pulled up as high as possible is the first & most important key to a proper fit.
  • One arm at a time.
    • Pull opening well over wrist bone.
    • Work extra fabric up over the shoulder & into the armpit.
  • Stand up straight, squeeze shoulder blades together, hold base of zipper & pull it up (do not force zipper).
    • Highly recommended to have someone help you.
    • Make certain inner thin panel running length of back is flat.
  • Fasten collar as tightly as comfortable.
    • A loose collar will cause chafing and water entry.

Taking it Off

  • Sooner the better. Sweaty skin makes the suit sticky.
  • Pull off like a banana peel inside out, one arm at a time.
  • Do NOT grab the collar but rather the shoulder or upper back panel.
  • Remove torso & lower body inside out like a pair of trousers.

Accessories

  • Goggles: I like the ones designed by Seal Mask because they provide 180 degree visibility. The adult ones were too large for me so I bought the goggle variety for women/young adults. Consider a pair with tinting for swimming in bright sunlight.
  • Anti-fog solution: self explanatory. You can also use saliva but then your goggles will smell.
  • Swim cap: choose a bright colored one for swimming in open water so people can easily see you.
  • "Hot heads"/squid lids: these are neoprene caps for retaining heat. Wearing a hot head increases your core body temperature by 5F. Wearing two swimming caps will not provide the same amount of warmth as a hot head.
  • Neoprene booties & gloves
    • They may or may not be allowed for a particular race. Check the rules. Even if they are allowed, you may not wear ones with webbing.
    • I have been told by two independent sources that wearing the neoprene booties makes you slower. One woman said it felt like dragging a couple of bricks around.
  • Swim socks: I've seen some people wear these and I'm looking for a pair to try them out.

Care Instructions

  • Fingernail tears can be a common occurrence from normal wear & tear. It can be easily repaired with wetsuit glue.
  • Rinse with cool fresh water every use.
  • Dry inside out away from the sun.
  • Do not dry on hanger but rather folded over towel rack or shower door.
  • When dry, store lightly folded and flat or on a thick coat hanger. Don't put heavy things on top of it.
  • No petroleum based lubricants. Use Bodyglide to protect from chafing and to ease your suit on & off. [Note: I've also heard of people using KY Jelly or Pam cooking spray but I'm not sure how effective or safe that is].
  • Not recommended for use in chlorinated pools.
  • Use only for non-contact water sports.

Warranty

  • Varies from suit to suit. Most have a 1-year warranty with proof of purchase.
  • Workmanship is covered at manufacturer's discretion.
    • Fingernail tears NOT covered but are easily repaired.
  • Save a copy of your receipt as proof of purchase.
 

Copyright 2003 Lauren Wu. All Rights Reserved.