You can’t race without one, but what’s the difference between 2 and 5mm neoprene? And do I really need hydrophobic coatings?
With the possible exception of your bike, no other piece of kit needs to be as properly fitted as your wetsuit. It has to be snug enough to ensure that it only maintains a thin layer of water between it and your skin, but loose enough that you can actually get it on and off.
Most importantly, it needs to be long enough. A short or badly fitted wetsuit at the shoulder will add massive resistance to your swimming stroke and tire you out really quickly!
Like all modern equipment, the swimming wetsuit has become specialised to offer a range of features unique to open water swimming, and whilst the best Huub wetsuit will undoubtedly make you a little faster in the water, you have to balance a budget with a realistic expectation of performance improvement!
If you want to swim faster, training and experience will help you more than a special coating on your wetsuit!
Unless you are lucky enough to compete in the Indian Ocean, it’s extremely likely that a wetsuit will be compulsory, but in most cases, the type is not specified except for cold water swims.
That means you can happily jump in with you old surfing wetsuit and you probably won’t be alone.
If you are looking for a new wetsuit, but are not going to use it a lot, then there are a couple of options.
Firstly, you will find a number of companies doing season long hire of a wetsuit, which means you’ll enjoy newer technology at a more reasonable price.
Secondly, search the web for sales stock. Wetsuits are a bit like fashion, and the big companies change designs fast enough that there are often end of season bargains to be had.
Finally, there will always be a number of second-hand wetsuits around, especially at the end of the season, and you might be lucky to find one in your size.
However, the fit is important, so it is actually worth buying new especially if you have a good local supplier.
Some of the features of the wetsuit
Wetsuits are made of a rubber called neoprene, which can be made into a foam-type material. This foaming makes the neoprene lighter, elastic and more insulating, but also makes it soft and easily damaged.
Foamed neoprene will be used for the majority of the suit, with collars being made of non-foaming neoprene to create a strong seal, which is essential for fit and warmth
Foam neoprene is characterised by its thickness, with thicker foams being lighter and more insulating, making them ideal for open water swimming as they add buoyancy and keep you warm, However, this also makes the rubber tighter and less stretchy, hence you need to find a balance.
Most triathlon wetsuits are made of 3-4mm neoprene for the body with thinner neoprene for the arms and sometimes legs (although having extra buoyancy in the legs helps)
The zip tends to be on the back for two reasons. Firstly, it keeps the zip out of the way when swimming, but mostly because it is easier to bend forward to get the arms out than trying to bend the shoulders back.
The zip will extend from the base of the back to the back of the neck and will do up from the bottom to top. The Zip will generally have a long cord so that you can reach it to pull it up and down yourself and will often have a velcro end to attach the end to the wetsuit.
Some wetsuits have hydrophobic coatings which make them more slippery in the water by reducing drag. You may also find shaped rubber panels on the wetsuits to achieve the same end.
Neoprene is easy to damage ( yes, you will rip your wetsuit at some point, but don’t worry about it), and to keep the structure intact, wetsuits have a thin inner lining which is tougher and stronger. When putting on your wetsuit, pull it up from the inside to avoid damaging the soft neoprene.
Getting the right fit for the collar is important for two reasons.
Firstly, a wet suit is designed to maintain a thin layer of water between you and the suit both to help you move and keep you warm so you don’t want water flooding in. Foam neoprene is very compressive so is not suitable for the neck, hence a rubber neoprene is used, forming a tight enough seal.
Secondly, the neck is the only part of the body which moves relative to the wetsuit, and there is a risk of chafing at the neck if the collar doesn’t fit properly.
This is especially true for sea swims, where salt adds to the chafing, or where there is velcro that can rub against the neck.