Fullsuit or Sleeveless Wetsuit for Iron Distance?

author : davesheanin
comments : 3

Member Question

My question is regarding wetsuits, I currently own a higher-end full body wetsuit that works well when water temperatures are in the low 70's or it's an olympic distance event. Though when I move into the iron distance I overheat when the water is in the mid-to-high 70's. Swimming without a suit at the longer distances I never cramp in the warmer water but with a full body wetsuit it seems that once I'm in the water for over an hour the cramps come and I think it's a result of my overheating. My swim time for iron distance is typically in the 1:15 range give or take a couple minutes.

I'm a bigger guy, 205lbs, and really prefer cooler water.  I'm thinking about going to a Farmer John suit (sleeveless) or even a Farmer John shorty suit.  I realize there will be more drag and less floatation but the overheating and cramping seems more detrimental to me than speed?  Ironman Canada is in six weeks and water temperatures look like they will be pretty warm?

Answer by Dave Sheanin
D3Multisport.com Coach

There are several elements of your question to address.  Let’s start with a little background.

Wetsuits provide a proven advantage in the water

When properly fit, they provide buoyancy and reduce drag.  In colder water, they provide warmth (comfort).  All of these advantages add up to one thing: speed.  The primary reason most people wear a wetsuit is to go faster.  

Both a full or a John will put you in a better body position and both will be faster than swimming without a suit.  Estimates range from a few seconds per 100 to 10 seconds per 100.  My experience shows that a full suit is at the top of that range and will always be faster than a John suit.

The advantages of a full suit over a John suit may seem obvious, but for a complete discussion, here’s my list of the most important factors.  In addition to being faster, they provide more buoyancy, better drag reduction (extra neoprene covering your shoulders and arms), and are warmer.  The warmth is obviously only an advantage in cooler water.

John suits have advantages as well

Many triathletes feel less constricted around the chest (easier to breathe) and feel more shoulder freedom.  Some athletes with a swimming background like to "feel" the water on their arms and removing the suit is definitely faster (though that shouldn’t impact your T1 time if you’re removing the top of the suit while you’re running to transition).

So ultimately, it’s going to come down to personal preference.  But I’ll add a few thoughts to help you make your decision.

Regarding speed

Let’s consider the actual speed advantage at Ironman distance.  If a full suit is faster than a John suit by about 5 seconds per 100 meters, the difference is about 3 minutes over 3.8k.  Granted, that’s three "free" minutes, but over the course of your day, will that make a difference to you?  If not, you can take speed out of the equation.

Regarding temperature

The reported average water temperature at Ironman Canada is 68 degrees.  I think that’s a very good temperature for a full suit.  When the water is in the mid to high 70’s (and you start bumping up against the wetsuit legal limit), you may consider a John suit.  I raced Ironman Canada in 2008 - I don’t know if that was a typical year for water temperature, but I chose a full suit and was very comfortable.  When I’ve done swims in a full suit in warmer water, I periodically tug on the neck between strokes to let a bit of cooler water in and flush through the suit (a couple of times during the swim). 

Get the correct fit

Make sure you are wearing the right sized suit and have it pulled on correctly.  There are plenty of good videos from manufacturers and on Youtube with instructions for pulling on a suit.  It’s not as intuitive as some people think and if you get it wrong, it can make the suit uncomfortable, especially around the chest and neck. 

Practice in your suit!  

I think regular open water practice is ideal but I recognize that venues aren’t readily available in many parts of the country.  You can practice wearing your wetsuit in the pool.  Check with the manufacturer of your suit, but generally as long as you don’t swim every day in your suit and always give it a complete rinse in clean water afterward, the suit will hold up just fine.  Swimming in a wetsuit in a pool is perfect for simulating warm water conditions - most lap pools have temps in the high 70’s.

On cramping

Swimming in your suit in a pool is a good way to determine whether the cramping you’re experiencing is a result of the temperature (overheating) or something else.  My experience as a coach is that most foot and calf cramping is not related to body temperature and often goes away after you swim enough.  When swimmers begin a swim program or are increasing yardage, I see lots of cramping.  When yardage is consistent over time and not increasing, I rarely see cramping.  You also need to consider all the other working out you’re doing with bike and run training.  Is the cramping worse when you’re more fatigued?  You should be pretty rested on race day.

Kicking

Try different types of kicks to see whether you can solve the cramping issue.  It’s common for triathletes to use a 2-beat kick at a full distance.  A lazy 6-beat kick can also work very well.  I’ve used a 4-beat kick at full distance - that’s a nice compromise if you can master it.  

A wetsuit that is too tight around the calves could be uncomfortable and I suppose could contribute to cramping.  Some wetsuit designs include more pliable material or some sort of release around the calves to help improve circulation (among other advantages) but I’d expect this feature to be similar in a full and John suit.

No shortys

I don’t recommend a shorty.  When you take away the legs, you lose a tremendous amount of buoyancy.  Though on most suits with full legs, the design allows you to cut the neoprene to shorten the suit a bit without sacrificing performance.

My personal preference (and general coaching advice) is to wear a full suit whenever a swim is wetsuit legal.  The speed advantage overwhelms any potential temperature disadvantage (assuming you can solve the cramping problem).  If speed isn’t your primary consideration, wear the suit that you’ll be most comfortable in.

Good luck!

Dave Sheanin
USA Triathlon Level I and USA Swimming Certified Coach
Swim/Triathlon Coach, D3 Multisport
Assistant Coach, University of Colorado Triathlon Team, 2011 & 2012 National Champions

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date: August 10, 2012

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