Neoprene Niceties - The Ultimate Guide in Wetsuit Basics for Triathletes

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Wetsuit guide for triathletes - manufacturers, sizing and maintenance.

It seems to me that there is a strange phenomenon that occurs when the temperatures drop and it stays dark for several hours on end. This is when they come out of the woodwork. There is something about the ice, snow and freezing rain that have damaged their ability to make sane decisions. They are the members of the various nation-wide Polar Bear Clubs. And I only got one word for these guys - wetsuits. I mean really, you have got to be crazy to jump into a body of sub 40-degree water and think it is a good idea. I know, I know, wetsuits would defeat the purpose of the ritual, but seriously! Then I start to think about some of the swim starts I have been at in the past where even with my wetsuit on, I was freezing. What boggles my mind are the self-proclaimed "stoic" athletes at these races who elect to swim sans wetsuit in 60-some degree water. In my opinion, if these guys want to show how tough they are, the Polar Bear Plunge would be the place to do it; a nice plunge followed by, oh I don't know, a steamy hot tub and maybe a cold beer, not followed by a 40K ride and 10K run. What is even more mind boggling than these athletes putting up with the cold, is that these non-wetsuit swimmers are missing out on some very real benefits of wearing a wetsuit in an open water race. I'd like to take a moment now to outline for you some of the benefits, myths and how-to's of wetsuit wearing.


Benefit Numero Uno

Speed. Let's face it, speed matters. I don't care if you say; "Oh I'm just out there to finish." Wouldn't it be nicer to finish a little bit faster, like before the aid stations have been sucked dry? The neoprene that wetsuits are made of is extremely buoyant in water. The more you float in the water, the easier it is for you to move forward, making up time for any technique flaws that may be slowing you down. A friend recently was curious to see just how much faster it would make her in the water. So she went out to the pool and did a set on 100's at a medium-steady pace without her wetsuit on and then again with it. Her average 100 meters time with the wetsuit on was a full 10 seconds faster than without. Granted, there was absolutely no science behind this test, but it proved to her just how much the wetsuit is helping her in her races. That being said, slower swimmers are going to benefit more than the experienced, already fast swimmer types.

Benefit Number Two

Protection. Your new body armor will not only offer you protection from cold water, but also from other athletes flailing arms with long, scratchy fingernails. Some of those mass starts can get pretty rough. Getting pounded is never really painless, but an extra layer of skin does help soften the blow. And then there are those swims in not-so-clean bodies of water. You know, those swims when you can't see your hand in front of your face, and everyone spotted that dead fish at the start line. I know I feel better knowing that only the bare minimum of bare skin will be in contact with what is lurking in those dirty waters.

Benefit Number Three

It is pretty cool to open your closet and say, "Hey, that's my wetsuit." Can't beat the smell of neoprene in the morning. Think of it as a daily reminder of how dedicated you are to the sport and how much you look forward to wearing it in your next race.

Picking Out Your Wetsuit

Now that you are convinced that wetsuits are a good thing, let's go over the different types out there. For triathlon-specific wetsuits, you have a few options:

  1. There are full (sleeve and leg) suits.
  2. Sleeveless suits (full legs).
  3. Two piece suits that mix and match bib johns with a vest or full sleeve top.

It is important to get a triathlon-specific suit rather than a diving/surfing/kayaking suit because these types of suits are often made of neoprene that is less flexible and are not designed to accommodate the motions of swimming, most importantly in the shoulder area.

Sleeved or Sleeveless?

This question is a source of much controversy when it comes to wetsuit wearers. Many people think that the sleeved suits are going to be too constricting in the shoulders therefore making you swim slower. This is absolutely not the case! The technology that wetsuit manufactures are using today with the highest quality neoprene and improvements in flexibility of the jersey (interior lining), make restriction in a proper fitting suit negligible. Plus, you will always swim faster in a full sleeve suit. Dan Empfield, one of the founding fathers of the triathlon wetsuit, wrote a great article at about this exact issue.

"Forget the "feel of the water" sensation you pure swimmers feel you "need." I like the feel of the road when I run, but I'm faster in my car. Forget the "need" for a wetsuit that allows you to swim with your natural stroke. Forget needing the most comfortable style of wetsuit in order to swim to your optimal level. Forget all that. Fullsuits are faster."

If however, you are only swimming in 70+-degree water, a sleeveless suit may be right for you to prevent overheating. A sleeveless suit will still keep your legs afloat while keeping you cool. Sleeveless suits are also an option that many experienced (read: already fast) swimmers choose. Most brands of one-piece wetsuits offer at least two models of suits to choose from, an entry level or mid/high-end model. In general, the differences between levels is going to include type/thickness of neoprene, extra coatings for durability, and special features on high end suits such as forearm catch panels and extra-flexible back designs.

Ironman Wetsuits offer two different models, the Stealth and the Instinct (full or sleeveless options). Exclusive to Ironman Wetsuits is their V02 technology that provides buoyancy, reduces drag and allows water elimination while remaining flexible enough to not restrict breathing. Another great feature to their elite suits is their X5 Blue Back, designed to be ultra-flexible and let excess heat escape. Pair these features with their #39 Super-Light neoprene, designed to be light, soft, and stretchy, and you have a great suit. Ironman Wetsuits come in male and female sizes, providing an exceptional fit seemingly contoured specifically for its owner.

Xterra Wetsuits also offer superior technology throughout their triathlon wetsuit line. Their 4-way stretch V. Skin Rubber provides maximum buoyancy with one of the most flexible skins ever produced. An added benefit to their higher end suits are their comfy interior linings that feels smooth against the skin and peel right off you in the transition area. Xterra Wetsuits have three different models all offering sleeveless versions for 2004. They are the Ventillator (with Duroskin Rubber), Vortex and Vector Pro 2 (with V.Skin Rubber). These suits also come in male and female sizes, providing superior fit.

For as long as Orca Wetsuits have been on the market, they have been widely popular with triathletes. The affordability of the entry level suit combined with their long wearing lives make this an excellent starter suit. But don't let this fool you, these are great suits. The entry level Speedsuit (full or sleeveless) has come a long way over the years and now offers more flexibility than ever. This suit has been ranked as the best value in its class. The Orca Predator2 (full or sleeveless) is the next step up in the line. with gripper panels and more flexibility around the elbow to allow for a better swimming technique. New for 2004 is the Orca PFlex suit. A truly top of the line suit, the outer layer contains a special coating with tiny air bubbles beneath the surface to provide supreme buoyancy. The Orca suits come in unisex sizes and fit very, very snug. I would recommend having your dealer help fit you.

One or Two Pieces?

Traditionally, the triathlon suit has been on one-piece design, with a zipper up the back for entry and exit. In the past few years, a two-piece design has become more widely available and popular for its mix and match sizing capability. A leader in triathlon clothing, Desoto Sport, makes the unique two-piece wetsuit. Comprised of a bib-john bottom and a choice of a long-sleeve or vest top, the two-piece suit is designed to eliminate shoulder restriction. By separating the top and bottom of the suit, when you extend your arms overhead you are not restricted by the length (or shortness) of the suit- makes sense right? Desoto offers two models, the Desoto T1 and the Desoto Tres. Both come with bib-johns and a full sleeve pull over. The Tres also offers a vest option. Now in 2004 the tops will be available with a zipper for all of those who worry about the possible struggle of pulling the top over their head with those tired arms. Thanks Emilio!

Other manufactures of wetsuits include Aquaman, Quintana Roo, O'Neill, Piel and Pro Motion.

Now I Have It, How Do I Wear It?

Good question. First of all, the zipper goes in the back. Not to insult anyone, but there have been times when people just don't think a suit fits and low and behold, they have it on backwards. Secondly, the best way to get a suit on is like pantyhose: get the ankles in place (they do not have to go all the way down) then work up from there, make sure that the suit is snug up against the crotch, and pull the arms on. If you have long nails, you may consider wearing a pair of gloves until you get the hang of it to prevent unnecessary rips or tears in your suit. These can be repaired with Aquaseal or Ironmend products. The suit will fit tight; this is normal. They are supposed to fit like a second skin, and will loosen up a bit in the water. One of the most important things to remember about swimming in a wetsuit is to LUBRICATE! Chaffing at the neck is a common and painful reality of swimming without lubrication. Apply neoprene-safe products like BodyGlide or SportsSlick liberally to your neck, wrists, shoulders, anywhere where you worry about rubbing. This will also help you get the suit on and off quickly. And finally, after each swim in your suit, rinse it thoroughly and allow it to dry completely before storing. You can promote the longevity and quality of your suit by taking proper care of it. Consider purchasing some wetsuit maintenance products that will include everything you need to keep your suit in top condition.

Go Polar Bears

Now, don't let this article discourage you in any way from getting out there and joining your local Polar Bear Club. I am quite sure they offer unique camaraderie and fun experiences for all. Just don't show up with your wetsuit on, this wont make you any friends. But show up at your next race with a brand new, state of the art wetsuit, and you just may get a few nods and smiles. Go ahead, flaunt it, make all those "brave-non-wetsuit-wearing, cold-water-swimmers" jealous. After all, you'll almost certainly beat them out of the water, and there is no looking back after that.

Train Smart. Train Safe. Race Fast.

Sarah Lieneke-Nickle


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date: September 1, 2004