Tri2O guide to Triathlon / Open Water swimming wetsuits


A wetsuit designed specifically for triathlon & open water swimming is very different from the traditional 'surf style' wetsuit that many of us have worn before. The triathlon wetsuits are designed to improve the swimmer's body position and facilitate efficient movement in / through the water.

The wetsuits are constructed using a mix of different density neoprene panels, for flexibility and buoyancy, to deliver a fitted and comfortable yet efficient suit (some may say performance enhancing!). Today's wetsuits are the result of multi-million dollar research and investment programmes which focus on 3 main objectives:

  1. Provide the swimmer with additional flotation - you may hear many swimmers say that they find it easier to swim longer distances in a wetsuit....this is often because the wetsuit provides the flotation that might usually be achieved through a strong leg kick (many Triathletes have a much reduced leg kick and rely on the suit to keep their legs afloat).
  2. Reduce 'drag' through the water - a well fitted suit will not allow excess water to enter or collect in the suit. Neck lines are designed to be snug and silicon arm cuffs may be built in to the suit to stop water from entering when the arm is extended during the stroke. The silicon material used is also designed to be fast through the water by reducing drag.
  3. Regulate the swimmers body temperature in cooler water - much akin to the 'surf style' wetsuit, the swimming wetsuit adds a layer of protection and insulation against cold water (the neoprene used is allowed to be up to 5mm in thickness). Swimming wetsuits not only keep the cold water out, they also keep the warmth in (many people find that they actually get too hot whilst swimming in a wetsuit in the summer months).

Triathlon wetsuits come in a number of different styles: Shorty - has full torso coverage but short legs and no arms, ideal for warm water swimming.

Sleeveless - has full torso and leg coverage (sometimes have 3/4 leg design) but no arms, thus providing protection against cooler water and buoyancy in the torso and legs with maximum range of movement in the arms and shoulders.

Fullsuit - has full torso, leg and arm coverage. This is the most common design of suit used in the UK and provides the best protection against cooler water and maximum buoyancy in the torso, legs and arms. These suits are practical for most swimmers although then can lead to overheating in warm water conditions.

Swimskin - typically a shorty or sleeveless design using the very latest technology neoprene for optimum range of movement, hydrodynamics and ease of removal. These suits are designed for performance.

Key Considerations & Next steps

  1. Budget - the majority of wetsuit manufacturers will produce a range of triathlon wetsuits to fit different budgets (these will typically be up to £200 / £200 - £300 / £300+). As a general rule, the higher priced triathlon suits will have more design features aimed at improving the performance of the suit.
  2. The main purpose for buying a triathlon wetsuit - are you looking for an entry level suit to get in to the triathlon sport? Are you already hooked and are looking for a suit that will be suitable for training and racing? Are you purely looking for a wetsuit that will deliver speed?
  3. What is the water temperature you will be swimming in - there are different designs of wetsuits available (see above) choose the suit that is appropriate for your intended swimming conditions.
  4. What level of swimmer are you currently and what are your triathlon aspirations - be honest with yourself about your current swimming ability BUT also make sure you think about where you want to go with your swimming.
  5. Will a wetsuit solve your swimming issues - the wetsuits available now are the result of massive research and development programmes and have some fantastic technical features HOWEVER they will not fix fundamental technique problems which can only be solved through training. A strong swimmer in an entry level suit will always swim faster than a weak swimmer in a top end suit!
  6. Do you look after your gear - if you know that you are prone to ‘abusing' your kit then this should probably influence your decision. Top end triathlon wetsuits are designed for performance and as such they are made using softer materials - if these materials are not treated with a degree of care then they can be damaged.

Next steps:

Once you have taken these considerations in to account, try and find somewhere that offers a range of wetsuits for you to try as each manufacturer's sizing will be different. If possible you should also try to swim in the wetsuit before you buy it (this may be hard if you are buying mail order but most open water swim centres will offer this facility).

FAQ: Here is a selection of frequently asked questions that we hear from novice swimmers at the Tri2O Swim Centre. If you have other questions you would like answered then please contact us - if in doubt.....ASK!

  • Do I need to buy gloves to wear when I put the wetsuit on? Cotton gloves are available but are not usually necessary if you are careful. Finger nails and excessive force are the major cause of damage to the suit but if you exercise caution then you should be fine. Take a look at our guide to putting the wetsuit on for further information.
  • Will a triathlon wetsuit help me swim? A triathlon wetsuit will provide buoyancy and improve the triathletes body position however it will not really help technique. If you are looking for a fix for your technique then a lesson with a good coach will probably represent a better investment.
  • What should I wear under my triathlon wetsuit? If you are training then we would recommend you wear whatever you find comfortable, typically either swimming trunks, jammers or a trisuit. If you are in a triathlon race then you need to decide whether you want to wear the garments you will be wearing on the bike under your wetsuit or whether you will change in transition.
  • How long will a triathlon wetsuit last? If you look after your wetsuit then there is no reason why it shouldn't last for a number of seasons (see the Tri2O guide to caring for your suit) we have many swimmers at the Tri2O Swim Centre who are training and competing in triathlon wetsuits that are 3+ years old.
  • Will a triathlon wetsuit make me faster? A triathlon wetsuit will provide buoyancy, improve your body position and may have certain features that will enhance certain parts of your stroke such as the catch. These benefits will typically mean you are marginally faster over a given distance however you may also find that you are able to swim for longer as the effort you are expending is reduced.
  • I already have a wetsuit that I use for surfing, can I swim in this? Yes you can swim in it however it will not feel anything like wearing a triathlon / open water swimming wetsuit which has been designed for this specific purpose.
  • Is it ok to shorten the legs of the wetsuit to make it faster in transition? You can cut the bottoms of the legs off the suits and if it is done carefully it often does not damage the suit's integrity in any way. HOWEVER we would always recommend you consult with the wetsuit manufacturer directly before doing this.
  • Do I need to wear anti-chafing lubricant or Vaseline? There is not an easy answer to this question as we have found that every suit will chafe some swimmers and not others. Whilst this can be very painful, it is easy to prevent by using anti-chafing lubricants. Vaseline (other petroleum jellies are available!) & baby oil is often used by swimmers but we would always recommend you consult with the wetsuit manufacturer before using these products that are not specifically designed for this purpose.
  • Will the fit of my suit improve with use? Triathlon wetsuits will ‘flex' over time and will mould marginally to the shape of the swimmer with constant use; neoprene will also stretch with use and regular immersion in water.

Jargon: every triathlon wetsuit manufacturer will use different jargon and technology names that are exclusive to them which make their suits faster and better than anyone else's - we will not attempt to list these but most are self explanatory with a little imagination. Here are some more common terms you will find are used by most:

  • Drag - the level of resistance you create against the water as you move through it.
  • Panels - sections of material that are combined (stitched and glued) in the build of the suit to improve buoyancy, range of movement and comfort. Typically the number of different panels used will be greater in the higher priced wetsuits, these panels are normally sections of neoprene of different thicknesses.
  • Body position - refers to the position of the swimmer in the water; a better, more streamlined body position will mean a more efficient and faster swimmer.
  • Yamamoto - neoprene that is used in many of today's triathlon wetsuits. Yamamoto is actually the manufacturer's name.
  • Buoyancy - yes, this does refer to the level of buoyancy that the suit offers the swimmer. Typically, a higher body position in the water means less drag (as there is less of you in the water).
  • Flexibility - wetsuit manufacturers will focus on flexibility as this provides a greater range of movement in the swim stroke and less restriction against your natural stroke.

Useful Info: Buying the right size wetsuit

It is critically important to ensure the correct fit when buying a triathlon / open water swimming wetsuit, if the wetsuit is too small then it will be uncomfortable and restrict your range of movement, too large and it will let in excess water and reduce your efficiency in the water.

From experience, we know that each wetsuit manufacturer's sizes will vary considerably so be sure to use the relevant sizing chart provided or alternatively you can consult the size charts on the Tri2O website to find out the correct size suit for you (we find that this is accurate in 90% of cases, if you fall in to the 10% for whom the charts are not relevant then we will swap the wetsuit for another size or model until we get it right). Obviously we are all built differently so if you find that you do not fit into any one size option, please keep the following in mind:

  1. Your weight figure is more relevant than your height
  2. If you fall between 2 different sizes then work on the principle that the larger size will probably be more comfortable (especially if you have never worn a triathlon wetsuit before). If you have worn these wetsuits before and are looking for a 'performance' triathlon wetsuit then opt for the smaller size.
  3. It is also important to keep your ‘racing weight' in mind - if you fall between sizes but you know that you are currently over your target weight then opt for the size that you feel is most relevant (it may also give you an added incentive to lost that extra pound!).
  4. Most manufacturers will offer both Men's and Women's wetsuits - they are different!

Useful Info: Putting the wetsuit on

Once you are happy that you have the right sized wetsuit then you are ready to put it on - if you have not done this before do not underestimate the importance of getting this bit right as a poorly fitted suit is both uncomfortable and inefficient in the water.

Before you start, apply any anti-chafing lubricant and remove any excess from your hands. Some swimmers use anti-chafing lubricant regularly and others never bother - if you decide not to use it and start to feel some chafing then it is wise to address this early as it can be very uncomfortable - if you do decide to use it, there is nothing worse than getting your wetsuit nice and comfortable only to remember you forgot to put it on!!].

Step 1: Open the zip of the wetsuit (remember the zip goes at the back and the shiny part of the neoprene is on the outside) and pull the wetsuit over your feet on to your legs - do all pulling from the inside of the suit (remember that the neoprene is very soft and if you pull it from the outside you run the risk of damaging the wetsuit with your nails - the other alternative is to use soft cotton gloves when putting the wetsuit on. Some people put plastic bags on their feet to help the wetsuit slip over their feet). You should aim to pull the bottom of the wetsuit up over your ankle bone (anything up to five fingers above your ankle bone).

Check: Once the wetsuit is over your hips and fitting snugly in to your crotch, make sure that there is no excess neoprene gathering at the back of the knee area and the seams are not twisted, it should feel snug but comfortable.

Step 2: When you are confident that the wetsuit is fitted correctly on the 'bottom half' then you can pull it up on to your chest and over your shoulders and arms (you might find it easier to bend over and get your arms in to the wetsuit and then stand up straight - this will then pull the wetsuit up on to your chest and over your shoulders).

It is important to get the arm and shoulder fit right as this ensures a comprehensive range of movement in the swim stroke. The cuff of the wetsuit (at the wrist) should be on or slightly above the wrist bone and there should not be any excess material in the forearm, elbow or bicep area - any excess material in these areas will restrict movement in the shoulders.

Now you are ready to close the zip up (remember that some zips close upwards and others close downwards). It is often easier to get somebody to help at this point as zips can be broken by pulling them too hard - do not be shy about asking another swimmer to help....even some elite athletes will help each other with their zips. When zipping the suit up, make sure that the inner flap along the zipper does not get trapped and jam the zip. If you are finding the suit hard to zip up, squeeze your shoulder blades together and this will make the process much easier.

Step 3: When the suit is done up, spend some time making sure that it fits well and that you have a good range of movement before you get in the water. A useful tip is to bend over at the waist (when the suit is on) and get hold of any neoprene that is gathered in the stomach area and carefully ‘work' the excess neoprene up to the shoulder area before standing up again - this will give you extra movement in the shoulder area where you need it most. Specific areas to check that there is no excess material are the backs of the knees, crotch, lower back and armpits. It is also important to ensure that the neckline is fitted correctly and is not too low - this will not only be uncomfortable but it will also let water in (if the neck line is too low then you may need to pull the suit up from the legs - carefully!).

We have some athletes at the Tri2O Swim Centre that will spend anything up to 15 minutes getting their wetsuits on properly. Fitting the wetsuit can be warm work and if you start to get hot then it will be harder to fit the wetsuit properly so choose a well ventilated, cool area to put your suit on if possible. Remember that these wetsuits are designed to be a tight fit but not uncomfortable - if you are confident that the suit is fitted properly but is still the wrong size then contact us for advice. Do also bear in mind that a wetsuit will 'mould' to your body shape over time and a small amount of stretching will occur in new wetsuits.

Useful Info: Triathlon Wetsuit Removal

The following information on wetsuit removal will help you take the wetsuit off without damaging it and is not designed to be a guide on how to remove it quickly (I am probably not the right person to advise on this as most of my T1 times look as though they involved a cup of tea!).

Some people find that removing their wetsuit after a swim can be quite a struggle - more often than not this is because any water trapped under the wetsuit has leaked out and the wetsuit then ‘sticks' to the skin. The key is therefore to take the suit off with as much water in it as possible by taking it off soon after exiting the water. It also helps to open the neck of the wetsuit when exiting the water and let a good amount of water in through the neck line (you will feel it running through the chest, arms and legs). Some people also use a small amount of lubricant on the arms and legs to aid removal of the wetsuit.

Simply undo the Velcro neck fastening (if the wetsuit has one), undo the zip and then remove your arms. Pull the wetsuit down over your waist and then your knees and step out of the wetsuit (you may see the pros kick their legs out) - you will probably have to stand on the wetsuit with one foot whilst you pull each leg out (be aware of the surface you are standing on whilst doing this to ensure it is not stony or slippery, thus avoiding damaging the wetsuit or falling over).

Useful Info: Caring for your suit

Once the wetsuit is removed, leave it inside out and give it a rinse to remove any anti-chafing lubricant, loose material or salt if you have been swimming in the sea. The wetsuit should then be dried inside out and after drying it should be turned the right way around and stored correctly (see manufacturer's guidelines). As swimmers we demand more and more from our wetsuits and the materials used can get damaged - if you do find a small tear in the neoprene then fix it before it gets worse (kits are readily available and the process is relatively easy to do yourself).

If you know that you are not going to use your suit for a prolonged period of time, perhaps during the winter months, the make sure it is stored away properly in dry conditions at room temperature and preferably laid flat (be very wary of using a coat hanger unless it is designed for this purpose).