And what you need to know about getting in and out of one
Wetsuits, because of their ability to trap body heat in cold water and provide buoyancy to help swimmers swim faster, have become an integral piece of equipment for many open water swimmers and triathletes.
If you’re thinking about swimming in a wetsuit, here’s what you need to consider.
The Dry Side
If you don’t typically swim in a wetsuit, there are a few things you need to learn: how to find the right one, how to put one on, and how to care for it properly. Here’s what you need to know.
Finding a wetsuit with the proper fit might require some work, but it’s vitally important. You might struggle to breathe in one that’s too small, and you’ll feel like you have a parachute on if you get one that’s too big. Wetsuits used fit a mold—one that seemed like they were designed for superheroes. If your body geometry didn’t match up to those proportions, it was problematic.
But wetsuit companies have become more progressive in sizing as they’ve recognized that athletes come in all sizes and shapes. If you don’t live near a retailer who carries wetsuits, you could go to a large triathlon or open water event where there’s an expo and try a few on. You can also buy online—but check sizing guides, read reviews, and fully read the return policy in case it doesn’t fit. Spring and summer are a great time to shop as deals are being made on last year’s models.
This should not be like stuffing yourself into a sausage casing. There’s a skill to putting on a wetsuit. If you’re a novice, ask a veteran so you don’t burn 1,000 calories just getting it on. In addition, some techniques can damage the wetsuit.
Many folks place plastic bags on their hands and feet, so there’s less friction between the wetsuit and skin. Simply put your feet in a plastic bag and slide into the legs of the wetsuit. You can do the same with your hands. Pulling the suit on from there is another thing.
It you just grab and pull with your thumbs and fingertips when putting on a wetsuit, your fingers may pierce or damage the wetsuit—and that’s bad. Instead, pinch gently between the pad of your thumb and the side of your index finger knuckle when pulling your wetsuit on.
Start at your ankles and inch it up slowly, pinching the roll created by the suit being pulled down over itself. Visualize the inside of the suit being rolled up your body from your feet.
Heat and time are a big problem for wetsuits. A triathlete friend of mine, after a swim, left his wetsuit folded up on a lawn chair outside to dry in the sun. The black wetsuit absorbed the sunlight and a few surfaces melted together. Another friend hung his up on a hanger for several months and it had developed stretchy pointy shoulders.
Follow manufacturers’ recommendation and instructions, which is usually: Store your wetsuit flat in a cool, dry place.
The Wet Side
Swimming in a wetsuit can present a few issues. Fit comes into play once again, and the conditions of your swim and taking off your wetsuit can be problematic. Here are some swimming-related problems related to wetsuits and some solutions.
Just because your wetsuit felt great when you first put it on doesn’t mean it’ll be your friend after a few hundred meters. Wetsuit fit is going to play a factor in your flexibility and your breathing while you swim. If you’re exerting yourself and breathing heavily, your wetsuit might be constricting. In addition, there may be some spots that just don’t match your body geometry, which can lead to chafing.
There’ll be only minor changes to how a wetsuit fits the more you wear it. If you feel like you can’t breathe, it may be best to try to return or sell it (there’s a huge secondary market). Chafing can be minimized by using TRISLIDE or a similar product that is wetsuit safe. Even the best-fitting suits rub most people on the back of the neck.
The conditions of your swim will play a factor in which wetsuit you should choose. How cold it’ll be can determine whether you should have a full-sleeve or a sleeveless or a full-length or knee-length or shorter suit. Most of these factors are personal considerations and, of course, subject to race rules.
Know yourself. If you’re used to having a close feel for the water on your inner forearms for your freestyle catch, you might need to wear a sleeveless wetsuit. If you don’t like cold water, a thicker suit will provide extra warmth. A thicker suit will also provide more buoyancy, which inexperienced swimmers often like but experienced swimmers dislike. Many wetsuit manufacturers now make suits with thicker and thinner panels on a single suit to accommodate technique, experience, and preference.
In an open water race, there’s no worry about how long it takes for you to take off your wetsuit. But in a triathlon, time is super important. Some large triathlons have peelers to assist you with wetsuit removal—because when you’re cold and wet it can be harder to get out of the wetsuit.
Getting the wetsuit off with help from a peeler is still a skill, one that needs to be practiced. Have a friend work with you. If you’re more leisurely about it, it’s easier to protect the integrity of your wetsuit. Avoid violent and jarring motions. Regardless of how you doff your suit, don’t be in such a rush that you damage it.
- Open Water