I get asked a lot about wetsuits.
Do you have to wear one to swim outside? How do you know what to buy? Will an old surf wetsuit do? Do I wee in mine?
There are lots and lots of articles on the internet that talk about the pros and cons of them, how to choose one and how to get into one. I’m not going to go into the details of all of it here, I’ll add a couple of useful websites for you to peruse afterwards in more detail but there are many more. This is a bit of a summary with an err towards the beginner and leisure side rather than the elite, must swim faster crowd (though there’s nothing wrong with that either).
When I first started swimming outside I waded my way through it all. Trial and error, a lot of research and a lot of getting hot trying wetsuits on at home saw me getting the suit that’s right for me…………eventually. That was 4 years ago. Since then the wetsuit market’s exploded to a point of migraine inducing size and complexity. Super sleek coatings, speed panels, neoprene thicknesses from 0.5mm to 5mm, go faster stripes, promises of such super-fast removal that you think you could change outfits in a similar fashion to the Clark Kent – Superman transformation. Add to that price ranges from £80-£900 and it becomes mind boggling.
Any suits that I name specifically here aren’t a recommendation from me, I haven’t tried them out (except my own Equip) and I’m not being paid by anyone to list them. I’ve just done a little research to help you on the way with some specifics. Ditto any web-links included too.
Firstly why would you choose to wear a wetsuit outside?
You don’t have to wear one at all. Skins swimming (just in a swimming costume) is amazing, I love it, but there are a few reasons you might chose to wear a wetsuit. The main ones are that it’ll keep you warmer and it’ll help you float.
Keeping warm means you can stay in the water for longer than if you were just in a swimming costume. Being more floaty means if you get tired you’re going to have to put less effort in to keep your head above water. If you’re knackered lying on your back and taking a little breather is much easier with a wetsuit than without. They can also make you a bit faster too.
I mix it up a bit. I like a good skins dip for its closeness to nature and the zing of cold but I also like a wetsuit swim for the comfort, warmth and security it can bring on a longer swim or colder day.
Do I need a swim or triathlon specific suit to swim outside?
In the long run, yes. They’re designed to improve comfort and performance specifically whilst swimming. Most people wouldn’t choose to wear football boots whilst doing a 100m sprint race would they? Similar principle.
If you’re starting out on your open water swimming journey wear whatever you can get your hands on. That might be an old surf wetsuit, something you’ve borrowed from a mate or one you can hire at a venue. Don’t go all out and buy a suit until you’ve worked out whether this OW swimming lark is right for you. Bear in mind though that non-swimming wetsuits might be a bit rigid or have flexibility and buoyancy in the wrong places so it might make swimming harder work than you thought.
What are swimming wetsuits?
The swimming wetsuit, as with most sports products has been developed from a competitive starting point. Predominantly developed for triathletes looking for extra speed and improved efficiency while swimming front crawl. That need for speed whilst swimming front crawl has created some suits with great stretch around the shoulders and enough buoyancy around the bum and legs to re-float the titanic.
OK, great stretch around the shoulders makes sense but why so much buoyancy at the bottom end?
To swim front crawl efficiently and therefore more quickly you need to reduce drag through the water. Your body needs to be in-line behind your head and shoulders, along the water’s surface. Think sleek otter stretched out along the surface rather than flailing cat.
Most triathletes start from a run and/or cycling background. All that leg use leads to muscly toned legs. Muscle is less buoyant than fat. Ergo, a lithe triathlete often needs a bit of help to lift those legs up and reduce drag through the water whilst swimming front crawl.
The Short One, as a triathlete, is no exception. She’s all muscle and sinks like a stone. A wetsuit with plenty of buoyancy around the lower half helps to lift her legs and improve her front crawl stroke. This is the kind of swimmer a lot of suits have been designed for.
I on the other hand, just swim. I have some wobbly bits. I float fairly well already. Stick a wetsuit equivalent to The Short One’s on me and I’m so floaty I can barely swim. The first suit I bought lifted my legs so high my feet were almost permanently out of the water and caused my back to arch so badly I ended up with back pain on every swim.
Cue more wetsuit research to find something that didn’t just cause me pain.
My story is a common one. Many a time I’ve heard people complain about their wetsuit. It’s too tight, I feel like I’m being strangled, water sloshes around in it, I can’t move my arms properly, I can’t swim breastroke, it rubs my neck raw. The wrong suit can put people off OW altogether.
Why is how your wetsuit feels and fits important?
It’s like finding that perfect fitting pair of jeans or trainers. Everybody’s a different shape. A size 9 trainer in one brand just isn’t going to fit my foot the same as another brand or even another style from the same brand. If the fit isn’t right it’s likely to cause pain or discomfort and stop you in your tracks.
The same applies to wetsuits. But this time you’re trying to get something that fits your whole body, not just your foot. That’s quite an ask of one piece of kit.
Look around at any open water venue and you’ll see a wide range of body shapes and sizes. Bums, boobs, bellies, shoulders, arms, legs. They’re all different. Neoprene can be quite stretchy but not to the point that one suit design can fit them all!
Add to that different swim styles (front crawl vs breastroke), position in the water (floaty vs sinky) and reason for swimming (triathlete vs leisure swimmer) and you’ve got a wide range of things to consider.
What do you need to think about when you start to look for “The Suit” then?
If you do decide OW’s for you then you need to think about what you’re swimming outside for. Are you doing it so you can seriously race a triathlon? Are you going to be a leisurely breastroker taking in the sights and maybe having a chat with a friend on the way? Or something in between? The odd swim event, fitness, swimventures, as well as a leisurely float around in a river?
Also take into account your body position when you’re swimming. Get a friend to watch you swim. If you’re a front crawl swimmer and your legs are really low in the water think about getting a suit that’ll lift your hips, bum and legs higher up. It’ll make you more efficient. Suits with 5mm neoprene panels around those areas are designed for this. If you already have a good body position look at suits with 3mm neoprene on the lower half. Orca has a great guide on different swim positions here regardless of whether you buy an Orca or not https://www.orca.com/gb-en/swimscale/
If you’re a breastroke swimmer you need to make sure your legs can stay relatively low in the water. Your body isn’t in line along the water’s surface when you swim breastroke. Your legs are lower and your head lifts higher to breathe than in front crawl. The buoyancy in a wetsuit can make low legs hard to achieve. It can cause back and neck pain as you fight against the buoyancy to stay in position. Thicker neoprene on the lower legs can bunch up behind your knees as you kick too. By far the higher proportion of people who complain about wetsuits are breastroke swimmers. The vast majority of suits just aren’t designed with it in mind.
If you think you might end up using your suit for both front crawl and breaststroke and you’re not desperate to race fast look at a general purpose swim wetsuit with neutral buoyancy. That means it’ll keep you afloat but won’t lift your legs so far up you can’t help but swim with your head buried in the water.
Sadly the market isn’t awash with such suits and you may need to do some digging into suit specifications to work out if they’re neutral or not. The few I can currently find include the Orca Equip, Alpha and Open Water range, Zone3 Align, Alpkit Terrapin and Head 3.2.2. I can only find one wetsuit that purports to be specifically designed for breastroke with thinner neoprene (1.5mm) around the lower legs – the Dare2tri To Swim Breastroke Wetsuit. But hey, go and look for yourselves and see what you can find, you might find something else.
Each brand of wetsuit usually has a size guide based on height, weight and often chest and waist measurements. Read them and work out where you fit. There will usually be advice with the guide on which way to go if you fall between sizes too. A lot of guides recommend that being within the weight limit is more important that the height range. For me, I’ve found the opposite. Because I’m naturally buoyant I can wear a suit with a lower weight recommendation but always need to make sure I’m within the height recommendation to stop me feeling like my spine’s being compressed.
Can I try wetsuits on before I buy them?
It’s not quite as simple as heading to a shop and trying on some mass produced clothes.
Swim wetsuits can be quite fragile. The lovely smooth skinned, stretchy neoprene they’re made of damages easily if you dig your nails in when you pull it on or scuff against a rough surface. As a result shops with a wide range of suits to try are few and far between, they just lose too much stock to incidental damage. A number of open water venues hire suits out but often have only one brand available without the option to try different brands for fit. Decathlon stock a limited range of triathlon and swimming wetsuits as well.
I’ve made the most of certain retailer’s free delivery and returns to find the right suit for me. I order a number of different types and sizes of suits and return those that don’t work for me before I have to pay off my credit card bill.
I soon worked out which brands did and didn’t suit my body shape as well as working out whether I needed a male or female fit. As it turns out I usually have to go for a men’s suit to accommodate my 6ft frame. As long as they’re stretchy enough they seem to still accommodate my curvy hips.
Everyone is different though. If you can try various different suits please do. If you buy one, try it out and don’t like it, lose weight, gain weight, decide you want a higher spec one just sell it. There’s a thriving market for 2nd hand suits via local clubs, facebook groups and ebay. I sold my first suit on ebay after a season’s use. It was in really great nick, it just wasn’t right for me.
How should a wetsuit fit?
You’re prepping yourself to have a try on of that borrowed suit or you’ve ordered some to try. What should they feel like? How do you know if it’s the right fit?
They should be snug but not to the point of making you feel like you’re being strangled or you can’t breathe. If it’s too big anywhere you’ll end up with water sloshing around. Not only is that an odd feeling and can make it hard to swim, that pool of water or regular gushes of fresh water coming into the suit won’t be staying warm next to your skin and you’ll get cold.
You should have enough flexibility around your arms to move them freely, whatever stroke you’re swimming.
Some things become personal preference from then on in. I like a low cut neckline. I don’t like the close feeling on a high necked suit or the potential for rubbing on the back of the neck. Others like the snugliness a high neck line offers though. The same with arm and leg length. Mine finishes a good few inches above my wrist and ankle (largely because I’m tall) but I’m fine with that, it makes it easier to get on and off. Others prefer maximum coverage. Some suits offer the option to trim the neckline, arms and legs to suit but check the product information before you start to make sure they’re suitable for this.
Don’t forget that a wetsuit will feel different again when you get in the water. You might feel like you’re being strangled on dry land but once you start swimming and get a bit of water in there things usually ease off.
There are a few venues that offer try before you buy sessions so keep an eye out on local venues or shops near you for dates coming up. Swim the Lakes offer this service regularly in the main open water season https://www.swimthelakes.co.uk/product-category/book-now/wetsuit-try-on-events/
How do I get into a wetsuit?
I’m not describing that in detail, there a plenty of videos online that do that far better than I can, I’ve included a couple of links below. FYI I don’t bother with gloves or plastic bags, I don’t know anyone who does either. Just keep your nails short and be careful……………all will become clearer when you watch the videos!
All I’ll say is make sure it’s snug, that there are no loose bits or air pockets and don’t be afraid to ask for help to get it on. Some people need help to get zips done up, and you can’t go wrong with a good “hoik” to get everything in the right position. A good friend or random stranger serves this purpose well. OW swimmers are a friendly bunch, we’re usually happy to help 😉
Oh, and embrace the wetsuit dance. A combination of squats, lunges, stretches and silly walks often accompany getting into full neoprene. It can be a workout in itself but it’s worth it for a good fit.
How is a wetsuit going to affect how I swim?
As I’ve talked about above, wetsuits are inherently floaty. They’ll make your body position in the water different and you might feel like swimming is easier or harder. It takes time to get used to swimming in a wetsuit. You may need to adapt your stroke to accommodate the additional buoyancy or slightly reduced movement around the shoulders.
Practice, get used to it, make sure you’ve got it on properly, and use some lubrication to reduce the risk of chafing around the neck, shoulders and under the arms. And, yes, there is such a thing as wetsuit lubricant!
How much should you spend on a wetsuit?
I’m not going to tell you that now am I?
It depends what you can afford and what you want it for. If it makes you feel more confident rocking up to an event with the highest spec, celebrity endorsed suit and you can afford it, then go for it. If it fits you perfectly and makes for a better swim then why not, it’s your money after all. If you can’t afford the top end there’s no need to go there. For me fit is everything, that top end suit might just not fit and something low or mid-range might actually be better for you.
Generally though the more expensive you go the more flexibility you get as well as more attention to detail on specific areas of buoyancy. High end suits are designed to improve your swim time and by and large you get what you pay for. I’m not going to recommend any particular brands, there are far too many on the market.
Work out your budget, along with my points on fit and use I’ve talked about above, and go from there. And don’t forget there are great deals to be had on 2nd hand ones from people who, like me, bought the wrong suit first time round. If you’ve tried a suit that works for you you might find it on ebay if you’re lucky.
That’s it, the usual info that I ramble on about when anyone asks me about wetsuits. Maybe you were looking for a definitive answer on the right suit for you? Sorry, no can do. Everyone’s preferences and requirements are different. Work through what I’ve talked about above, do some research and you should find a suit that sees you through many happy swims.
I’ve found the links below useful recently and in the past, you might find them handy too.
Oh, and yes, I do wee in my wetsuit. I’m not wrestling myself out of it mid swim in the middle of nowehere to find a loo. Sorry if that’s too much information but I know I’m definitely NOT the only one 😉