Drowning in wetsuits- a beginners buying guide
When I first thought of wetsuits for open water swimming, my mind automatically went to the thicker sailing/surfing wetsuit designed to keep you warm. You can pick one of these up anywhere these days and for peanuts, but you might as well just bubble wrap yourself because trying to swim fast in one of these is hard to say the least. When you are surfing or similar you want durability and insulation, but for athletic swimming you want a wetsuit that improves your body position in the water.
But I found there were a million and 1 options when it comes to triathlon wetsuits and soon felt like I was drowning in a sea of open internet tabs all showing what appear to be the same- but still totally different wetsuit! Cue a notepad, pen and Starbucks for me as I dived into research, but for you guys – don’t panic. Here’s a simple guide to help familiarise yourself with main brand wetsuits, terms to look out for and debunk odd abbreviations: SCS, Yama 38/39, 3-5mm, ABC, 123, WTF……….
There are 3 ‘F’ factors that determine the quality of a triathlon wetsuit and they are not expletives:
- FLEXIBITY The efficient movement & flexibility at the shoulders, for your swim stroke
- FIT The variety of panelling thickness to provide the right coverage at the right places
- FLOATATION Buoyancy qualities that keep your body positioned right in the water
Panel thickness – Wetsuits are comprised of neoprene panels of varying thicknesses up to 5mm. In areas seeking greater buoyancy, like the legs, 5mm is often used. Thinner neoprene (commonly 3mm) is used where flexibility is needed and buoyancy is less of an issue, like the shoulders and back. In other words, the THINNER the neoprene, the MORE flexible, but less buoyant the panel.
SCS – All should have SCS coating (Super Composite Skin) which is a silicone coating to reduce drag. Some beginners’ suits have nano SCS coating, (just a more slippery coating).
Stitching – Most are glued together and stitched across the seam, some use extra tape at stress points, but top end suits are virtually seamless. But don’t confuse a lack off panelling to a lack of seams – you want the wetsuit to be made of multiple panels to allow for a snug fit, therefore increased flexibility, and a variety of buoyancy (more on that to come).
Material – wetsuits are made from neoprene and as the price rises, you can expect better materials (so go for Yamamoto 39 neoprene instead of 38) for lower drag and improved flexibility, increased durability and an array of marginal-gain innovations like catch panels.
This is the wetsuits buoyancy and what gives you a flat streamlined body position in the water, and what makes swimming with a suit faster than without. However, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. If you have heavy legs and a poor leg kick, then a suit with a lot of lift in the thighs will help you maintain a neutral body position more easily. But if you already have a good body position and strong kick, too much leg lift can put pressure on your lower back and make your kick less effective. It’s worth looking at the panel construction of your intended suit and thinking about whether you need more/less buoyancy. Panels with a depth of 5mm and/or air cell neoprene in the torso and legs offer the most lift, with some suits going as low as 3mm or 4mm if they’re designed to be more neutral.
When referring to the sizing chart you will probably fit more than one category or size, and this is the trade-off between comfort and performance. If you are new to wetsuits, you will probably opt for the less restricting option and get a size up, whereas if you are used to them, you can go for the smaller size – just think of the sucking in qualities! The theory is that the wetsuit is tight as possible to act as a second skin with minimal drag occurring between you and the wetsuit material. Too loose and water will gush in and out and never warm up; too tight and your stroke will be restricted, leading to fatigue and frustration. So, here are a few things to consider when choosing what size will be best.
A person’s weight is more critical than their height, so if you fall on the margin of sizes, always go with the one closest to your weight. Then you must decide on if you want comfort or performance fit.
Entrance level wetsuits cut slightly straighter around the torso to give a higher level of comfort, while the next step up in wetsuits have a slightly sleeker cut designed to be compressive around the legs and torso, but still maintaining total freedom of movements around the shoulders and arms.
The most important thing when determining whether the size is right for you is first making sure you have put the suit on correctly. The correct fitting wetsuit won’t feel like it fits if it’s not being worn in the correct position. You don’t need contort yourself into advanced level yoga positions to check this, just that you should be able to go through the motion of swimming relatively easily on land, and remember that once wet, the suit will fit better and mould to your shape the more you wear it. Watch this space for an upcoming video!
The benefit of coming to Open Water Swimming with us at Merchant Taylors is that you can try on different sizes and brands before taking the plunge to buy one AND we sell our ex hire wetsuits off at the end of the season for a very discounted price!
…………….But time to stop wittering on, let’s see some actual entry level examples!
Orca – Open Water Core (£129) The cheapest entry level wetsuit, but as you’d expect, the least variety in neoprene, only 2-2.5mm thickness across the body & in sizes XS – XL
Zone 3 – Advanced (£169) Voted the best entry level wetsuit by 220 Triathlon & our preferred brand, with 2mm neoprene on the shoulders & underarms, 3mm on the upper back, & 4mm on the torso, legs & sides.
Huub – Axiom 3:3 women’s & 3:5 men’s (£200) which comes in 2XXS to XL & features a low neckline for comfort. However less variety of thickness across the suit- 3:3 / 3:5 is the mm ratio of upper to lower body. They quote “women have less dense and ‘unique’ body muscular structure making the female more naturally buoyant”. In other words we carry more fat on our thighs than men – jeez thanks for the reminder!