Using A Wetsuit

Getting into the triathlon lifestyle can include a few considerable investments.  A good road or tri bike, comfortable racing attire, race entry fees, and if you are racing in the Pacific Northwest or in ocean water, a good wetsuit.  The world of triathlon wetsuits includes a vast array of choices – to buy or rent?  Full sleeved or sleeveless?  Spend $200 or $700?  As is the answer with so many things, it depends.

First, it makes sense to ask why wetsuits are useful.  The two main benefits they provide a triathlete in this area are warmth and buoyancy. 

Wetsuits, as the name would imply, actually work because you are wet while wearing them.  That thin layer of water inside the suit gets warmed by your body heat, creating warmth for your entire swim.  The warmth may not be important if you are doing one of the many July or August inland California or Oregon races where the swim occurs in one of our inland lakes that has a surface temp of at 72 degrees or more.  For example, the inland Rancho Seco Lake near Sacramento usually has a water temp suitable for swimming without a wetsuit for its June Sacramento Triathlon, something you’ll find in many inland lakes from California to Washington in mid-summer.  A wetsuit can be critical, however, if you are trying to tackle the Escape from Alcatraz, where water temps will likely be 55, or other early or late season or ocean races where you might be chilly even with a full wetsuit.  The Seattle Trek Womens Sprint, for example, takes place in mid-September when water temps have crept back down to the mid 60’s.  The general rule of thumb is that full sleeve wetsuits are great under 70 degrees, full or sleeveless up to 78, and no wetsuit is really needed above 78.  In fact, USAT races only allow wetsuits up to 78 degrees (there is actually a safety hazard with using a wetsuit in water that is too warm – you could pass out).  Swims under 60 degrees are generally cold even if you have a wetsuit, so in these situations you will likely want to consider a full-sleeved and full-length variety, and a higher quality one at that.  Most races in the area suggest on their websites if a wetsuit is allowed or recommended.  When a race director “recommends” a wetsuit, get one.  That usually means that the waters temps for that race have historically been frigid.  The majority of races that occur prior to Memorial Day from Northern California to Washington State have indoor swims, obviously making a wetsuit obsolete.

The second reason you may want a wetsuit is for buoyancy.  In short, a wetsuit makes you more buoyant in the water.  For beginners, this creates valuable peace of mind.  For elites, it creates a situation where you don’t need to use your legs as strenuously in the swim, saving them for the bike and run.  While many of our area races in the bays of San Francisco or the Sounds of Washington are in salt water, allowing one to take advantage of the buoyancy that comes with it, it is often offset by the colder temperatures of the ocean water mix.

While renting a triathlon wetsuit can be economical, if you think that swimming in open water will become a regular occurrence, you may want to invest in a good suit.  Do your research by researching triathlon wetsuit reviews, and find one that you think suits your skill level and racing needs.  $250 is generally the starting price range for a good entry-level suit.  There are suits available for less than that, but you might be getting a quality level that makes renting more of a sensible choice instead.  As you move up the price range, the main benefit you acquire is range-of-motion.  The top of the line $700 wetsuits feature paneling that gives you incredible flexibility in the shoulders, chest, and hips.  While a lower-end wetsuit might be just fine for sprints or short swims like Dreary Lake in Washington, if you are doing the Victoria Half Ironman or the Lake Stevens 70.3, you may want to invest in the added range of motion.

Using a wetsuit takes a little getting used to, but as many people say with tri bike aerobars, after a couple races you can’t imagine being without them.  Putting your wetsuit on is a bit of an art.  Sliding bare feet through the legs of a full wetsuit can be difficult, and you run the risk of puncturing the neoprene with a toenail.  Consider using a plastic bag on your foot or simply wearing your sock as you slide it on.  It also makes sense to use some body glide on your ankles and wrists, both to put it on but also to take it off later.  Remember, the zipper goes in the back, so you may need some help getting everything zipped up.  Once you have the wetsuit on, you won’t want to take it off until you are done swimming, so consider using the bathroom first.

Many people complain about a wetsuit being restrictive in both breathing and the swimming motion.  Wetsuits are supposed to be tight – try to work through this sensation and eventually you will be moving just fine.  If swimming in a wetsuit makes your shoulders sore, consider using a sleeveless model, especially if most of your races are inland or in the mid-summer.

Taking the wetsuit off at the first transition is also a bit of an art.  Unzip as you run out of the water.  Strip yourself down to your waist by the time you get to your bike.  Then pull the rest down to your ankles, and gently step on each leg as you pull it off.  In time, this will become a very quick thing.  At first, however, your first transition take a 3-4 minutes (more if you have to run up the steps of the Escape from Alcatraz).

After the race, bathe your suit in nice clean water, and make sure you wash it with the water both inside and out, or hose it down and dry over a towel bar or quilt rack.  This is even more important if you are swimming in the local saltwater races, as the residue can accelerate the aging of your wetsuit.  When your season is done, use a shampoo made for neoprene, which will rejuvenate your suit and keep the neoprene flexible and durable for the following season.

Written by Paul Johnson
Owner Triathlon Wetsuit Store