For my first-ever triathlon in 2006 I borrowed a wetsuit that didn’t fit and it promptly flooded, resulting in me having to be rescued by a kayaker. Since then I’ve gained a little more experience in open water (OW)!
Wetsuits (or wetties) are made of neoprene, which allows a very thin layer of water between skin and suit. This water warms and the insulation keeps you warm. Of course, it is important that as little water as possible enters the suit and is not being constantly replaced by cold water flushing through.
This is why wetsuits should fit snugly. In addition to warmth, wetsuits provide buoyancy, assist in better form and technique, reduce drag and help protect against sharp objects, including flailing limbs.
What to look for in a triathlon wetsuit
How much buoyancy does your triathlon wetsuit need?
Choosing a wetsuit
Trying before buying is crucial when first purchasing a wetsuit and/or if your body shape has changed significantly. Remember that not all manufacturers use the same body proportions – so a medium in one may be totally different to a medium in another. There are women’s specific suits, although I know of many women who actually prefer men’s suits due to their body type.
Neoprene is a stretchable fabric that loosens with wear and relaxes in water, so make sure that the fit is snug when you first try it on, as this will be tightest it will ever be. A properly fitting wetsuit will make contact over most of the area it covers, leaving as little space as possible between it and your skin.
Thicker material is generally used in the chest, stomach and legs to help with buoyancy. The thinner and generally more flexible material should be around your shoulders and arms to allow for freer, unrestricted movement. Make sure you have a good arm reach.
The neck should not be too high or feel constrictive, although there should be a good seal to prevent the wetsuit ‘flooding’ with water (the same goes for the wrists).
I often cut the legs of my wetsuits by an inch or two to make it easier to slip over my large feet in transition.
Suits range from an entry-level around the £250 mark through to top-end suits for £750 or more that any pro would be delighted to use. I would opt for a mid-range wetsuit, unless your budget is very tight, and a top of the range wetsuit if your coffers are overflowing with cash.
If you’re on a budget it's worth looking into end-of-year or end-of-range bargains in the winter sales or considering an ex-hire suit.
Sleeved or Sleeveless
As long as the wetsuit fits properly, 99% of the time a swimmer will be faster in a full wetsuit. And that’s the key – the wetsuit must fit properly so as not to be constrictive around the shoulders and arms.
Although you may be slightly more mobile in a sleeveless wetsuit, it can be hard to get a good seal around the armpit and shoulder, and hence an increase risk of water entering the suit as you swim, increasing drag, chafing and exposure to cold water.
Men or women with really big arms may find it hard to find a sleeved wetsuit to fit, but I believe that if you shop around there should be a sleeved wettie to ….errrm…suit nearly everybody.
A sleeved wetsuit will provide more warmth, and if the water is coolish there is little risk of overheating.
Find a pair that you are comfortable with and allow you to see very well. Make sure they are tight, but not too tight to cause pain around your eyes. Spit is the best anti-fogging agent around, and it’s free! Always make sure to inspect your goggles for wear and tear the day before your race.
I always go to race with two pairs of goggles. A tinted pair for sunny days and a clear pair for dark days. If you have a pony-tail tie it at the nape of your neck (so the goggle strap is above the ponytail bulge). If you are a bloke: cut your hair.
I use a silicon cap in training which, although more expensive, is much more durable than latex. You will get given a specific, colour-coded cap in a race.
If possible, try the race cap on the day before, carefully stretch it a little if it feels too tight. You might consider having your goggle strap under your cap, which can help prevent your goggles getting removed/dislodged in the swim.
Silicon ear plugs
These are very useful if you suffer ear infections and/or if the water is cold.
Vaseline and rubber glove and/or body glide
Chafing is a triathlete's worst enemy. It is often worse in the sea, where salt creates extra friction. Vaseline is an easy solution to chafing, though petroleum jelly can cause wetsuit neoprene to deteriorate over time.
If you do use Vaseline then applying it with a rubber glove or bag over your hand is a good idea (oily hands affect the catch in the swim).
Many athletes also use cooking spray (such as Pam) for lubrication. There are also some great wetsuit-friendly lubricants on the market, many of which come in a convenient roll-on stick.
Buy some cheap, throwaway slippers/flip flops to wear down to the swim start. This helps avoid cold feet (literally) and prevents any cuts on sharp objects.
For lots more kit advice head to our Triathlon gear section