What’s the difference between a triathlon wetsuit and a surf wetsuit?

Wondering how a tri wetsuit differs to a surf wetsuit, and whether you can race a triathlon with a wetsuit made for surfing? Janine Doggett explains all...

Credit: John Seaton Callahan / Getty Images

It’s all neoprene, right? Well, yes – mostly. But while, in many cases, you can dig out your trusty surf wetsuit without a DQ, the triathlon version has evolved to be perfectly suited to the challenge…


 Rules of the race

While wetsuits are mandatory under British Triathlon Federation race rules below a water temperature of 14-16°C (depending on swim length) and below 18°C for paratriathlon, they can’t exceed 5mm in thickness.

By this standard, most surfing wetsuits should make it to T1 without a raised eyebrow, but some will get you a DQ: leading surf brands sell 5-6mm suits for cold water.


Thing is, for surfers and triathletes alike, it’s cold out there in the sea… but it’s what you do with it – or in it – that counts. While surfers need a wetsuit with built-in flexibility to swim (just like us triathletes), they also spend a lot of time bobbing about, waiting for that stellar wave.

So, surfing wetsuits are usually thicker than triathlon wetsuits on average – when you take into consideration torso, back, shoulders, arms and legs. While neither a surf or tri wetsuit usually exceeds 5mm at any point (or panel) in thickness, a comparative suit could comprise a neoprene build of 5,4,3mm (surf) and 5,3,2mm (tri) – with the thickest sections focusing on keeping the core warm in both cases.

In other words, we all need our torsos to be toasty – but surfers need to be toastier than us sweaty racers.


Of course, the higher the thickness of your suit, the more buoyant it’ll be, too. While some triathletes feel safer with, or simply enjoy the “ooh it’s so floaty” feel, it’s best to experiment. Tri wetsuits around 3mm can provide a more neutral feel, which can aid propulsion – and triathletes need more hydrodynamics than their swell-seeking counterparts.

How much buoyancy does your triathlon wetsuit need?



It’s the forward-focused engineering that truly sets the triathlon wetsuit apart; they’re comprised of more panels than surfing suits for optimum speed through the water. The panel construction of triathlon wetsuits targets flexibility (thinner material in the shoulders for an unfettered stroke) buoyancy (thicker neoprene in the hip area to enable a higher, or even ‘downhill’, position in the water) – and even water-grabbing catch panels on the forearms.

How to swim in a wetsuit

But that’s not all. The finish of a triathlon wetsuit will aid you from starting horn to T1, thanks to the Super Composite Skin (SCS) coating: a fast-drying, smooth outer layer to facilitate gliding through the water and an easy-off transition.

So, the answer is yes – you can legally race in a surf wetsuit as long as it’s 5mm in thickness or under, but you might get a bit hot or lose energy with each stroke compared to the race-focused triathlon suit.

There’s no real harm in taking to the water for your first race or three, though, if you’ve already got a BTF-legal surf suit. Getting a triathlon wetsuit, though, means more comfort, a true performance comparison to your peers and – importantly, a mental boost as you feel primed for the podium in your oh-so-shiny number.


For newbies and seasoned athletes alike, there’s an impressive range of wetsuits to choose from these days. Read more on what to look for in a tri wetsuit here.

Top-end triathlon wetsuits: 4 features to look for in a high quality suit

How can you tell if your wetsuit fits properly?

Sleeved versus sleeveless wetsuits for triathlon: which is best?

Women’s budget triathlon wetsuits reviewed: 7 of the best under £300

Triathlon wetsuits: 14 of the best tested and rated