Why do I feel out of breath when I swim in a wetsuit?

Find it difficult to breathe when you swim in a wetsuit? It could be due to a number of factors says John Wood

Credit: James Mitchell

John Wood helps a reader who is a decent swimmer in jammers, but always ends up swimming breaststroke after 100m when in a wetsuit due to breathing difficulties 


Rest assured, your issue is not just something that you alone struggle with. And I believe that there may be three issues at play here, to a greater or lesser degree.

Firstly, I think fit can be a real issue. Secondly it may be a wearing/putting-on issue. And thirdly, there may be pacing issues for you.

So let’s start with fit. And the biggest problem with swimming in a wetsuit is getting the fit right – which can be very challenging. Your wetsuit should be snug but not constrictive. Different brands fit different shapes, which may be why your most recent purchase is even worse than previous. Clearly this can be difficult as you may not have time to go to different stores, but comparing brands against each other for their fit to your body shape is pretty useful. While I
have a couple of very much preferred brands (I really like my Dare2Tri Mach 5), it may not fit friends’ or clients’ shapes, or give them the mobility in the areas that they need it.

How can you tell if your wetsuit fits properly?

Why am I slower swimming in a wetsuit?

Secondly, once you have a wetsuit that fits you, you need to ensure that it’s pulled up high enough. All too often, you’ll see wetsuits with lumps around the upper legs, and stretching down across the shoulders. Adding this unnecessary tension will pull across your chest and reduce the space that you have to breathe in, especially when you get tired. When putting on your suit, really pull the inseam right up into your crotch. There’s nothing wrong with asking a friend to – almost – give you a wedgie! With the wetsuit hanging around your waist, your friend can help pull the suit upward, with a couple of small jumps. The higher the suit comes up, the easier it will be to breathe.

The other thing that you can do, when you get in the water, is to pull the neckline down a little to let some water in. This isn’t a favoured practice of mine, but I know that it creates a bit of calm.

Finally, pacing can be an issue, especially in a race. I’d always encourage athletes to start in a smooth, slow, controlled fashion and look to build into a race effort. When the wetsuit is constrictive, it can be a very stressful environment. When you start your swim (race or training), try doing some flotation drills to give you some calm and control in the water. Then start swimming slowly – maybe sing a song in your head! In the same way that when you run easily you should be able to hold a conversation, being able to sing smoothly in your head will have a similar calming effect. It may even help you find your rhythm better.


If the above suggestions don’t work, you might require a little bit of mental strength coaching to help you overcome your stress better.

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