Buying Triathlon Wetsuits for the Swim Leg of a Triathlon

Buying Advice and Tips on Selecting Triathlon Wetsuits

Sleeve or Sleeveless Triathlon Wetsuit?
Sleeve or Sleeveless Triathlon Wetsuit?. Sandra Mu/Getty Images

Wearing triathlon wetsuits (or do you say triathlon wet suit?) should give you a potential or an actual swimming speed boost. You do not have this free swim speed boost in non triathlon wetsuits or without triathlon wetsuits. Want to be a faster swimmer in a triathlon? Get a triathlon-type, swim-specific wetsuit. Triathlon wetsuits or triathlon wet suits, which brand is not all that important in the long run (or rather the long swim).

Ironman, Orca, Xterra, DeSoto, Zoot, Aquaman, QR (Quintana Roo), ProMotion, or others, they all have good points and can help make you a faster triathlete in a lake, river, ocean, or sea swim.

They help you swim easier (same speed but less energy cost) or they help you swim faster (faster speed but same energy cost). Oh yeah - they also can keep you warmer (but you do not want them to make you hot; that is dependent upon the water temperature, so you have to figure out what works best for you - and, of course, respect the wetsuit and water temperature rules of your particular race).

What is the primary way that a triathlon wetsuit helps you swim faster? Floatation - drag reduction - the wetsuit should put your body in a great swimming position (horizontal) regardless of your head position or regardless of where your eyes are looking. Your head position generally controls your body position, and a good head position generally results in a good body position - but with a swimming-specific wetsuit on your body, your head is taken out of the equation.

The wetsuit material should also offer a slicker surface than your skin, further reducing drag.

Dollar for dollar, wetsuit reviews often state that the top end of any one brand of wetsuit is more alike than different from other brand's top end suit, and I agree. Each price level of triathlon wetsuit is relatively equal to its competitor.

They tend to use the same type (or a similar type) of neoprene across any particular price level, and the higher price levels use a neoprene that is more flexible or somewhat more slick.

Once you decide about how much you want to spend, get to a shop (or visit several shops) that sells various brands and that will allow you to try on their wetsuits. Try on wetsuits in your chosen price range.

You may want to try on suits at price points above and below, too, but you really do get what you pay for with a triathlon wetsuit, although at the high-end part of what you are paying for is the newest, best, greatest gizmo in the line. Is it better than a lower priced model in the same line? Yes, in some way it is, but once you get near $300 for a suit, how much more "speed" is another $100 or $200 going to buy you? Not a lot, but if the difference in your race finish place is vital, then buying the top-end is the way to go. If you are a mid-pack triathlete, a top-price triathlon wetsuit will not move you up any higher in the standings than if you bought a mid-priced wetsuit. At the very least, I believe that the lower end, multi-use price point wetsuits are not the best choice for a triathlete unless they are not worried about a better swim time.

You have to spend some minimum amount to get something that will work, and in a full-sleeve design that is around $250-$300.

Different brands have different fit tweaks and fit design thoughts, and they can feel different. You may be looking at two great choices. One may be designed to feel tighter or snugger, while another may be less snug, but both could help you swim better. The one that feels the best to you is likely to be the best one for you, while another triathlete might feel better in the other one - and that one is the best for them. I bet that either of you would be equally fast in either one, but as long as you are spending the money, you might as well get the one that feels the best to you, right?

It is hard to make a bad choice if you are willing to take the time to try on the wetsuits, but if you cannot try them on, be sure to be very accurate with your body measurements and the recommended sizes from the manufacturer.

If you cannot get to a triathlon shop, make some phone calls or send some emails and take the time to ask about the sizing parameters of any brand that interests you.

What features should I look for when considering a triathlon wetsuit purchase? We'll look at that on page 2.

Want to be a faster swimmer in a triathlon? Get a triathlon-type, swim-specific wetsuit.

What features should I look for in triathlon wetsuits?

  • Proper fit.
    The suit must be comfortable from crotch to shoulder; it must not limit your mobility or shoulder/arm reach. If it does, then it will hinder your swimming ability instead of helping it. It needs to fit in the torso - chest, waist, etc., but the most important fit dimension is crotch to shoulders. Arm length and leg length are not very important. Additionally, while some find it odd, shorter legs and arms on a wetsuit can make it faster to remove, too - but that is a function of the brand design, not something to look for in choosing a size.
  • Material layout.
    A wetsuit should have differing thicknesses of material in different parts. The shoulders and arms should be thinner; the chest and parts of the legs a bit thicker. How much thicker or thinner is different from brand to brand, but a wetsuit that is the same thickness throughout is going to be inferior in some way to a wetsuit that has varied thicknesses. You need more flexibility (thinner) in the parts that move a lot (usually the arms and shoulders, sometimes parts of the legs if you are a big kicker) and more floatation (thicker) in the right parts (generally the torso and the upper legs). The ends of the arms and legs should be extra-flexible, both to afford a good watertight seal, and to allow stretching to get the suit off faster. Remember, generally speaking, within any one price level the wetsuits will use types of neoprene with similar performance factors. You pay more for neoprene that "does" more.
  • Neck and wrist seals.
    A triathlon wetsuit should not let water flow in and out, and it should not hold water next to your body. That water becomes extra weight that you must carry with you during the swim. No one wants to add pounds to their race weight! A good neck-seal is paramount. Without that seal, the neck becomes a water scoop and the suit will fill with water. Same thing with the wrist - a loose wrist cuff becomes a water scoop (note that the ankles should have a good seal, too, but they can act as a release in some brands, too). All the mid and top-end suits have this, but they might do it with a different method. Trying on a suit is the best way to find out if the way they wrap around your neck will work for you, or will make you feel like you are being mugged.
  • Ease of exit.
    Can you get out of the wetsuit? If the suit makes your swim one-minute faster, but it takes an extra minute to get the suit off, there is not much gain. Zippers help here; one of the non-zippered wetsuits that came out a few years ago has added a zipper to make taking the thing off faster. Back to that neck, wrist and ankle seal - the suit must seal, but it must also allow you to get out - you don't want the suit to become handcuffs or legcuffs.
  • Sleeved or sleeveless?
    That is more of a personal preference, but almost everyone is faster in a full suit (with sleeves) than in a sleeveless suit, no matter what they say or think about losing some feel for the water. Sleeves reduce drag, sleeves help with float, and that adds up to more potential speed
  • Construction.
    A glued and stitched wetsuit should be more durable than a wetsuit that is just glued or just stitched, and for the price you pay for a tri-specific wetsuit, you want it to last for a while.
  • Warranty and service.
    I would only buy a wetsuit that is backed by the manufacturer. Will they repair any damage caused by manufacturing errors? Can I get the suit repaired when I damage it with my fingernails or when I try to put it on too quickly and tear it?
  • Which features don't I need?
    Tough question. More zippers, less zippers, break-away-zippers, different color panels, or extra-super-duper-super-metal-ceramic-carbon-fiber-silicone-impregnated-patented-double-secret-neoprene extra's don't make suits in the same price range slower or faster, just different. The number one concern is fit, crotch to shoulders. What fits you is the one big feature you must have - the rest are all personal preference.
  • What should I expect to pay?
    Around $300 for a good mid-range suit, and almost double that for the top-end from some manufacturers.
  • What questions should I ask before buying?
    You probably need to ask about all of the above - fit, construction, warranty, etc. You need to ask some questions of yourself, too. Can I afford this much for this wetsuit - is the cost of the top-end suit worth it to me, or is the mid-point one going to meet my needs? Would the $100 difference be better spent on a coach, new running shoes, or taking my significant other out for dinner to keep me in their good graces?

    Whatever you decide, a triathlon-specific wetsuit will help make you a faster triathlon swimmer. This is one product that really works!

    Swim On!



    Updated by Dr. John Mullen on April 26, 2016