One of the most common questions we get asked is: "What sort of wetsuit should I buy?"
To answer the question fairly we need to break the question down into two groups of people. First, those who are serious about the sport, intend to regularly compete in open-water events and are prepared to make a significant investment. Second, and more common, those who want to try an open water event and don't want to either freeze or break the bank.
Before we get any more email about all this, this information relates to the UK market and so we don't discuss suits that aren't available here in regular quantities. Which is a shame, but...
Yes, there are regulations... You can't wear a suit under the following conditions:
|less than 2000m||greater than 21 degrees C|
|2000m to 3000m||greater than 22 degrees C|
|more than 3000m||greater than 23 degrees C|
Wetsuits become 'optional' at 14 degrees C and below this the swim distances are limited with 500m being the maximum recommended distance at 11 degrees C and no swimming should take place at all if it's colder. Theoretically you won't ever need a wetsuit in a pool swim but I know of three pools; Wellington College and Eton College (must be something about English boys schools!) and Tooting Bec Lido, where the pools are definitely wet-suit legal!
Wetsuits may be constructed of up to three separate parts (but you cannot wear just leggings), boots or gloves. The maximum thickness of the neoprene is also limited to 5mm.
The big investment
A wetsuit is a significant investment, especially when you consider that you'll probably only use it half a dozen times a year. Like all such investments it's sometimes hard to justify spending more than a bare minimum but it's definitely worth it. Without doubt, a made to measure suit is the choice to make. Get measured by someone who knows what they are doing -- self-measurement is OK but definitely not as good as getting it done properly.
Getting a personal suit means that you can, within the limits laid down by the BTA/ITU, choose your suit to match your swimming style. If you have a good leg kick you'll need less rubber on the legs, if like me, you have a lousy leg kick and get cold very quickly then you might go for thicker rubber and a titanium lining. The elite, who can literally win or lose a race in transition, might go for special panels so that the suit slides off easier or different zipper configurations. You can also opt for different suit types such as sleeveless or even a shorty but you need to be pretty tough and a good swimmer in most of the British waters to get by in one of these.
A feature to watch for is that all seams are sewn, glued and taped. Suits made this way are stronger and definitely more reliable under the abuse that they get in transition. From personal experience you don't want to bother with suits that are only glued together. Having a suit split 20 minutes before a race is not good for the system!
The small extra cost is insignificant when you feel the difference in fit between an 'off-the-peg' and a made to measure. The possible disadvantage is that if you change body shape, by adding muscle bulk, for example, the suit may not fit you as well. The good news is that the made-to-measure boys will be able to adjust the suit, just like a good tailor.
Andrew Mundell of Ironman Wetsuits comments that a top of the line 'off-the-peg' suit should be just as good a fit these days as the materials and construction methods have improved so much. An inaccurately made custom suit can be a worse fit than an 'off-the-peg'. Definitely a case of caveat emptor.
The small investment
If you are on a really tight budget and you've just been conned into doing your first, and probably only, open-water swim then the sensible answer is to hire a suit. Most of the major triathlon shops: Total Fitness, Tri-UK, Tri&Run, Sigma Sport, will do suit hire for the major events like Windsor, Bath, National relays, etc. DO NOT hire a suit from a surf or sailboard shop. Triathlon wetsuits are very different and specifically designed to swim in - most other suits are too restrictive and are often reinforced with nylon mesh on both sides which will add drag and slow you down.
The next option, worth considering if you plan to do a couple of events a year, is to go for an off-the-peg number like the now-obsolete Tinley/Diamond/Speedo suits that are regularly offered by Bourne Sports. There's nothing wrong with them as long as you take time to get the best fit you can and they'll do perfectly for all but the coldest situations.
Another alternative is to go for a second-hand suit or ex-hire suit from one of the retailers listed above but there can be problems with this route. Many athletes use petroleum jelly to lubricate the collar and cuffs of the suit to reduce chafing and speed transition. This can, and does, literally rot by weakening the rubber and slowly dissolving the glue that joins the bits of the suit together. The trouble is, you can't really tell that the rot is there until you start tugging and stretching and then it's usually too late! That said, many second-hand suits are in good condition and often a bargain. The shops that hire out the suits often sell them off at the end of a season and they are unlikely to have been too badly abused in one year.
Looking after it
- Always wash with clean warm water and dry your suit in the open air after use
- After a race where the water was less than clean put Milton in the washing water to remove those lingering odours!
- Store the suit flat and, if you have to fold, do it lightly
- For long term storage such as over-wintering turn the suit inside out
- If you need lubrication use a water-soluble natural substance. We use the Body Shop's Avacado Body Butter but you can get (expensive) professional lubricants such as Body Glide and the Americans swear by a product called Pam which is a low calorie spray-on cooking oil.
Is it a wetsuit?
An alternative to a traditional wetsuit is a new polyurethane suit from Reed Chill Cheater. It's a cross between a wetsuit (there's still a layer of water between it and your skin) but it's only 1mm thick so it's more like a waterproof T-shirt. We haven't tried one yet but it looks interesting. My only concern would be that it might get a bit hot on the bike or the run. Looks good for adventure racing, canoeing, surfing, etc where you're getting wet most of the time and need protection from windchill. Oh, and it's British!!
Where to get one
Snugg: Probably, at least in my opinion, the best of the lot if you want a custom suit and certainly still very popular even despite the influx of the likes of Orca and Ironman. I should also add that they have an outstanding aftersales service and will help with the repair of any brand wetsuit. Several of the major tri outlets offer a fitting service or you can contact them direct on 01637-878488
Terrapin: Another of the long-serving supporters of the sport. Contact them on 01455-846505
The third European brand is Aquaman and they are marketed here by RBS Performance. Contact telephone is (023) 9259 4646.
Ironman: The official Ironman suit and currently being imported by Ironman Wetsuits. Telephone is 0114-255 1615.
Quintana Roo: The top American suit and one of the originals.
Orca: From New Zealand (but actually made in China) and currently trendy. Now widely available at specialist tri shops.
Foor wetsuits: Imported by Tri-UK following their decision to stop carrying Orca.
Wetsuit hire: try Sigma, triandrun, Tri UK or allabouttriathlons.co.uk.
Speedo/Tinley/Diamond all seem to have been discontinued. Bourne Sports are selling the remains. Contact them on 01782-410411
Chill Cheater: 52 South Street, Braunton, Devon EX33 2AN. Phone on 01271-815828 or email .