This guide is written for swimmers looking to purchase their first wetsuit for open water swimming and / or triathlon. The guide gives recommendations and advice on how to choose the right wetsuit for you based on our knowledge and experience as coaches, swimmers and competitors. Guernsey’s range of wetsuit retailers is currently limited but you can find a small range of swimming wetsuits available to try and buy at Gone Paddling and Freedom Surf Shop. This guide refers you to online retailers and manufacturers to research and purchase our recommended wetsuits. Finally, the guide is pretty detailed so grab yourself a cup of tea...there's lots to say!
BACKGROUND TO SWIM / TRIATHLON WETSUITS
Wetsuits used for swimming and racing are very different to wetsuits used for water sports, including surfing. Swim wetsuits are designed to offer insulation, buoyancy, reduced drag and flexibility, particularly around the shoulders and arm pits. Water sport wetsuits tend to be much thicker for extra warmth, more durable to survive scraping against rocks, lying on surfboards etc, and are much more buoyant. Try swimming in a surf wetsuit and you will quickly realise it makes life very difficult.
With growing popularity of triathlon and open water swimming sports, the wetsuit market has exploded and you can now find a vast range of options for every type of distance swimmer; from Sprint distance triathletes to 10km endurance swimmers, Swim-Run adventurers to summer-time dippers. With this in mind, it is very easy to become confused by the options, the lingo on performance technologies and of course, recommendation from other swimmers. However, there's also a wide range of prices to choose from so you will always be able to find something that fits your needs and your budget. Decent entry level wetsuits can be found for around £90 while top of the range performance wetsuits will set you back anything between £600 and £800. How much you spend on a wetsuit really depends on how much money and time you want to invest in your sport. If you are a triathlete and plan to race in bigger races (off Island), you should make yourself aware of the latest British Tri rules on wetsuits which include a maximum thickness of 5mm neoprene.
START HERE: WHY ARE YOU BUYING A WETSUIT?
Before you begin looking, you need to be clear on why you need one and how you plan to use it. You might be completely new to open water swimming and want to ‘test the water’ to see if you like this sport before investing several pay cheques in a top of the range suit. You might be an experienced pool swimmer and sea swimmer but are only used to swimming ‘skins’ but now require some extra neoprene for longer distances.
Knowing how much time you plan to be in the open water and what your aims are will help you identify your budget (you can spend anything from £100 up to £600 on a swim wetsuit) and even some of the more technical requirements of a suit. What you plan to do in the open water may also determine whether you need a FULL wetsuit (long arms, long legs) or whether you need some neoprene support around your core or legs only for extra warmth or buoyancy. The market offers neoprene bottoms and tops, sleeveless wetsuits, and even swim-run suits for those endurance athletes wanting to take on the Otillo style events.
KNOW YOUR SWIM TYPE
Now that you know what your wetsuit is for and whether you’re willing to make an investment for the short or longer term, it’s useful to have an idea of what ‘type’ of swimmer you are. Most wetsuit manufacturers will offer ‘Entry level’ suits right up to elite performance suits. In our experience, this categorisation doesn’t always give the swimmer what they really need because an ‘Entry level’ triathlete or open water swimmer is not necessarily a ‘weaker’ swimmer. Below is a crude list of swim types that we use for the purposes of selecting the right wetsuit for you. The list is by no means a formal identification of you as a swimmer that you might use to work on technique, but rather a broad grouping based on your stage of development.
LEARNER: these swimmers are learning front crawl in the pool and while confident to take their new skills into the open water, they are still working hard on developing an efficient, confident front crawl stroke. As these swimmers are still mastering a high body position (aided by efficient breath cycles, leg kick and head position) they typically need a wetsuit that delivers more buoyancy than more experienced front crawlers.
IMPROVER: these swimmers have a good grasp of front crawl and can achieve distances of over 2k in the pool. Improvers are still working on their efficiency in the water and may not yet feel like swimming front crawl comes naturally to them. However, a higher body position is developing and through a wetsuit they now need something that supports efficient movement through the shoulders and hips. Buoyancy may still be an issue for some but depending on the efficiency of their kick, their body position may not need as much support through additional buoyancy in a wetsuit.
MASTER: these swimmers are confident with their technique and have mastered a high body positions in the water. They may be training for longer distance swims in the sea or faster paces for their races. They now need a wetsuit that limits drag, supports hip rotation and delivers maximum flexibility through the shoulders and elbows.
FEMALE V MALE: due to our different body shapes, wetsuit manufacturers do offer sizes for both genders however there are some other considerations that may come into play when choosing a wetsuit. Men typically need more help with buoyancy because of their body composition and muscle tone. It is also more common for men to struggle to master the kick technique because their lower limbs tend to be heavier than women’s. There are now a range of neoprene trunks and tights available to support the male swimmer, which can also be used in the pool.
Typically, wetsuit manufacturers categorise their wetsuit types by experience in the open water / at triathlon. ‘Entry level’ suits are aimed at those new to triathlon or open water swimming and assumes that everyone diving into the sea for the first time needs extra buoyancy - not always true. In our experience being new to triathlon or the open water doesn’t always mean that you need lots of support with your body position and technique: Master swimmers who have been swimming in the pool for years and have a highly efficient stroke are unlikely to need an ‘Entry Level’ suit, even if this is their first season of getting in the sea. However, if financial investment is more important than the design and function of the wetsuit then an entry level suit will do just fine for a Master swimmer and certainly won’t ruin their experience of being in the sea.
DON’T BE FOOLED BY LINGO
Wetsuit manufacturers, and most triathlon ‘kit’ manufacturers, have long lists of patented terms that they use in their product descriptions to paint a picture of innovation, performance, life-changing materials and all things that will make you swim faster and help differentiate themselves from other brands. Our advice is not to make any purchases based on perceived levels off sophistication! If you don’t understand the lingo, don’t buy the suit! You should however, always read the manufacturer’s descriptions, look out for key terms based on what you’re looking for according to your Swim Type e.g. extra buoyancy, flexibility etc, and then spend some time looking for reviews e.g 220 Triathlon Magazine and customer reviews.
Now that you’ve found a wetsuit you like, and you think will help you achieve your sea swim goals, the final step is key - getting the size right! You should dig out a tape measure for this step and get to know your basic measures. Wetsuit manufacturers usually use Chest, Height and Weight for sizing charts so make sure you know your numbers before you add anything to your cart. The ideal wetsuit FIT is one that feels snug, but not restrictive. When you enter the water, it should allow a thin layer of water to enter the suit and remain there. This water will be warmed by your body temperature and continue to keep you warm throughout your swim. What you don’t want is an ‘exchange’ of water i.e. a continuous flow in and out; this would suggest the suit is too big.
To find the best fit for you, you may need to ordering more than one suit with the aim of sending one / them back. Most manufacturers will offer free returns and if they don’t, email them to request it. You can also draw on your local swim / triathlon community or training group to ask whether any kind folk with wetsuits will let you try theirs on for size, but always try to find the same brand of wetsuit that you aim to buy because sizing can vary across each of the manufacturers.
BRANDS WE LIKE
Wetsuits are highly personal. We’ve provided you with key criteria and things to consider before you look but ultimately, it really comes down to what fits and how comfortable you find it to swim in. There is little point spending £600 on the latest wetsuit because Johnny Brownlee or Jess Learmonth wears one unless it works for you, your swim type and your body shape. In our experience of open water swimming, racing and coaching, our favourite brands include Orca, Yonda, Blue Seventy and Roka. There are several other decent brands out there including Speedo, 2XU, HUUB, Sailfish and Zone 3 so shop around. The brands we recommend have won us over by being clear about the benefits of their wetsuits and tailoring the wetsuit to the type of swimmer not the experience of the triathlete.
Here is a short list of recommended wetsuits based on our experience as swimmers, triathletes and coaches.
LEARNER: for those who are still learning to swim front crawl but are ready to get in the sea, we recommend the Orca TRN (exclusive to wiggle.com) or the Orca S6. These suits offer exceptional value for money and deliver on the key items you need; buoyancy and support in the water. The suit also offers a less thick neoprene which makes it quick and easy to take off!
IMPROVER: for those who are doing more open water swimming but still need some extra support with body position and technique we recommend the Orca Equip, Orca Sonar, Yonda Spectre, Blueseventy Sprint, Blueseventy Reaction, Speedo Elite E16.
MASTER: for those swimming longer distances, looking to shave of seconds from their 1500m or 1900m time and don't need the extra support with their body position, we recommend the Orca Predator, Orca Alpha, Yonda Ghost, Blueseventy Helix or the Roka Maveric Pro (please note the Roka suite are currently only shipped from the US!).
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER
Never underestimate the importance of being able to get in and out of your wetsuit with the greatest of ease. Many performance wetsuits come with a reverse zip I.e. top to bottom to do it up, which is designed for undoing the zip under race conditions. However, an upside-down zip can be enough to put you off a wetsuit for life so it’s worth having a go with a friend’s! Any decent wetsuit should be sold with a bag and gloves. Don’t be too quick to assume gloves are for overly-precious, OCD types because thin neoprene can rip and snag at the sight of a fingernail, and this can very quickly ruin your brand new wetsuit.
We always recommend popping some Glide into your shopping basket too; this lubricant not only helps the wetsuit go on a bit easier but it reduces the chances or salt-water irritation where your wetsuit rubs against your skin. Key places to use the lubricant are on the sides of your neck, where the ‘collar’ of the wetsuit will be, and under your arm pit, where the torso area of the wetsuit meets the arm pit. For those taking part in triathlons you can also use lubricant to aid quicker removal of the suit. Lubricant around the wrists and ankles can make the process that much easier!
We recommend taking your time choosing your wetsuit. Try on your friend’s, be prepared to send some back but just make sure you have the one that fits your body shape and your swim needs! If you are new to using wetsuits for swimming, we recommend watching a video on putting your suit on and taking it off, which can easily be found with a Google search. Unlike wetsuits used for water sports, swim wetsuits are much more fragile and can easily tear with rough handling. Recommended Retailers: Wiggle, ORCA, Yonda, Blueseventy, Roka