The Shoemaker Review: What to Look for in a Triathlon Wetsuit

2014 Jan | By

By Jarrod Shoemaker

For most triathletes buying a wetsuit is an afterthought, coming up in the list of priorities after bikes, shoes, nutrition, race suit and goggles. Depending on where you live, you could use a wetsuit once a season or use one every single race. Thus, deciding on what wetsuit to buy is a choice that should take some time.

The purpose of wearing a wetsuit is twofold; first, staying warm in colder water, and second, extra buoyancy. Swimming with a wetsuit is ALWAYS faster than swimming without one, mainly because the buoyancy of the suit keeps you on top of the water, so you do not have to work as hard to stay afloat.

Almost all wetsuits are created with the same neoprene, so we can eliminate that as being a big differentiator. Each company does use different thickness on different parts of the body, with 5mm being the maximum amount allowed. In general 5mm thickness will be at the torso and quads, with shoulder and arms having 2-3mm to allow for more flexibility.

Once you are past the type of rubber and the thickness of the neoprene, there are three main things to focus on are: 1) fit, 2) price, and 3) sleeves or sleeveless.

First, let’s focus on fit. Every wetsuit company has its own size chart. When you look at the chart, you will notice that the sizes almost always overlap and you probably fit into two ranges. You are better off being on the smaller end of the size range, instead of the upper end. You are better off on the lower-end of the size chart, because you can always cut a little bit off the arms and legs of the wetsuit! Because you can cut the suit for length, it’s best to factor in your weight to determine size, rather then height. (Men's Wetsuits, Women's Wetsuits)

Once you get your suit, you should see how it fits. When putting on the wetsuit, make sure to pull it up to your hips and ensure there is no gap in the crotch, then pull it over your shoulders and zip it up. There should not be excess material in the arm-pit either. If it fits tight in all those areas, then make marks on the arms and legs as needed to cut length to size with a regular pair of scissors.

Ideally it should rest just above your wrist bones but not too far up your arm. Remember – every inch you take off is a bit less buoyancy! The same is true of your legs, somewhere above the ankles, but not past midway up your calves. Start by cutting off a few centimeters. Do not go too far up the calves or arms, because the seams are sealed to a certain point on the leg and arm, if you cut beyond this seal it can split the wetsuit at the seam, when you put it on.

One trick on the legs is to angle the cut just a bit to make the opening larger, this also helps to get it off.

Price is another big factor in wetsuit purchasing. The higher the price, the more innovations added to the wetsuit. Lower priced wetsuits are not always worse though, as companies usually trickle down their innovations that work after a year or two.

If you are in a location that will use a wetsuit in almost every race, I would suggest a higher priced wetsuit, whereas if you are only using it once or twice a year, a lower-priced wetsuit will probably be fine. Higher price generally means more flexibility, so if you come from a swimming background you might prefer the higher ticket wetsuits, as they are typically manufactured to allow a better range of motion.

A lot of full-sleeve wetsuits in the mid- and high-price range now have pull panels on the forearm allowing you to glide through the water faster.

One final decision is whether or not to go sleeveless. Sleeveless wetsuits feel much more like pool swimming because they allow more movement in the shoulders. However, with the removal of sleeves, you will lose buoyancy. If you decide to go sleeveless you will be slower than a full-sleeved wetsuit.

The other factor in this decision is the water temperatures in which you will be swimming. Some events featuring very chilly waters necessitate the long-sleeved option. Do some research on the waters where you will be racing and swimming. If the temperature of the water is expected to be around or below 65 degrees, you’ll probably want the full-sleeved variety. Ultimately, though this is more individual preference.

Over my 10 years of triathlon, I have swum in more than 15 different wetsuits by various companies. I have liked some more than others, but as long as they were sized correctly, they all fit me well.

Most important: remember to swim in your wetsuit before you wear it in a race for the first time!

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