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Open Water / Triathlon

The Wetsuit Factor

How to maximize your open water speed

Terry Heggy | May 16, 2015

Yes, it is true that a well-designed wetsuit can make a dazzling fashion statement—especially if it has superhero muscle designs painted on it. But the real advantage of wearing a wetsuit in open water competition is performance.

Let’s examine why a wetsuit makes you faster, and what you can do to take advantage of those qualities. We’ll also look at how you can simulate some of those advantages even if you don’t have a wetsuit.

A Fuzzy Blanket

One of the primary benefits to having a wetsuit is its warmth. It keeps your body’s heat from escaping into cold water, and therefore enables swimming in lower temperatures than you could otherwise tolerate. Of course, this same property works against you if the water is warm; you can easily overheat when working hard in a race. For safety reasons, race directors will often either require or restrict wetsuits, depending upon water temperature.

IMPORTANT: Always remember that safety is paramount. Never swim alone or in unsafe or unsupervised conditions. Consult your physician before attempting cold-water swimming.

If you plan to swim in races where there could be temperature extremes, it’s critical for both your health and your performance to know your tolerance range. Test yourself and your gear in simulated race conditions before your competition. Acclimate yourself by practicing in colder water gradually—your body can learn to tolerate colder temperatures over time with a progressive adaptation program. (A cold-water bath can serve as a substitute if there are no cold lakes or oceans handy.)

Look Ma, I Can Float!

The other most obvious benefit of a wetsuit is buoyancy.

  • You swim more efficiently because you stay more streamlined at the water’s surface; your legs don’t sink.
  • You can take a rest break without treading water.
  • Buoyancy can provide minor compensation for certain stroke flaws.

The change in body position and stroke geometry provided by a wetsuit may require some technique adjustments. But if you want to swim your fastest, you’ll still benefit from mastering proper freestyle form without a wetsuit. When you’re in the pool, always practice getting a good catch, holding your posture, keeping your breathing in line and smooth, and minimizing your vertical drag profile.

Slippery as an Eel

Modern racing wetsuits are engineered for minimal drag friction in the water. (If you’re still wearing your 1950s Jacques Cousteau model, it’s definitely time to upgrade.) The smoothness of today’s models are orders of magnitude slicker than garden-variety neoprene, and also much more slippery than your natural human birthday suit.

The Bear Hug

Well-designed wetsuits also provide strategic compression and support panels that postpone fatigue and enhance power.

You can create some of this same benefit by getting stronger, especially in your core and stability muscles. Some good exercises for core strength include:

  • Fitness ball crunches
  • Back extensions
  • Cable rotations and cable chops
  • Planks
  • Medicine ball throws
  • Underwater dolphin kick and vertical kicking

For proper technique on core exercises, consult your coach or personal trainer.

Can You Spare Some Change?

Besides the potential for overheating and chafing, the only drawback to wearing a wetsuit is when you have to remove it for your triathlon transition. When you try on a wetsuit, be sure to test its removal process, including ease of operation for zippers and fasteners. You can tolerate some difficulty in putting it on before the race, but it needs to come off in a hurry. The length of (or lack of) sleeves and legs will also play into removal time.

A good lubricant can make it much easier to slip the wetsuit off (available from USMS sponsors such as All American Swim Supply and SwimOutlet.com).

A typical swimmer will cut more than a minute off his 1500-meter swim time with a wetsuit. A less-experienced swimmer might see an even larger time difference. However, if the wetsuit saves you 1 minute of swim time but takes 2 minutes to remove, you’re better off not wearing it in the race.

Of course, practice will help. Is it easier to remove while in the water, or while sitting down on dry land? Can you get it partially removed while running into transition? Remember that during the race, you’ll be breathing hard, which makes it more difficult to peel it off your chest. Be sure to practice wetsuit removal while puffing and panting, so you’ll learn what it’ll be like on race day.

The Wrap-Up

Wetsuits offer multiple advantages, and you should definitely practice your racing techniques while wearing what you’ll be wearing on race day. You should also practice your transition method for efficiently removing the wetsuit. But you’ll be faster with the wetsuit if you refine your skills without it; the better your technique in a regular swimsuit, the better you’ll be when you wriggle into your rubber superhero outfit.

Because we all come in different shapes and sizes, it’s probably best to try on a wetsuit before you buy—or at least make sure the vendor has a good return policy. Make sure your shoulders can move through your stroke range, and that your neck isn’t rubbed raw when you turn to breathe or lift your head up for sighting. Remember that the compression you feel when standing in a store isn’t the same as you’ll feel when your muscles are working and your chest is expanding at maximum effort. The last thing you want is to feel squashed and claustrophobic out in the middle of the bay, right? To get an idea of other things to look for, watch this wetsuit review video.

One other safety note: Remember that a dark wetsuit (especially one with full sleeves) can blend in with the water, making you hard to spot. When you practice in open water, wear a bright cap so others can see you.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Terry Heggy

Terry "Speed" Heggy has been swimming for more than 50 years. He won his age group in the 10K Open Water Championship in 2006, competed in the National Championship Olympic Distance Triathlon in 2014, and qualified again for USAT Nationals in 2015. He's the head coach of Team Sopris Masters in Glenwood Springs, Colo., and is a USMS-certified Level 3 Masters coach and an NASM Certified Personal Trainer.

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