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Speedo Says...

Wetsuits: A triathlete’s guide – Part 1

A well-fitted wetsuit can significantly improve your swim, reducing drag and improving your buoyancy. On the other hand, a badly fitted wetsuit will do the opposite – filling with water, creating drag and slowing you down – so it pays to get it right.

A well-fitted wetsuit can significantly improve your swim, reducing drag and improving your buoyancy. On the other hand, a badly fitted wetsuit will do the opposite – filling with water, creating drag and slowing you down – so it pays to get it right. A wetsuit should never work against your swimming (which can happen if it doesn’t fit well). In fact, although you may have to change the mechanics of your stroke slightly in rougher water, for average conditions the wetsuit will help enhance your swim.

Practice makes perfect

Getting your wetsuit on and getting it fitted correctly is the key to staying comfortable, which will lead to your fastest swim. More than anything else, practice is the key: practice swimming in your wetsuit, practice putting it on, and practice taking it off. From March onwards, long before the (UK) season starts, I suggest one pool-based wetsuit swim each week. Or, even better, try an outdoor Lido swim in cooler temperatures.

Putting on your wetsuit

A suit that goes on well, with care and patience, fully pulled up into all the correct areas, should be quite easy to zip up. This should be your final reassurance that it has gone on well. A gentle, tugging motion, rolling one inch of wetsuit at a time, slowly, is the best approach when putting your wetsuit on. Taking the material slowly up the leg is going to preserve the integrity of the suit for far longer compared to putting the foot through and then pulling at the hip, expecting the suit to ‘flow’ on like a trouser leg.

Avoid the two-handed tug of the cord from the base of the spine to try to zip up the suit. Zips are attached securely to the rubber material but constant pulling at the zip from an odd angle, rather than easing into position, will weaken the join over time, requiring a repair that no doubt will happen at the most inconvenient time.

Other areas of concern when putting your wetsuit on are:

  • Long fingernails: Wetsuits are tough but long or sharp fingernails will go straight though a suit, so keep them trimmed

  • Toes: Keep them well hidden inside plastic bags or socks to avoid them getting caught up in the leg material as you put it on

  • Watches and jewellery: Take them off to ease the suit going on. The diameter of a wetsuit wrist is snug – adding a watch for it to slide over will only impede its progress

Lubricate before you put on your wetsuit

Lubricate the shins and calves, forearms and neck before the suit goes on. Even using some lube on the calf and forearm area outside the wetsuit may help when taking it off. The idea is that when pulling the wetsuit off, it turns inside out, so lubricating the material on the outside of the wrists and ankles will help it come off more smoothly. How long lube stays on the outside of a suit during a swim is open to debate, but some swear by it; personal experimentation is always a good idea.

In terms of lubricant, it really does what is says on the tin. The latest suits from Speedo are nicely cut low at the base of the neck, making it very hard for rubbing to occur, so some people find lubricant is no longer necessary. However, the base of the neck is highly mobile and rubbing of the wetsuit against the neck is possible. Add to this the extra material of the suit that gathers at the base of the neck where the zip either starts or ends, the salt from a sea swim and the 2000-plus repeated movements of breathing and sighting in an Ironman swim, and you will regret forgetting your lubricant. There are now a wide choice of non-petroleum based and non-embarrassing options for lubricant. Baby Oil is a popular, cheaper option and while some manufacturers will frown upon it, I have yet to witness a suit degrade due to its use. On the downside, it’s not particularly viscous, so I doubt its lubricating qualities would continue during a long swim.

Step-by-step: Fitting your wetsuit

  • Roll the upper body down before you step in, exposing the large openings to the legs (practically turn it inside out, but leave the arms.) This folding down of the upper section doubles the thickness around the hip. This presents a better ‘handle’ for a stronger pulling action. Lead with the toes through the large opening, enclosed in socks or plastic bags.

  • As mentioned previously, small pulling actions, an inch at a time, rather than large handfuls stretching the material, will preserve the flex of the suit. Work on the very lowest sections to start with and don’t move up the leg until the suit fully fits over the ankles, onto the calves and up to the knees. At this point, move it up the thighs.

  • If there’s loose material in the legs, it won’t fit the torso well. Check this isn’t the case by examining for loose material around the crotch area. If you struggle to get the material from the lower leg up, you can use the bent-knee method described in part two of this guide (see ‘Tips for making your suit more comfortable’). If your suit finishes a few inches above the ankles, this is better than having air pockets in the crotch area.

  • If you’re happy with the fit under the crotch, one more pull with the doubled up material should move the lower section of the torso up and over the hips and glutes. As the suit moves up and over the chest, you can carefully insert an arm. Take care with your fingers or use more plastic bags to guide the fingers through.

  • Work the hands all the way through the sleeves. Once the hands are free, either you or a partner can start the trickier process of sliding the arm material up towards the shoulders. If you’re on your own you can use the bent elbow trick to free up material in the forearm to take into the upper arm. A small bunching around the shoulders is considered okay as this leaves room for the arms to manoeuvre. At this stage, if you have successfully pulled all loose material up out of the extremities, it shouldn’t be too tough to zip up. Just before this, it’s worth taking some of the material up out of the stomach and rolling it up towards the chest.

  • Lay the material that protects the zip flat, check that the cord is not in the way and then you should have a relatively easy job of fastening the zip. Pulling on the cord to zip-up should be avoided (even for the most flexible), as it stresses the join where the zip meets neoprene and tugs at the stitching. Hold the bottom of the suit if you must attempt this on your own.

  • Seal the join around the neck with the Velcro once the zip has fastened. If this is done in a hurry, without checking that all panelling is flat, chaffing can occur. The length of Velcro patch allows for a lot of flexibility regarding tension and sealing the join around the neck area. You need to be able to breathe and turn the head/neck within the material of the suit at this point, so it should be firm and secure.

For more wetsuit tips and advice, read the second part of my wetsuit feature, coming next week to the news, tips and techniques section. In part two, I explain how to recognise a good wetsuit fit, provide tips on making your wetsuit more comfortable, and run through how to take off your wetsuit efficiently.