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Why You Should Race in a Triathlon Wetsuit Whenever It's Allowed

Updated: 7 days ago

Swimming wetsuits aren't just there to protect you from the cold. After competing in hundreds of triathlons over all sort of conditions I've found anecdotally that a full-sleeved triathlon wetsuit is just faster. We have scientific research to back that up. Maria Francesca Piacentini, PhD does a deep dive of the research on a recent podcast of That Triathlon Show on why and by how much a wetsuit can help you.

Here's what you need to know:

The percentage of the benefit obtained ranges between 6% and 11%. So let's say you're a 1:40 sec/100 yd swimmer, that's a 1:29-1:34 sec/100 yd pace after donning a wetsuit.

I could probably just stop this blog here but some of you might be interested in the why of this performance increase and whether the benefits apply to you. The answer is still yes.

  1. Increased Buoyancy: Wetsuits increase buoyancy, allowing swimmers to float more and maintain a horizontal body position. This reduces the frontal area and minimises drag, the resistance encountered while moving through the water. Anyone who's had a swim video analysis from me knows exactly how much of a problem this is for them as it's generally the first thing I talk about.

  2. Reduced Friction Drag: The material of a wetsuit decreases friction drag caused by the fluid reacting against the skin, hair, and clothes. This smoother surface reduces resistance and improves efficiency. This is the reason I always suggest a full sleeve wetsuit and of course guide people away from a wetsuit with any rougher, surfing wetsuit type material.

  3. Improved Stroke Efficiency: Wetsuits have been found to enhance stroke length, the distance covered with each stroke. This is measured using the stroke index, which is the product of speed and stroke length. The increased stroke efficiency has a positive impact on energy expenditure and performance.

There are some other interesting results to come out of the research:

  • Wearing a wetsuit typically leads to fewer kicks per stroke cycle, with the obvious implication of preserving energy for the other disciplines of triathlon.

  • Weaker swimmers tend to experience more significant advantages from a wetsuit due to their less efficient water positioning which a wetsuit helps correct.

  • When comparing swimming with and without a wetsuit at the same speed, there is a decrease in energy cost and reduced perceived exertion. Swimming just feels easier in a wetsuit.

  • One negative against wetsuits is the perceived comfort. I've had this feedback too as a wetsuit fitter that athletes new to wetsuits perceive them as restricting. This highlights the importance of training with the wetsuit and becoming familiar your wetsuit in race conditions (like wearing your race kit underneath).

The podcast left me with one unanswered question. Is it possible to overheat in a wetsuit, where the performance benefits from body positioning are negated by an increase in core temperature? I recalled one particular race I did in tropical Queensland, Australia when it was uncomfortably warm in the swim and many of us Southerners ended up in the med tent after the race with heat related stress. Was it because we had already got too hot after the swim?

A very recent study looked at just that. The rule for triathlon competitions are wetsuits may be worn in water temperature up to and including 24.5°C/76.1°F. This study had participants complete two 1000 m swim conditions: wearing a full sleeve wetsuit and no wetsuit at a self-selected pace in 25.5°C water. They found no difference in core temperature and that swim performance was faster in a wetsuit.

So there you go. If it's legal, wear the wetsuit.

Don't feel comfortable in your wetsuit? Schedule an in-person or virtual wetsuit fitting service to help you find the right wetsuit for you.

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