Wetsuits for Open Water Swimming and Triathlons – A Beginner’s Guide
Category: Open Water and Triathlon

Wetsuits for Open Water Swimming and Triathlons – A Beginner’s Guide

Wetsuits for open water swimming

Wetsuits for open water swimming are distinctively different from traditional surfing wetsuits. Open water wetsuits are made specifically for swimmers needs. With many having additional buoyancy and flexibility built in, this has really helped the growth of open water swimming.

April 2021: We have finally reached the end of Covid-19 lockdown and into the open water swimming season. This means we are outside excitedly testing the latest wetsuits right now. We look forward to updating you in the next couple of weeks.

At the start of the 2016 open water and triathlon season, Andrew and David tried on several wetsuits. We hope this blog offers you some information about wetsuits and why they are worn in open water swimming.

July 2017 Update: Open water wetsuits tend to be brought out in 2 year cycles. However Huub, who are generally considered by the top professional athletes to be the best, have brought out the Albacore wetsuit for men and the Acara wetsuit for women.

The 2017 Huub wetsuits have been designed with increased flexibility around the biceps and triceps. This therefore gives swimmers more control in the water. The Huub team have also made developments to help reduce the amount of knee bend that swimmers do while kicking. By reducing the knee bend, the swimmers hips should be smaller in range to reduce drag further. Huub are delighted to be using their own M.A.D system, measuring the drag of a swimmer and their swimwear. You can watch a video about the Huub M.A.D system by clicking here.

Here’s our guide to wetsuits:

Why wear an open water wetsuit?

Keeping warm – Open water swimming does have its risks and sadly each year individuals die competing; this often being attributed to cardiac arrests.

According to Shattock and Tipton (2012), as the body enters cold water there are two autonomic responses; the ‘cold shock response’ and the ‘diving response’. For most individuals, cold shock results in an abnormally rapid heart rate, yet the diving response of holding one’s breath can result in an abnormally slow heart rate. This combination brings the control of the heart into conflict and can lead the heart to produce cardiac arrhythmias (more commonly known as heart rhythm problems), which increases the likelihood of cardiac arrests.

Wearing a wetsuit keeps our body temperature significantly warmer and reduces the cold shock response. We strongly recommend that when you first go into cold water that it is done gradually. We recommend that breath holding does not occur; and that acclimatisation is completed by lying flat on your back before swimming.”

Protection – Open water swims take place in lakes, rivers and in the sea, so wetsuits help to protect your body from debris, birds (swans) and other competitors too!

Additional buoyancy – Swimming technology has kept pace with the increasing popularity of open water swimming and triathlons. Most triathlon competitors find their swimming to be the weakest of the three disciplines. More expensive wetsuits have a golf ball effect built into them, designed to trap air and further aid buoyancy, whilst others have foam strips inserted. Buoyancy usually reduces swim times.

British Triathlon rules
– In Britain most open water and triathlon events are governed by British Triathlon rules. The water temperature is taken 1 hour before the start of the race and the following rules then apply:

Water Temperature and the Wetsuit Rules:
Less than 14oC then wetsuits must be worn
Between 14oC and 22oC then wetsuits are optional
Above 22oC then wetsuits must not be worn

What are 3:5, 3:8 and 4:4 wetsuits?

3:5 wetsuit
3:5 wetsuits are the most popular and the ones we would recommend for most amateur competitors. The numbers traditionally stood for the thickness of a wetsuit at different points, with the 3mm being found on the upper body and 5mm on the lower body. The differential between the thicknesses causes the legs to rise higher in the water, helping to increase efficiency and reduce swim times. These days, although the same lift principles apply, the thickness of the wetsuits can vary far more within the upper body from chest, to lower arm pit and arms.

3:8 wetsuits
3:8 wetsuits are recommended for those who require more lift in their legs while swimming, common for competitors that are particularly muscular.

4:4 wetsuits
4:4 wetsuits are neutral, providing no differential in thickness and leaving the body to lie in the water in its natural horizontal way, albeit the whole body is likely to be slightly higher in the water than without a wetsuit. Recommended for those who don’t experience faster swim times when they have a pull-buoy between their legs, or those who would like a more natural swim.

Which are the main wetsuit brands?

The three brands we tried on were Orca, Huub and Zone 3. Clients from our open water and triathlon programme use any of these as wetsuit brands are really down to personal preference. Andrew and David tried on the following:

Orca Equip 2016
This wetsuit really felt moulded to Andrew’s body compared to his previous Orca Avn4 bought in 2013. This wetsuit was less stiff, had just neoprene on the back of the legs to reduce calf tightness and offered good arm flexibility.

Huub Aerious 2015
Andrew felt this wetsuit was stiffer, the shoulders seemed a little more restricted and the moulding wasn’t as pleasing for him compared to the Orca Equip.

July 2017 update: Try the 2017 Albacore wetsuit for men and the Acara wetsuit for women instead.

Zone 3 Aspire 2016
David felt comfortable in this one, preferring a stiffer approach to the Orca Equip.

How much is an open water wetsuit?

During our London shop visit, wetsuits ranged in price from £285.00 to £549.00. Instead, Andrew purchased an Orca TRN Thermo for  For first time events you might like to consider hiring a wetsuit, event organisers Human Race recommend mywetsuithire.co.uk at £39.75 + delivery a race. Or if you event is just a one-0ff then you could try the entry level Orca TRN Thermo for £99.00 from wiggle.co.uk.

How do I avoid chafing and skin irritation?

We recommend putting Body Glide balm around your neck prior to wetsuit use.
Turner Swim’s top tips for wetsuit longevity:

1. Wear cotton gloves to put on your wetsuit. Wetsuits come with gloves and we recommend wearing them to avoid finger nail pinching and tearing your wetsuit.

2. Pull the wetsuit legs and sleeves far enough up – when putting your wetsuit on, start with excess material on your body side and then you can pull the material back down your legs and arms once it’s on.

3. Rinse immediately after use and turn inside out to dry – organised events usually have wetsuit showers or a bin of water to rinse them in post-race.

Shattock, M.J. and Tipton, M.J. ‘Autonomic conflict’: a different way to die during cold water immersion? The Journal of Physiology 590 (Pt 14)[Online]. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3459038/ [Accessed: 15 May 2016].

You can join one of Turner Swim’s instructors for a one hour one-to-one lesson, or a 5 x one hour open water and triathlon swimming programme in Central London. Visit www.turnerswim.co.uk for further information.

© 2022 Turner Swim || Turner Swim, 21 Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BH || Tel 0207 157 9902 || Web Design London