Finding the right wetsuit for you

by: Matt Dixon

There are many wetsuits on the market these days and so it can be confusing to decide which wetsuit to purchase. This goes for professional athletes as much as it does for amateur athletes.

Fit is critical

While many manufacturers will highlight how their suit is the best, in our experience, any particular brand may be well suited to one athlete, but limit another’s swim performance. For the most part, triathlon wetsuits use the same high quality rubber (Yamamoto) so our biggest recommendation is to find a wetsuit that fits you well:

  • Tight but not constrictive – the wetsuit should fit you snugly but should also be comfortable with a form-fitting neckline that does not leave you feeling claustrophobic
  • Freedom of movement – you need to have a great range of motion through the shoulders
  • Good seal – you should not experience lots of new water entering the suit while swimming and water should not pool in the arms

Interestingly, the most expensive suits in any range are not always the most suitable for any individual athlete. A more expensive suit isn’t always faster, for you. It pays to do your homework, and retain a pragmatic mindset when choosing a wetsuit.

We encourage people to test wetsuits before spending upwards of $500+ on a new one. You have a few options these days with many retailers stocking multiple brands, stores offering demo days, and online retailers with generous return policies. Please always check the return policies with the retailer or manufacturer if you purchase or demo several brands with a plan to return after testing.

Test protocol

Our test protocol was lifted directly from that of Gerry Rodrigues (Tower26), as it was what I was familiar with while being coached by him back in the day! It requires that you execute a series of timed 100s in each of the wetsuits. to gain a true representation of the suit's performance. It is important you (the tester!) to be blind to the time and results during the test, so you’ll need to recruit a partner to assist you.

Warm up thoroughly so you are ready to go. We find it best to do the testing towards the end of a swim practice so your engine is nice and warm, but you don’t carry fatigue. Turn off all pace clocks, or - if that is not an option - turn away from any pace clock to refrain from knowing your times. It might be as simple as starting from the other end of the pool.

Ask your partner to send you off and complete 5x100 at 80-85% effort with 10-15 seconds rest between each. Your partner should record:

1. The time of each 100

2.  Your stroke rate (you can count strokes for 15 sec and multiple by 4 for the number of strokes per minute)

3.  The number of strokes you take on each lap (the same lap per 100).

4.  If possible, your perceived effort and/or heart rate over the course of the set of 100’s.

Once you have completed a set of 5x100s in one wetsuit, change suits and repeat the test, with no discussion about feel, results or which how much you liked or disliked any suit. Your helper must be stony silent on results throughout!

We prefer to test ~ 3 suits, but have athletes that tested as many as 5 suits in a session, though that makes for a long swim, so swim fitness is important. Typically, we would do multiple testings, in different order, if needed.

Note how you feel in each suit, paying attention to fit, flexibility and any water entering the suit.

Once you have completed the test, consult with your partner and review the results, comparing the objective swim data with how you felt in each suit. We tend to see a correlation with the best performing suit being the one the athlete reports as feeling and fitting the best.

What accounts for the differences? 

We have seen massive differences in performance across suits, with much of it likely down to fit of that suit to that athletes. It doesn’t make it a bad suit, but it just might not be a great suit for that athlete. Two to four seconds per hundred is not uncommon, and massive differences in perceived effort at similar paced suits also common.

Recently we completed a series of testing with our pros, and three athletes in a row performed very poorly in one particular brand of suit. It was significant. All three athletes didn’t like the fit or feel, and struggled with it. The fourth athlete, who was not told of the previous results, tested the same suit as one of his three options. The same suit, for him, was the fastest suit, and felt wonderful. Not a bad suit, just not the right fit for the previous athletes.

Get testing.