As both a Triathlon coach and open water coach I am often asked "what's the most important thing regarding open water swimming" and the answer is simple.
Firstly get a suit which fits you correctly, generally a right fitting suit feels too tight to most people and as a consequence they get one which is too big..
The second most important thing is putting it on correctly, if the suit isn't worn correctly, you are massively increasing the resistance upon your shoulders which very quickly leads to fatigue. Follow these simple steps before each swim:
Start at your ankles, step into the suit and pull the lower legs of your suit until the lower border of the legs are approximately 4 inches above your ankle bones (your knees should still be visible).
Once you have the lower legs in then correct position pull the remainder of the legs up over your knees and then you thighs until the suit is up to your waist. At this point there should be no ‘saggy crotch’ and the neoprene should fit tightly against your nether regions.
If you have a ‘saggy crotch’ then start again, if you don’t then you can continue
Place your arms into the wetsuit so you are covering your lower arms only, do not allow the wetsuit to cover your upper arms and shoulders. The border of the wetsuit arms found at your wrist should be pulled up until they are 5cm above your actual wrist or watch position.
Once the wetsuit wrists are correct, pull the wetsuit sleeve to cover the remainder of your arms and shoulders, smooth out any wrinkles by moving them upwards towards your shoulders, DO NOT smooth out wrinkles by pushing them downwards towards your wrist, maintain the 5cm gap between the wetsuit border and your actual wrist or watch.
Ask you partner to zip up your suit (note that if you can zip it up yourself its probably too big). Be sure that the excess material at the neck is folded into the correct position so it does not rub your neck. Pull up the zip, there will be a piece of neoprene which fastens across the zip, ensure that the zip tether is above this before fastening to ensure that the zip will not come down if someone grabs it during the swim.
Secure the end of the tether so it does not get in the way when swimming. the easiest thing is to tuck the end of the tether under your swim cap at the rear, this ensures that you always know where it is as you enter transition and can easily grab it to unzip your suit.
What are the most common errors when purchasing a wetsuit?
1. Generally the most common mistake are people buying wetsuits which are too big for them. A correct fitting wetsuit can feel a little oppressive at times and you may feel 'vacuum packed' into it. The fit must be snug and the flexibility of the neoprene will allow you to move. don't make the common mistake that you 'need some room' for movement, it'll fill with water and drag.
2. If you've never swam open water before, you can often feel as though you are out of breath. This is the reaction to cold water and wearing a wetsuit, it doesn't mean your suit is too small. We get people visiting our store as they think their suit is too tight, more often than not it fits them fine, it's just their reaction to open water and this is something they need to become accustomed to.
3. A common mistake is just buying by brand. People have a pre-set idea that they want a 2XU or a Zone3 suit before they enter the shop. Each manufacturer has a slightly different fit and each person is different. it's common for certain brands on certain people to be tight or baggy around the waist, shoulders and the neck area. The fastest wetsuit for you is the one which fits you the best, irrelevant of the brand. If you wanted a 2XU but the Zone3 fits better, you should buy the Zone3, it's simple logic.
4. Don't get hung up on buoyancy and wetsuit thickness. This is something which wetsuit companies use as a selling point. A thick wetsuit will be buoyant but the flexibility and resistance to movement is poor, resulting in fatigue very quickly. Buying the most buoyant wetsuit, won't necessarily make you swim faster. Bad backs are common from buoyant suits as they lift your legs and chest, thereby arching your lower back. 95% of wetsuits will have 5mm thighs and chest panels, the buoyancy is the same.
5. We're commonly asked 'what's the difference with expensive suits'. The simple answer is that the neoprene is more flexible so there's less resistance and therefore less fatigue. As above, you should have a tight fitting suit which is extremely supple. The more expensive the suit, the more supple. Unfortunately, supple suits are also more fragile and less resilient.
6. Everyone will tell you “it’s easier in a wetsuit”. That's not strictly correct, in fact it’s HARDER in a wetsuit but it's still faster. The resistance of the wetsuit means that you are constantly working against the neoprene stretch. Imagine swimming and every time you move your arm, you're pulling against a giant elastic band. That means your arms will get tired more quickly in a wetsuit.
However, due to the buoyancy, you have less 'drag' and therefore you'll still probably swim faster in a wetsuit than without. The only way to get over the fatigue is to swim often and swim hard in your wetsuit.
7. Wetsuits are not designed for breast stroke and make the stroke even more difficult. You should know this before you buy, if you are a breast stroke swimmer.
8. Finally, you should be prepared for wetsuit damage. Modern wetsuits are made from very soft material to enhance flexibility. Catching it with your finger nails is enough to put a small tear in the outer fabric (won't go all the way through).
Prepare yourself for this, as your shiny new suit will accumulate small tears within a matter of weeks, all manufacturers are the same. It won't affect the performance of the suit so don't get too hung up on superficial marks and damage.
Go out and swim safely, have fun!