Triathlon Wetsuits Overview
Triathlon or open water swimming wetsuits are designed to enhance buoyancy, reduce surface friction, and maintain body heat while providing a high degree of flexibility and comfort. Manufacturers accomplish this by using different types and thicknesses of neoprene rubbers strategically placed throughout the suit, and coating the external surface area with low friction coatings.
The two most common designs of triathlon wetsuits are the Fullsleeve one piece version (long sleeves and long legs) and the Sleeveless one piece version (sleeveless and long legs). Less common designs are Short Johns (short sleeves and short legs) and two piece versions for which the top and bottom are separate pieces. See related article comparing Fullsleeve and Sleeveless wetsuits.
Age group participants in a USA Triathlon (“USAT) sanctioned event may use wetsuits without penalty when water temperature is 78 degrees Fahrenheit or below. When the water temperature is greater than 78 degrees but less than 84 degrees, age group participants may wear a wetsuit but will not be eligible for prizes or awards.
The maximum neoprene thickness allowed in most wetsuit legal sanctioned events is 5mm. In order to achieve the greatest balance between buoyancy, flexibility and comfort, triathlon wetsuits use thinner neoprene in the sleeves, underarms and shoulders while employing the thicker neoprene in the chest and thighs. The specific benefits of using Triathlon wetsuits during open water swims are discussed below.
Unlike diving or surfing wetsuits, triathlon or open water swimming wetsuits are designed to keep the swimmer on the surface. As a result, buoyancy is a major design priority.
Triathlon wetsuits are made of the most buoyant neoprene rubbers. These neoprene rubbers offer the highest number of air cells. The air cells found in triathlon wetsuit neoprene makes them more flexible and lighter. The quality and grade of neoprene is one of the major differences between high end wetsuits and more economical ones.
Reducing Surface Friction
Most triathlon wetsuits are made with outer skins designed to reduce surface resistance. Triathlon wetsuit outer skins have a silicon type surface which is slippery in the water and improves gliding. The quality of this outer skin is another key differentiator between high end suits and economical ones.
Maintaining Body Heat
Wetsuits keep swimmers warm by trapping a layer of water between the inner layer of the suit and the body. Although the swimmer gets wet and feels cold upon entering the water, the body quickly heats up the trapped water to near body temperature. The suit must fit properly in order to minimize the amount of warm water being displaced by the cold water outside.
Flexibility and Comfort
While maintaining body heat, enhancing buoyancy and reducing surface friction are critical, it is as important for triathlon wetsuits to be flexible and fit comfortably. Performance will be compromised if a wetsuit is too restrictive, especially in the shoulders, torso or throat. Restricting range of motion in the shoulders will cause an undesired stroke alteration and lower muscle output. Restricting the torso or throat areas reduces breathing capacity also resulting in lower muscle output. Flexibility and comfort is achieved by using thinner more flexible neoprene in strategically designated areas of the suit. The quality and number of flexible panels used in areas where flexibility and comfort is of utmost importance is another major differentiator between high end suits and entry level suits.