I’m not a swimmer. I never had swimming lessons and I’m not sure I swam a full lap in a pool until I was 24. But I love the water, and I’ve got wetsuits galore. From thick surfing wetsuits to padded wakeboarding wetsuits to shortys, I’ve got neoprene for almost any occasion.
When I started triathlon, I cringed at the thought of buying another wetsuit. I went the first two seasons in my full-length surfing wetsuit. I’d look around at all the other triathletes in their shiny triathlon-specific wetsuits and think, “Those chumps will buy anything.”
Start of my first race ever–looking tough in a surf wetsuit.
In my second season, I started a Master’s swim class. I quickly learned I needed to unlearn everything. In races, my surfing suit felt like it was squeezing my chest, and I grew to hate swimming in a wetsuit. With only a few days before my biggest race of the year, a pro triathlete casually told me I was crazy for swimming in that. I gave in and rush ordered a triathlon wetsuit.
Needless to say, it felt fast—and I could breath freely. Or was it my imagination—a placebo effect. Was I faster with a wetsuit? Was the tri suit faster than my surf suit? Open water is deceiving: I wanted scientific proof. I went looking for answer, but when I couldn’t find it, I created my own test.
To determine if I was faster with a tri suit, I decided I would compare my 100m swim in jammers, a triathlon wetsuit, and a surf wetsuit (in that order). I’d swim in a 25m pool with substantial rest between sets. I record to the quantitative and qualitative data to find my best time, my average time, and how I felt in each circumstance. Swimming with a Masters class 2-3 times per week, I’ve acquired an acute sense for my swim.
Wetsuit Speed Results
I’m not a fast swimmer. But, I’ve done hundreds of 100m sets, so I knew my average was right about 1:30. My personal best timed was 1:24. In my test, I opened up with a 1:30, then pushed harder on my second set a new personal best at 1:23. I repeated the 1:23. It was a good strong swim day. Average: 1:25.
Next, let both wetsuits get waterlogged to represent being in water awhile. If you ever want a good way to blow 30 minutes imitating a struggling seal calf, try putting on a wet triathlon suit while you’re in the pool.
First set with the triathlon suit felt considerably more buyout—I had to work much less to stay afloat. I felt fast—but was it really? Finished set 1 and looked at the clock: 1:10. Wow! The next two came within seconds of the first. Average: 1:12.
Finally, the surf wetsuit. Immediately, it felt slow—like I had a drag chute attached. I couldn’t move my arms, it was hard to breath, and I started to overheat. But surely it was fast. Then, the times came in: Slower than my standard, wetsuit-less swim. I was shocked.
The Wetsuit Verdict
The results surprised me. I suspected the triathlon wetsuit would not be quite so fast. At 10-15 seconds per 100 meters, that could take off a minute or more even in a sprint. Shredding that amount of time for not additional effort is well worth the investment.
I was even more surprised that the surf wetsuit was slower on average than my standard swim. While it was only a second or two behind, it the perceived additional effort was completely ruled it out.
Bottom line: I’m sticking to my triathlon wetsuit.