The Beginner's Guide to the Triathlon Wetsuit
Chrissie Wellington did not finish her first triathlon race. Her borrowed wetsuit proved to be a little too large and it filled up with water, almost causing her to drown. It's a good thing she was rescued not far from the starting line. Learning from her mistakes, she gave racing another try until she became the undisputed Ironman World Champion. This just shows how much gear selection matters and how bad choices can spoil the day for even the best of us. On the other hand, good choices can help people get to the finish - maybe not as champions but as accomplished triathletes.
Wetsuit Race Rules
The triathlon wetsuit is not mandatory gear but its benefits are so profound that most try to use it whenever possible. According to the rules of USA Triathlon, the country's governing body for the sport, people may use a wetsuit if the temperature is 78 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Between 79 and 84 degrees, it's a toss-up. The wetsuit may be worn by age groupers but doing so would result in ineligibility from getting prizes -- not a big concern for the majority of the field. Above 85 degrees, wetsuits are not allowed. Other governing bodies and races have set their own limits. Follow accordingly.
Advantages of Wearing a Triathlon-specific Wetsuit
As evident with the rules above, one of the main reasons for putting on a wetsuit is to stay warm while swimming in cold water. It traps body heat and helps the wearer stay comfortable throughout the leg. The smooth surface of the material also results in lower drag compared to bare skin. Body hair and rough spots create friction while swimming. Triathlon wetsuits allow racers to float more readily due to the buoyancy of neoprene. The legs will not sag as much so less kicking is needed and energy is conserved. The shoulder area is also more elastic compared to regular diving wetsuits.
How to Choose a Triathlon Wetsuit
As demonstrated in Chrissie's case, getting the fit right is absolutely vital. It cannot be too big as the air pockets will soon be filled with water. It cannot be too small as it will feel uncomfortable. Wetsuits come in a wide variety of sizes to accommodate most body types so be sure to try a couple of them before buying one.
Look at the knee, elbow, waist and back areas. If there are bulges or folds due to extra material then the wetsuit is too large. The holes around the wrists and ankles will also provide clues. These should hug the skin as loose openings will only invite water to flow inside.
It should conform to the contours of the body but not be restrictive as this will lead to increased fatigue with every stroke. Note that wetsuits loosen up over time so it is alright to get items that seem a bit snug at first. Just make sure that the shoulders can easily go through their full range of motions. The neck area should not be choked.
Despite the flattering fit, the triathlon wetsuit should be easy to take off. Precious minutes may be lost in the transition area if it is too troublesome to unzip. Quick changes require practice but good design is of immense help.