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The Triathlete’s Essential Guide to Wetsuit Selection

finding the best open water swimming triathlon wetsuit

Navigate the Sea Triathlon Wetsuits Like a Pro

If you’re thinking about getting a triathlon wetsuit, there are certainly advantages to be had. But like most high-dollar gear upgrades, there’s a lot to unpack.

Today’s best triathlon wetsuits are meticulously crafted pieces of neoprene armor that feel like a buoyant second skin. But these models can cost upwards of $1,000.

That doesn’t mean you can’t find a cheaper, name-brand option that provides 95% of a wetsuit’s advantages. In this guide, coach Jeff Lukich and I break down what you need to know about triathlon wetsuits.

Jump to: Advantages, Sizing & Fit, Key Features, IRONMAN Rules, USAT Rules

What are the Advantages of a Triathlon Wetsuit?

Next to having a good bike or pair of running shoes, a triathlon wetsuit is an essential investment for athletes at any experience level or race distance.

Open Water Swimming in a Triathlon Wetsuit

Compared to a typical swimsuit, using a triathlon wetsuit offers considerable improvements in both speed and efficiency. Many triathletes, including myself, report feeling an extra “boost” in buoyancy and speed when wearing a triathlon wetsuit.

Triathlon wetsuits are designed for added hydrostatic lift (buoyancy) and greater hydrodynamics (speed) in the water. Published studies have highlighted serious benefits for inexperienced swimmers as well as lean individuals with low body fat.[1]

A more buoyant vessel enables a more streamlined position that keeps swimmers horizontal with the water. This added lift allows swimmers to glide faster and more efficiently.

But exactly how much faster are triathlon wetsuits? There are a lot of reports that claim varying speed gains. But based on our research, you can expect a speed improvement between 3 and 7 percent. See our wetsuit FAQs for more.

Wetsuit Sizing & Fit Guide

“Prioritizing range of motion is critical. Athletes need a wetsuit that offers maximum flexibility, allowing unrestricted shoulder and arm movement.”

Coach Jeff Lukich, Drive Multisport
female triathlon wetsuit sizing and fit

Triathlon wetsuits in particular can be finicky, making it seem like a Goldilock’s scenario to discover the perfect fit.

“Finding a proper fit and prioritizing range of motion is critical. Athletes need a wetsuit that offers maximum flexibility, allowing unrestricted shoulder and arm movement. This ensures optimal stroke mechanics and efficiency in the water.” says experienced Ironman athlete and endurance coach Jeff Lukich.

Jeff outlines several best practices to find the optimal wetsuit size and fit:

  • The wetsuit should fit snugly but comfortably. Avoid anything overly tight in the chest or shoulders that may constrict your breathing or arm movement.
  • Ensure the suit isn’t too tight around the neckline. This can lead to chafing and skin irritation with the repetitive motion of swimming.
  • Avoid any folds or looseness in the wetsuit’s fit. This will create unwanted gaps while you’re in the water and produce extra drag, thereby slowing you down.
  • Balance buoyancy (thickness) and flexibility. Greater buoyancy aids body position and reduces drag, but more advanced swimmers require flexibility to generate powerful and efficient mechanics.
  • Let temperature determine your type. A full-sleeve wetsuit generally performs better but may generate more warmth, so considering water temperature and personal heat tolerance is essential.
  • Size down for a tighter fit, especially if you fit comfortably in more than one size. You should expect to spend 5-10 minutes putting on a properly-fitting triathlon wetsuit.

A lot of new swim wetsuits come in a wide range of sizes, so it’s easier to find an appropriate fit based on your dimensions. Many are also designed with less neoprene thickness in the shoulders to improve mobility and range of motion.

Key Factors to Consider in a Triathlon Wetsuit

pre-race open water swimming breathing

In addition to fit and sizing, there are additional factors to consider when acquiring a wetsuit for triathlon. These include:

Sleeveless vs. Full-Sleeve

Full-sleeved wetsuits are considered slightly more buoyant, which can improve speed. They’re also warmer in cold water conditions. But sleeveless wetsuits can also have their own advantages, such as better body temperature regulation, better mobility, and improved comfort.

Our coaching partners at Organic Coaching put together an insightful post on sleeved vs sleeveless wetsuits that’s worth reading.

Material

Of the different types of neoprene used in triathlon wetsuits, Yamamoto Neoprene is the most common for high-end wetsuits, specifically Yamamoto #39 and #40. The latter, #40, is a newer neoprene material that’s more flexible and buoyant.

Design

The most common design consideration involves choosing between a sleeveless and full-sleeve wetsuit. Some athletes enjoy the freedom of sleeveless wetsuits, especially in warmer water conditions. But for colder waters, full-sleeve is typically preferred.

Thickness

Triathlon wetsuits come in a range of thicknesses, with USAT and Ironman-legal wetsuits no more than 5mm thick. Some use intricate paneling with greater thickness in the legs and torso for buoyancy and thinner neoprene around the shoulders for better arm range of motion.

Buoyancy

Thickness and buoyancy are generally related, as a thicker wetsuit will typically provide greater floatation in the water. Some of the best triathlon wetsuits have thicker and more buoyant panels around the thighs and torso to optimize buoyancy around the midsection, helping support a more streamlined freestyle swim stroke.

Hydrodynamics

Many triathlon wetsuits use a special, low-friction coating on the external surface to repel water and increase speed, or hydrodynamics. This coating is known as SCS (Super Composite Skin) or nano SCS coating, and it’s commonly used in most high-end swim wetsuits.

Cuffs, collars, and seams

These are the fine details that should not be overlooked when considering your next triathlon wetsuit. Make sure the collar and cuffs feel comfortable without any restriction that may cause rubbing or chafing, or difficulty removing the suit.

Also, take a close look at the seams to ensure they’re not vulnerable to wear and tear. Poorly glued seams can oftentimes be prone to tearing over time.

Zippers

Almost all wetsuits for triathlon are designed with a rear zipper that runs down the upper back. This should feel accessible and easy to zip on and off without too much struggle. YKK zipper technology is one of the most used for tri wetsuits.

Cost

Wetsuits vary widely in price, so consider your budget, how often you plan to use the wetsuit, and your competitive aspiration. You can find a good quality triathlon wetsuit for a cost between $200 and $300. But for a high-performance upgrade, you can easily spend between $500 and $1,000. With cheap wetsuits of less than $200, you get what you pay for.

“While some athletes may be willing to invest in higher-end wetsuits, finding the right balance between performance and budget is always crucial. Researching and comparing different brands and models can help triathletes find a wetsuit that meets their specific needs without breaking the bank.” Jeff adds.

IRONMAN Wetsuit Rules

Ironman Triathlon Wetsuit Rules Swim

There are a few key things to remember when it comes to the IRONMAN triathlon wetsuit rules. First and foremost, the rules are updated annually and come into effect after March in Africa, America, and Europe, and after July in China and Oceania. This is to ensure that all athletes competing in international races are on a level playing field.

Secondly, while the specific rules can vary slightly at some events due to local rules, Ironman tries to standardize wetsuit rules across all events.

The IRONMAN triathlon is one of the most challenging and demanding races in the world. To complete the race, athletes must swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a marathon – all without taking a break.

To make sure that everyone has a fair chance to complete the race, there are some rules regarding the use of wetsuits. Here are a few:

  • Wetsuits may be worn in water temperatures up to and including 24.5°C/76.1°F.
  • The maximum allowable thickness for a wetsuit is 5mm.
  • Neoprene or any other booties are prohibited unless the temperature of the water is 18.3°C/65.0°F or colder.
  • Wetsuits are mandatory if the water temperature is below 16°C/60.8°F
  • Gloves or any hand cover are not allowed. 

USAT Wetsuit Rules 

Orca equipe triathlon wetsuit men

The USAT Triathlon is the national governing body for the sport of triathlon in the United States. It sanctions races and regulates athletes to ensure fair competition. It also offers coaching certification and training programs to help athletes reach their potential. The USAT Triathlon also puts on events such as clinics, camps, and seminars to educate the public about the sport of triathlon.

In order to participate in a USAT-sanctioned event, athletes must comply with the following wetsuit rules:

  • Wetsuits may be worn during any USAT triathlon event, except where prohibited by the race director.
  • The maximum thickness is 5mm for a wetsuit.
  • Competitors may wear wetsuits if the water temperature is 78 degrees or lower.
  • Competitors may wear wetsuits but will not be eligible for awards if the water temperature is between 78.1 and 83.9 degrees
  • Competitors aren’t allowed to wear wetsuits if the temperature is 84 degrees or above.

Wetsuit FAQs

If you’re new to triathlon or wetsuits, there’s a lot to learn. To bring you up to speed, these FAQs touch on some of the most common questions that crop up.

Does a Triathlon Wetsuit Make You Faster?

sleeveless triathlon wetsuit in open swimming temperature

Depending on the level of the swimmer, tests have shown time savings between four and ten seconds per hundred meters. One of the best studies on wetsuit speed gains – for both sleeveless and long-sleeved suits – found a 3.7 percent improvement. In an Ironman swim, these gains can shave several minutes of one’s time.[2]

Evan Morrison tested his sleeveless wetsuit and achieved speed improvements of 7.3 percent, or 55 seconds per kilometer. Some suits provided better gains than others, too.

This triathlete’s test of several different wetsuits showed the Blueseventy Helix to deliver the fastest speed gains. The Helix was also highly reviewed by Ironman athlete Ben Greenfield for its buoyancy and feel.

What’s the Difference Between a Triathlon Wetsuit and a Normal Wetsuit?

triathlon training ironman wetsuit

Triathlon wetsuits are vastly different in comparison to traditional wetsuits used for surfing, scuba diving, and other watersports. The main differences center on the wetsuit’s material composition, design, and fit. 

Like most wetsuits, triathlon wetsuits are primarily made of neoprene. But what makes them different from normal wetsuits is the type of neoprene and the coating applied to the outside of the suit. Most high-performance triathlon wetsuits use a premium-grade Yamamoto neoprene with an SCS (or equivalent) coating to maximize the slipstream effect in the water.

In addition to the type of neoprene, most of today’s top swimming wetsuits are strategically designed to displace greater neoprene thickness in the torso and upper legs (specifically the bottom-facing part of the body when in a freestyle swimming position).

This engineering is intended to increase buoyancy in targeted areas where it matters most for triathlon swimming. Conversely, a thinner neoprene is used around the neck and shoulders to maximize flexibility and reach during the freestyle swim motion.

Lastly, triathlon wetsuits have unique design considerations that emphasize fit and ease of removal. They often come in a multitude of sizes to ensure an optimal fit for athletes. And because triathletes often obsess about every second saved in when transitioning from swim to bike (T1), tri wetsuits are crafted with easy-to-use zippers and quick-to-remove ankles and sleeves.

What’s the Best Thickness for a Triathlon Wetsuit?

triathlon swimming wetsuit Orca

The optimal thickness for a triathlon wetsuit largely depends on the athlete and the type of water their swimming in. But in general, utilizing the maximum allowed wetsuit thickness of 5mm is preferred to maximize buoyancy, and therefore, swim speed and efficiency. 

Most of today’s best triathlon wetsuits use neoprene thickness paneling to improve buoyancy while optimizing freestyle swimming. For instance, some wetsuits will feature a 5mm thick torso but only 0.5mm to 1mm thick shoulders. Keep in mind that USAT and Ironman-sanction triathlons limit wetsuit thickness to 5mm maximum.

What Water Temp is Considered “Wetsuit Legal” for Triathlon?

triathlon wetsuit female preparing for training

The rules that govern wetsuit-legal water temperatures vary depending on the event and governing body. 

USAT Wetsuit Temperature Regulations

Most local triathlons use USAT wetsuit rules which allow athletes to wear a wetsuit if the water temperatures are 78 degrees Fahrenheit (28.5 degrees Celcius) or lower. This rule only applies to competitors who wish to be eligible for awards (athletes can still wear a wetsuit in water temps above 78 degrees, but they won’t qualify for overall race results.)

For elite athletes racing USAT, the wetsuit policy is different. The maximum wetsuit-legal water temperature is 68 degrees Fahrenheit  (20 degrees Celcius) for swim distances less than 3000 meters and 71.6 degrees F (22 C) for distances of 3000 meters or greater. This policy is determined by the USAT Athletes Advisory Council.

Ironman Wetsuit Temperature Regulations

For Ironman events, including 70.3/half-Ironman distance triathlons under the Ironman brand, the rules are slightly different. Professionals and age-group athletes are allowed to wear wetsuits if the water temperature is 76.1 degrees Fahrenheit (24.5 degrees Celsius) or lower. Any temps 76.2 F or more and wetsuits are not permitted.

Additionally, wetsuits are mandatory for Ironman professionals and age-group athletes when water temps are below 60.8 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius). Wetsuits are also prohibited in water temperatures greater than 83.8 degrees Fahrenheit (28.8 degrees Celsius). These rules are designed to help protect the safety of athletes.

Find the Best Triathlon Wetsuits for Men & Women

As swim technology evolves each year, new and innovative products reinvent the market. If you’re seeking the latest and best triathlon wetsuit upgrade, explore our product recommendations.

Best Men's Wetsuits for Triathlon
Best Women's Wetsuits for Triathlon

Do You Have a Wetsuit Tip to Suggest?

Do you have a favorite triathlon wetsuit or suggestion for our readers? We want to hear from you! Get in touch by contacting us.

Scientific References

  1. Chatard, Jean-Claude & Millet, Gregoire. (1996). Effects of Wetsuit Use in Swimming Events. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.). 22. 70-5. 10.2165/00007256-199622020-00002. (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/14347157_Effects_of_Wetsuit_Use_in_Swimming_Events)
  2. de Lucas RD, Balikian P, Neiva CM, Greco CC, Denadai BS. The effects of wet suits on physiological and biomechanical indices during swimming. J Sci Med Sport. 2000 Mar;3(1):1-8. doi: 10.1016/s1440-2440(00)80042-0. PMID: 10839223. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10839223/)
Head of Content at Better Triathlete | Website

Endurance athlete, professional off-road cyclist, and avid blogger, Tyler Tafelsky participates in long-course multisport and cycling events. Today, Tyler competes in ultra-distance cycling races at the professional level. Since starting Better Triathlete in 2014, he has been the head of content for the site's editorial team. Learn more about Tyler

Jeff Lukich Triathlon Endurance Coach
Jeff Lukich
Endurance Coach at Drive Multisport | Website

Jeff Lukich is the owner and head coach of Drive Multisport and leads Better Triathlete's coach match program. He is a USA Triathlon (USAT) Level 1, USA Cycling (USAC) Level 2, and USA Track & Field (USATF) certified coach. A 10x Ironman finisher and Boston Marathon Qualifier, Jeff specializes in coaching long-course triathletes, ultra-runners, marathoners, cyclists, and athletes with unique events, such as double Ironman, staged races, and SwimRun events. Learn more about Jeff.