Ask the Expert: Choosing a triathlon wetsuit

Jenn Brown

Jenn Brown

Jenn Brown

June 12, 2009

Q: What are the guidelines to look for when choosing a wetsuit for triathlons? Any benefit to sleeves vs. sleeveless or just a personal preference? Catherine, K., Chicago, IL

Jenn: Fit is the most important component when choosing a wetsuit. Typically, I recommend a long-sleeve wetsuit, primarily because there’s more neoprene; therefore, the suit provides more buoyancy.

The most common complaint from athletes new to triathlon and wetsuit-swimming is that the sleeves impair their arm/shoulder during the recovery part of the stroke. If the wetsuit is fit and worn properly, this should absolutely NOT happen…the material around the shoulders of full-sleeved wetsuits is actually thinner and more flexible, designed specifically for the motion of the recovery.

When you put on the wetsuit, make sure the crotch is as high as it will go, and pull the sleeves slightly higher away from your wrists than you’d normally wear a long-sleeved shirt. The motion of the stroke while swimming will naturally pull the sleeves towards your wrists, so doing this will keep the sleeves from stretching too much and causing you to feel restricted.

Wetsuits are supposed to be worn tight. If they are too loose, too much water will seep in, adding a lot of weight and drag. It’s counter-intuitive, but suits that are too loose will also cause chafing. Avoid anything that constantly rubs against your skin for long periods of time. (Products such as Body Glide can prevent chafing in most areas.)

If you find that none of the women suits fit you, don’t be afraid to try on some of the guys’ suits. The suits are designed based primarily on proportions, so you may not fall into the “typical” women’s design.

If you are doing mostly warm-water tris, go with sleeveless. There is always the possibility of becoming over-heated during the swim. Sleeveless is probably the most “multi-purpose” suit.

But yes, bottom line is personal preference.

Jenn is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach, Level 1 and a USA Cycling Certified Coach, Level 3. She coaches both adults and children for triathlons and cycling.