Wetsuit 101: Everything a triathlete needs to know about wetsuit technology

No matter how good a swimmer you are, you’ll run faster in a wetsuit. The extra flotation provided by the suit allows you to sit higher in the water and move through the water faster. While the best swimmers still reap some benefits, for those with less technical skills, the advantage is multiplied. That’s why the best swimmers always want to be able to swim without a wetsuit – they know they can get a minute or two advantage at the end of the first round, and when they’re on a bike, it can be double or even More.

The first triathlon wetsuit was designed by Quintana Roo founder Dan Enmfield in 1987. If you look at those early wetsuits (sadly, I can date myself since I actually used them), very little has changed in wetsuit design for the next 20 years.

Over the past decade or so, though, we’ve seen wetsuit manufacturers make some huge innovations in wetsuit design. The goal is to provide the extra flotation and warmth that wetsuits provide without compromising on technique, as well as innovations in the thickness of rubber used around the shoulders and using different panels to provide buoyancy where you need it, which has changed the wetsuit The rules of the game for performance. Here are some techniques applied to wetsuits, and what they mean.

Huub’s Axena wetsuit.Photo: Claire Duncan

Flotation and Paneling

When you see world-class swimmers in a pool, they look tall in the water. Years of practice and great technique make these athletes look easy. During the first decades of triathlon wetsuit design, flotation was the biggest goal, and most companies achieved this by stacking wetsuits with 5mm thick rubber sheets (the maximum thickness allowed in a world triathlon). In addition to improved material that can provide more flotation (which we’ll get to later).

Now the company has refined the process in an attempt to improve the swimmer’s position in the water. Coaches will often ask their athletes to try and imagine a “downhill” process with our heads down and our hips high in the water. Wetsuits can help you achieve a “downhill” position by increasing the amount of float around your hips and legs. Some manufacturers take this approach to designing suits to your specific technique, providing more or less floaters around the hips and legs to help you achieve the best position in the water depending on your swimming level.

Karol-Ann Roy swims in the Aqua Sphere wetsuit at the Canadian Professional Triathlon Championships.Photo: Kevin McKinnon

Kind of rubber

When it comes to the type of neoprene used in wetsuits, Yamamoto is a top manufacturer. Most wetsuits you’ll see use a combination of Yamamoto #38, 39 or 40 rubber. The thin panel of Yamamoto #40 is usually used on the shoulders of the most expensive suits because it is very flexible, while the less elastic #38 and 39 will appear in thicker panels around the torso, hips and legs. You’ll also see some suits using the lighter Yamamoto Aerodome rubber.

In the past, the thin rubber sometimes used for shoulders and sleeves tended to tear easily, but over the past few years we have seen manufacturers use some innovative rubber that is very thin but also very durable.

Besides Yamamoto, there are other neoprene manufacturers – you may see models using Sheico brand materials. Sheico products tend to have a more comfortable knitted lining.


Men and women tend to have different body shapes, especially around the hips and shoulders, so a neutral wetsuit may not provide the best fit. That’s why it’s important to try on a suit before buying. In addition to fit, the center of gravity is different for men and women, so the panels also need to be designed differently to provide optimal flotation and support.

Jan Frodeno at Deboer Ocean 1.0, a suit designed for cold water

thermal clothing

You’ll see some models designed for swimming in colder water. These thermals use a warm lining to keep you warm while swimming in cold water. The suits we’ve tested really live up to the hype – plus the hood, gloves and booties, they can swim in very cold water.

Other features

Most of the time, the zipper is bottom-up, but some manufacturers design a top-down zipper on the suit to provide more opening and make the suit easier to take off. Most of the time, you’ll be fine from water to T1, so you have time to get your zips sorted out before riding the bike, but for some it might be beneficial. Top-down zips can be more challenging when you’re alone, though. More expensive suits will use YKK stainless steel zippers.

You’ll see a variety of different neckline styles in different suits – some are a little taller, some are a little lower. If you have the opportunity to try a few different styles, you will get a feel for which one suits you best.

Sleeve and Sleeveless Wetsuits

There is very little given when it comes to wetsuits. First, a sleeved wetsuit should always be faster than a sleeveless wetsuit. That’s because having more rubber helps you climb higher in the water, which will help you walk faster. There’s also less resistance – Neoprene provides a smoother surface than your skin, especially if you haven’t shaved your arms. If you’re only going to buy a wetsuit, it might make sense to buy a wetsuit with sleeves — it’ll provide more warmth if you end up swimming in cold water.

This is especially true if you’re looking for some more expensive suits. These suits use very thin rubber around the shoulders and arms so you won’t feel restricted while swimming. This is even more important for good swimmers who appreciate the full range of motion and range of motion these swimsuits offer.

That said, for some people, a sleeveless wetsuit is ultimately the best option. Those who prefer sleeveless suits feel their range of motion is much better, especially around the shoulders. This is especially true if you’re comparing a sleeveless suit to a less expensive full-sleeve suit, which uses thicker rubber on the shoulders. You’ll also see some pros using sleeveless suits in warm water.

Your best bet is to try a few different suits and see what feels best for you. Since a lot of swimming at Canadian events is done in cooler water, you may be better off wearing a full-sleeve suit, but for some people, the sleeveless version will feel better.

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