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Wetsuit or no wetsuit?

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

Who'd have thought neoprene would be a controversial issue? For some it is, and that can put people off winter swimming. Here's why you should ignore the nay-sayers and go swimming.

What's with wetsuit snobbery?

When you start outdoor swimming, you may be asked whether or not you're 'skins'. This means do you wear a wetsuit or swim in just normal swimwear. You'd be forgiven for wondering whether or not it matters, and it doesn't; your choice to wear a wetsuit or go without may be down to practical reasons or personal choice, but it is just that, a choice. Sadly some wetsuit-wearing members of the outdoor swimming community have experienced snobbery from their non-neoprene-wearing counterparts.

Why wear a wetsuit?

Wetsuits work by trapping a layer of water between the neoprene and your skin. That layer then warms up to your body temperature, insulating you from the cold. Some events make wetsuits compulsory because they keep you warmer and more buoyant. Swimming wetsuits also use different thicknesses of neoprene in different places to help you get a better body position in the water. This is helpful if you struggle with sinky legs or you want to save your legs for running and cycling in a triathlon.

So why go without?

There is no doubt that the tingle on your bare skin is magical. Swimming 'skins' gives you a better post-swimming high, you feel freer as you swim, plus you feel hard as nails for taking a dip without a wetsuit. As the temperature plunges, you'll also find that it takes longer to get in and out of your wetsuit than you can actually spend in the water, plus cold hands make it an extra faff to get changed afterwards.

Do true winter swimmers only swim skins?

Of course not. And if anyone tells you otherwise, ignore them. There is nothing wrong with wearing a wetsuit, and you are a proper winter swimmer in neoprene.

For a start, the vagus nerve, which is part of your parasympathetic nervous system that helps you feel good, runs through your face, and you'll get that in the cold water. So, while your post-swim buzz may not be quite as high as a skins swimmer, you'll still feel the benefits. Secondly, you'll feel the benefits more than if you hadn't got in at all!

Get ready to swim

Start in the autumn with or without your wetsuit. Think about what you're aiming to do - an event or just keep going through the winter - and pick accordingly.

  • If you're swimming through the winter, think about whether you'll want to put on and take off a wetsuit for a 5-minute dip. If you won't, start now without your wetsuit to acclimatise.

  • If you're swimming without a wetsuit and starting to feel cold, it may be worth trying neoprene gloves and booties before going full wetsuit.

  • If you're training for an event that's either compulsory wetsuit or they're not allowed, get used to swimming in the same get-up that you'll wear for the event.

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