Updated: Oct 1, 2020
So, you've decided that you want to swim in a wetsuit, but which one should you choose? It's a bewildering world of tech and features, so here's a simple guide.
Make sure it's a swimming wetsuit
Wetsuits fall into two main categories: general use (surfing, windsailing, coasteering etc) and swimming. So what's the difference? General water sports wetsuits are designed to be hard-wearing and insulating. Swimming wetsuits are designed to help you swim faster.
How to spot a swimming wetsuit
All wetsuits work in the same way to keep you warm. But general-use wetsuits are too restrictive and create too much drag for swimming. So, you need to look at swimming wetsuits, often called triathlon wetsuits, which have a few go-faster features that will help rather than hinder your swimming.
Made of thinner neoprene around the shoulders, they usually have thicker panels strategically placed to give you a better swimming position and insulation where your body needs it most. They're designed to keep your legs and hips higher in the water and to give your shoulders more freedom to move. They also have a sleek coating to reduce drag.
Neoprene is measured in thickness using millimetres. The thicker the wetsuit, the warmer but also the more restrictive. Swimming wetsuits are usually 3/2mm or 5/3mm meaning that they have 2-3mm thick neoprene around the hips and shoulders and thicker 3-5mm panels on the torso and thighs.
Helping your body position
Swimming wetsuits are designed primarily for triathletes and swimmers who swim front crawl, care about race pace and want to swim faster. This doesn't mean that they're not useful to leisure swimmers; a good swimming wetsuit will help your stroke and allow you to stay in the water for longer. Other than a sleeker profile, it will help your body position by making your legs and hips more buoyant.
But beware; having your legs and hips lifted isn't always a good thing. For starters, a good body position in front crawl is all about the position of your head. Lift your head just one centimetre and your legs drop by about four centimetres. If your wetsuit stops your legs from dropping, you'll just end up swimming in a banana position, dipping your back and creating aches and pains in your lower back and possibly your shoulders too. In other words, a decent swimming wetsuit will not compensate for poor technique.
Secondly, if you're not a runner or cyclist with high bone density and muscular legs from pounding the pavements or pedalling your bike, you might have plenty of natural buoyancy. This would mean added buoyancy may make your legs too floaty. Equally, if you want to swim breaststroke, a wetsuit with thick neoprene on the legs will make your feet leave the water when you kick.
How do I buy a wetsuit?
I recommend a website like Wiggle. Their size guides are great, as is their return policy, so buy a few and try them all on.
Here are some things to consider:
The fit should be really snug. It shouldn't cut off your circulation, but the tighter it fits the better it'll work.
Buy for your size now - not the size you hope you'll be, or for added room. If it's roomy, cold water will slosh around inside (yuk) and if it's too small it'll be uncomfortable.
Think about your stroke: will you swim front crawl or breaststroke? If it's the latter, don't get a wetsuit with thicker neoprene on the thighs.
Think about your body composition: are you lean or not? Where is your fat and muscle? For example, if you carry your fat on your thighs and bottom, don't go for extra buoyancy on your legs.
Consider getting some coaching. Better technique makes swimming smoother and more comfortable in or out of a wetsuit.
If you want to swim breaststroke, or you're just looking for a bit of extra protection against the cold, here are some alternatives: