Many triathletes get a few races under their belts before shelling out hard earned cash for their very first wetsuit. After all, you want to make sure you enjoy the sport before making major investments in it, and it is important to get your triathlon swim technique down and not simply rely on the wetsuit for your buoyancy and speed. Triathlon can be an expensive sport, with bikes, shoes, triathlon suits, compression shorts all on the shopping list. For someone planning to do multiple races, though, a good wetsuit is a must. Once you are at the stage of committing to a wetsuit, here is what you can expect from that first piece of neoprene.
If you’ve never swam with a wetsuit before, make sure to try it out a few times prior to race day. You’ll definitely have a different sensation in the water. The neoprene in the wetsuit makes you more buoyant, and you might notice changes to your swim posture. The tight fit of the suit also constricts some muscle movement, and you may find that your stroke feels slightly different. A common observation is that you may also feel like your breathing is restricted — a sensation that sometimes is real but is often just due to the unnatural feeling of rubber pressing against your chest. Some first-time wetsuit wearers also report that they feel slower in the water, but this is more perception then reality. More than likely,you’ll see a noticeable improvement in the swim split in your very first wetsuit race.
By the way, what is neoprene? It is a rubbery-like synthetic material that uses cell-membrane construction. This material and construction allows some water to penetrate the suit, but most to stay out. The water in the suit helps warm your skin and make you slightly more buoyant. Neoprene was invented by Dupont, the company that gave fitness enthusiasts many key inventions. They also gave us Gore-tex and other key synthetic materials.
It isn’t necessary to wear your wetsuit for everyday practice. The extra sessions will wear out your suit faster, meaning you’ll get fewer races out of it before it needs to be replaced. Also, be careful wearing your suit on hot summer days. It gets toasty inside your wetsuit and you can inadvertently overheat during a heavy training session. Additionally, be careful about using your wetsuit in chlorine pools or salt water. Sometimes you might want to — we usually test our new suits out in a pool, but only once, and for some triathletes salt water is just the water you swim in. If you do either of these, just make sure that you thoroughly rinse the wetsuit off afterward, and allow it to gradually dry in a cool place.
Putting the Wetsuit On
Getting in to your wetsuit is often one of the biggest challenges. Be careful sliding it on – especially with newer ultra thin and ultra formfitting styles. Even when new, these suits can tear if they inadvertently catch a toenail or fingertip. To avoid an expensive repair, make sure to only pull with the pads of your fingers, and not the nails. Bring a few plastic bags from the grocery store along in your race bag. Place the bags over your feet before sliding on the suit to prevent a toenail tear. Always be sure the wetsuit is dry when you put it on. If it must be wet — let’s say it is a rainy morning — take extra care in putting the wetsuit on, taking care not to tear or pull too hard on key parts.
Make sure to dry off right before putting on your wetsuit. Moist skin will stick to the inside of the suit, make it harder to slide on. In that same vein, do your best to schedule any bathroom trips prior to putting on your wetsuit. Few things are worse than having to unzip in a hurry after you’ve put all that effort into getting into the suit, and if you’re like most of us, you’ll find that things have gotten quite clammy inside the suit. All the perspiration on your skin makes it all the more difficult to get back into your suit a second time.
Lubricate, especially around the collar, armholes, and footholes. This will prevent chafing. Most suit manufacturers recommend only using a wetsuit specific lubricant such as Bodyglide. Many triathletes swear by less expensive home remedies like PAM cooking spray. Whatever you use, make sure it’s water-based. Petroleum based lubricants can slowly eat away at your suit.
Once you’ve completed the swim leg, you’ll want to get out of the suit as quickly as you can during Transition 1. As soon as you exit the water, grab the zipper and unzip your suit. Pull out your arms as you are running to the bike, leaving only your legs to pull through once you get your transition area. Don’t worry if you’re not perfect the very first time in the heat of the race. It’s a bit of an acquired skill –but you’ll get the hang of it after a few times out.
Caring for the Wetsuit
Finally, take care of your suit after the race. Give it a bath with nice, clean water both inside and out. Hose it down with a garden hose, or rinse it off in the shower before letting it hang dry over a towel bar or clothes line. Make sure you let the wetsuit dry slowly and naturally. Don’t try to accelerate the drying process with a blow dryer or by leaving it in the sun. Both will only shorten the life of your wetsuit, and your goal is to make your wetsuit last as long as possible.
At the end of the season, use a neoprene specific shampoo for a final cleaning, such as those made by McNett. These are specifically formulated to be gentle on neoprene and will help protect your wetsuit investment to use for many races to come. Then, let the suit dry slowly and thoroughly, store it in a cool, dark place away from anything where it could get pinched, burned, or torn (lights, heaters, and closet door hinges are all usual suspects). Then, pull it out the next season, inspect it, and start it all over again!