Note: This essay originally appeared in late in Fall 2007 on Triathlete Magazine website.
You go to your favorite triathlon store or website. With your precious hard-earned money, you purchase what is perhaps the second largest investment after your bike and all of its accoutrements – your wetsuit. You faithfully followed the sizing chart for your favorite brand, but when you put the thing on, it feels more like a trash compactor than a stealthy aide to record swim times.
Perhaps all those charts are just wrong. Perhaps there is a conspiracy among wetsuit manufacturers to drive us tri-geeks crazy enough that our wetsuits will become restraint systems – straight jackets.
As a former sales associate at High Peaks Cyclery in Lake Placid, I helped many people with wetsuit sizing. Even more so, my personal experience with the 3 wetsuits I’ve owned has led me to some important discoveries.
First, you can suit up in the perfect size wetsuit, jump in the lake and feel miserable and exhausted within a minute. In the world of triathlon swimming, there is nothing more disappointing than diligently training all winter in the pool to master your swim technique and elevate your aerobic capacity and power, only to see all of it squeezed out of you by a pricey piece of neoprene.
First and foremost, buy a proper fit. 2XU – my preferred brand – offers 13 sizes for men and 6 for women. Hence, there are a lot of options there. When you don your new neoprene skin, it should feel tight and constricting. A loose-fitting wetsuit will take on water, creating pools in loose pockets. These water pockets slow you down, reduce your warmth considerably and turn you into a beluga.
As mentioned above, you can put on the perfect size wetsuit and be reduced to jelly in a minute if you don’t take the time to fit the suit to your body. Each time you put it on you must “tailor” the wetsuit to your body. This tailoring process occurs as you put the suit on.
Begin by folding the top of the suit down to the waist and, gripping the inside surface of the suit, put on one leg. Pull the end of the suit-leg up higher on your leg than it needs to be. (It’s much easier to pull the extremities out away from the center of your body than it is to work them in towards the center.) Pull the slack up above your knee, and then do the same with your other leg. Draw the suit up around your waist. Now comes the most important part:
Before you put on the top of the suit, pucker and pinch the suit above the knee and pull it up into your crotch. Use both hands to do this pucker, pinch and pull process around each leg (front, back and sides) until you feel the suit snug in your crotch.
Now insert one arm and pull the sleeve end up higher on your forearm than you think it needs to be. With the pucker, pinch and pull process work the suit up to your elbow. Repeat with the second arm.
Now bring the suit up around the front of your neck. (For all you newbies, just remember, the zipper goes in the back.) Pucker, pinch and pull the upper arms and work the suit up around your shoulders and armpits. This is the area where you need the most slack – the area with the greatest range of motion.
Before you zip up the suit, do the same pucker, pinch and pull around the front, back and sides of the torso of the suit, as you work some slack upwards under your arms, around your shoulders and into your chest and upper back.
Once you have completed this, zip in and make any fine tunings you need to. Finally, you can pull the sleeve and leg ends back down.
If you have a conventional zip-up (rather than the zip-down) suit and have trouble getting the zipper started at the base by yourself, you can zip the suit up 3-6 inches before you begin putting it on. (A nice option to waking someone up at 6 a.m. just to zip you up for that dawn patrol swim.)
(Those with zip-down suits will just have to get assistance the night before and sleep in your wetsuit.)
A Couple of Tips:
Shave your legs and apply some kind of lube before suiting up to make the pucker, pinch and pull process much easier and potentially less painful. (Another alibi for male triathletes who may be questioned about those smooth hairless legs.) Keep all of your nails trimmed to avoid piercing the suit during the fitting process.
Remember that the suit will feel a bit looser once you are in the water. Each time you go through this fitting process, you will discover just how much to pull and tug in each area.
You will need the greatest range of motion around your shoulders, upper chest and elbows.
Each time you train in your suit, evaluate the fit and make mental notes as to how you can improve it – a little more pull and tug here, a little less there. Notice if you feel any water pooling inside the suit, and remember to make the suit a little tighter there next time. The places that feel restrictive will need a little more slack.
When you take your suit off, hang it inside out on a smooth plastic hanger made for a wetsuit. Keep the suit inside out until you use it again to protect the fragile neoprene outer surface from getting torn and from sunlight.
Using the pinch, pucker and pull process each time you suit up, you will become your own best tailor, at least for your wetsuit.
Adapting Your Technique:
To effectively adapt your pool swimming technique to open water wetsuit swimming requires training sessions in the suit for three primary reasons: – First, you must adapt your stroke mechanics to a more buoyant body position.
– Second, in the pool, we often work on minimizing stroke count with long strokes and slower cadence. Fast open water wetsuit swimming requires the same stroke length, but the stroke cadence increases because your body (and hence your arms) travel through the water faster.
– The other significant difference between open water and lap swimming is the continuous uninterrupted stroking without pause to turn at the end of each lap.
Adapting to the increase in cadence and the uninterrupted stroking of open water swimming are neurological adaptations more than metabolic or muscular. Consistent and diligent practice will yield fast results, provided you do not revert to old habits.
Finally, given the opportunity, swim for 10 minutes before any goal races to assure both the wetsuit and goggles fit, and for a proper warm-up and effective neurological adaptation. When the gun goes off… Get ready for a swim PR!