Triathlon wetsuits explained
3rd May 2017
Our swim partner Zone3 knows all there is to know about triathlon wetsuits and what distinguishes them from wetsuits for other purposes. Check out this article which explains the development and features of their triathlon wetsuits, and how to get your hands on one of your own!
The first triathlon specific wetsuit was developed in the late 80s when Ironman athlete Dan Empfield set about creating a suit that would help him swim faster through the water and also out of transition. Triathlon wetsuits have come a long way over the last 40 years with technology continually innovating design and what’s possible.
Wetsuits were first developed for diving and water sports, designed to provide warmth in the water. Traditional wetsuits are generally thicker for added insulation with a tougher, more rugged outer to cope with the wear and tear. The thicker neoprene is quite restrictive and difficult to remove but this isn’t as crucial a design feature.
Triathlon wetsuits are designed with both of these attributes but also flexibility, hydrodynamic resistance and ease of removal (in transition). Their construction is very different to a surfing wetsuit, with a significantly higher number of panels and varying neoprene thickness to ensure maximum flexibility through the shoulders, buoyancy to elevate the body position in the water and thermal protection.
Flexibility is the major differentiator with a triathlon specific wetsuit and varies significantly between different suits. It’s important to move through the water as economically as possible rather than fighting against the suit with every arm rotation. Every movement that is competing with resistance unnecessarily saps energy and affects technique and efficiency drastically. All Zone3 suits offer a ‘Spring Loaded’ shoulder design to generate a more rhythmic swim stroke, enabling faster and more energy efficient swimming.
Higher-end wetsuits tend to be thinner as they are designed with more elite athletes in mind whereas an entry level suit will often provide greater warmth and buoyancy but reduced flexibility. Maximum wetsuit thickness for competitive triathlons is 5mm to help reduce the risk of overheating and wetsuits are only permitted when the water temperature is below 21°C for this very reason.
We use a mixture of neoprene thicknesses to achieve the perfect balance with our ‘Measured Buoyancy’ construction for optimum efficiency. The Vanquish features super thin 1.5mm Yamamoto #40 neoprene to provide unparalleled flexibility through the shoulders, arms, chest and back whilst our entry level Advance suit utilises a 2mm neoprene with a 3mm chest and back panel. Thicker 5mm neoprene on the torso, hips and legs help with buoyancy and position in the water.
Yamamoto rubber is a premium, high performance neoprene. There’s a variety of different neoprene available, with our suits using a combination of ‘Extreme Flex’, ‘Speedflo’ and ‘Smoothskin’ fabrics, as well as Yamamoto #39 and #40 cell SCS Nano. Yamamoto #40 is the newest, most flexible and buoyant neoprene available – evolving from its predecessor, #39, which is in turn more flexible and buoyant than #38 (creative naming concept). It has extreme stretch properties which makes it perfect for areas where free movement is crucial.
As well as being thinner, the outer surface of the neoprene used for a triathlon wetsuit is slicker with high hydrodynamic resistance to reduce drag. The smooth, engineered surface is super-efficient through the water, helping ensure a competitive edge and significantly reducing times. Zone3 suits are coated with an aqua dynamic covering which significantly minimises any drag through the water whilst also improving the suit’s durability.
The final key design difference between a triathlon wetsuit and water sports wetsuit is its ease of removal. Transitions are the 4th discipline in a triathlon and can be the difference between winning and losing. We know how important it is to get out of T1 and onto the bike as quickly as possible and put a lot of design effort into this. All Zone3 wetsuits feature ‘Pro Speed’ arm and leg cuffs which use a specially formulated silicone coating to make sure the wetsuit comes off extremely quickly. We also use downwards zips on all of our wetsuits to help make it even easier to get the back open.
So, in a nutshell – you could wear a water sports wetsuit for a triathlon, although you will find it significantly harder both during the swim and getting it off in transition. It’s likely to be enough of a hindrance that you won’t need to worry about being in the mix for the medals but, if you do find yourself there or thereabouts, then you may not be eligible to claim your reward if your surfing suit is over 5mm thick (depending on race regulations).
To view Zone3’s full range of wetsuits to hire or purchase as well as other tips and advice articles and videos, visit the Human Race Hub.