If you’re just getting into triathlon or open water swimming, you’ve probably been told that a wetsuit is one of the essential bits of kit you’ll need to get started. But beyond making you feel like you’ve dressed up in a superhero suit as you take to the water. You might be wondering how wetsuits work, and if wearing one will help to keep you warmer as you move from the pool to open water.

We dive into how wetsuits work, and why it’s so beneficial to wear one for triathlon and open water swimming.

Does a wetsuit keep you warm?

As you can probably guess by the name, a wetsuit isn’t going to keep you dry. But it will keep you warm. Wetsuits are designed to trap a layer of water between your body and the neoprene. Your body temperature heats up this layer of water, in turn helping you to stay warmer in cool water by maintaining body heat.

Sumarpo Vanguard wetsuit

This insulating effect is heightened when the neoprene is thicker. But thicker neoprene compromises flexibility and freedom of movement. This is why it’s important to look for a wetsuit which uses different neoprene thickness profiles in different areas of the suit. For example, the Sumarpo Vanguard wetsuit has 5mm thick neoprene around the torso and upper legs but tapers down to 1.5mm neoprene around the shoulders. This means you have thicker neoprene around your core which will help you to stay warmer. But the thinner neoprene around the upper body means you can still swim efficiently.

How do wetsuits improve buoyancy – and why is that important?

As well as keeping you warmer, another benefit of a wetsuit is that it helps you to float better. Neoprene is a material that contains tiny air bubbles, which alongside enhancing insulation also helps to improve buoyancy once you’re in the water.

Buoyancy is an important factor because it helps you to maintain a more streamlined body position in the water. Wearing a wetsuit helps to ‘lift’ your legs so that your body is in a horizontal position, rather than your legs trailing down below your torso.

Open water swimming in a wetsuit

This reduces drag, which means you can swim faster for less effort. The buoyancy afforded by wearing a wetsuit also means it’s easier to float should you get into trouble or need to take a break while you’re in the water.

Why is swimming in a wetsuit faster than swimming non-wetsuit?

For most swimmers and triathletes, their swim pace is often faster in a wetsuit compared to swimming without one. This is in part due to the added buoyancy we just mentioned. If your body position is better and your legs are lifted, you’re going to be able to swim more efficiently.

Most wetsuits also feature an outer coating made from hydrodynamic ‘slippery’ material. In the same way a streamlined cycling jersey or tri suit would help you to cut through the air faster on a bike. A wetsuit makes you more streamlined in the water. This reduces drag and helps you to glide further with each swim stroke.

What type of wetsuit do I need?

If you’re new to open water swimming or triathlon, it’s important to note that you’ll want to get a swimming-specific wetsuit. While a surfing wetsuit will help with warmth and buoyancy, they’re not designed to facilitate the range of motion required for continuous swimming. And they’re generally made from a more rugged material to withstand use on a surfboard – which means a surfing wetsuit typically doesn’t have the hydrodynamic coating to help you glide through the water faster.

A swimming wetsuit will be designed to enhance warmth and buoyancy, without restricting your swim stroke. Triathlon wetsuits are also designed to be easier to remove quickly, which is important when you’re taking your wetsuit off hastily in transition during a race.

Check out our handpicked range of triathlon and swimming wetsuits.

Jenny Lucas-Hill