If you’re just getting into triathlon, you might be wondering if a wetsuit is really such an essential bit of triathlon gear to add to your kit list. If you’re only ever planning to race in a small, pool-based triathlons, you can get away with foregoing the neoprene. But if you want to take on open water triathlon events and/or challenge yourself with longer distances. A wetsuit is a must-have.

We guide you through the benefits of wearing a wetsuit for open water swim training and on triathlon race day. Plus explain the specific rules around wetsuit use in triathlons so you feel as prepared as possible to step up to your next start line.

Why wear a wetsuit for triathlon and open water swimming

There are several benefits to be gained from wearing a wetsuit for your open water swim training and in a triathlon. From helping to keep you warmer and providing additional safety while you’re in the water. To improving your swim pace and reducing fatigue. Here’s why it’s time to embrace the neoprene.

Wearing a wetsuit will keep you warmer

Compared to your heated local swimming pool, swimming in open water is a far chillier experience. Without a wetsuit, you’ll find you get colder a lot sooner and your perceived effort to swim is increased. Meaning you’ll struggle to stay in the water for as long as you can in a swimming pool. Wearing a wetsuit gives you an extra layer of thermal insulation. A wetsuit works by trapping a layer of water between your skin and the neoprene, which is then warmed up by your body heat. You’ll find that you might feel the cold when you first get into open water wearing a wetsuit, but after a minute or so of swimming you warm up nicely. That’s the wetsuit doing it’s job.

The added buoyancy of a wetsuit is good for safety

Wetsuit neoprene is filled with tiny air pockets, which help you to float better once you’re in the water. You’ll probably notice that when you’re not swimming, it takes a lot less effort to tread water and keep your head above the water. And while a wetsuit shouldn’t be considered as a flotation device, wearing one means that if you need to take a break or you get into trouble while swimming in open water. It’ll be far easier for you to float.

A wetsuit can help you to swim faster

The additional buoyancy you get from wearing a wetsuit also helps you to achieve a much more efficient body position in the water. You’ll find that your legs are lifted, and there’s less drag so you can make better forward progress with each swim stroke.

Sumarpo vanguard triathlon wetsuit hydrodynamic coating

Most triathlon and open water swimming wetsuits also have a smooth coating, designed to be as hydrodynamic as possible – again, helping you to move faster through the water for less effort.

This is particularly appealing in a triathlon where you’ll want to make every second count!

What are the rules around wearing a wetsuit in a triathlon?

In triathlon, there are specific rules around when you can – and can’t – wear a wetsuit, and the type of wetsuit you’re allowed to wear. This is to keep competitors safe – for example if the water temperature is particularly high, then the added warmth of a wetsuit could pose a health risk. And also to ensure that every competition is fair.

Sumarpo Vanguard wetsuit triathlon

The rules around wetsuits in triathlon are governed by various global triathlon bodies – such as British Triathlon and USA Triathlon. This means there can be variations in the specific water temperatures set to determine if wetsuits are mandatory, optional or banned. So it’s always worth checking the specific rules for the race you’re doing. But the following gives you a good rule of thumb to work with.

Triathlon wetsuit temperature rules

In the UK, British Triathlon state that wetsuits are mandatory when the water temperature is below 14 degrees Celsius for triathlons with a swim of 1500m or less. And below 16 degrees Celsius if the swim is longer than 1500m.

If the water temperature reaches 22 degrees Celsius then wetsuits are banned for races with shorter swims, though if you’re racing a triathlon where the swim is above 1500m (for example a half Ironman or a full Iron distance event), then the water can be up to 24.6 degrees C before wetsuits are banned.

Between those lower and upper temperature limits, wetsuits are optional – though most triathletes choose to wear one due to the performance benefits we’ve outlined above.

Technical rules about the type of wetsuit you can wear in a triathlon

In a triathlon, the neoprene on your wetsuit must not exceed 5mm thickness anywhere. Your face, hands and feet must not be covered by the wetsuit* and the wetsuit must fit tightly to your body while you are swimming. Propulsion devices of any form that give you an advantage or pose a risk to others are forbidden. ‘Shorty’ style wetsuits are allowed, but they don’t offer as much protection against the cold.

*Certain specific races will make an exception and allow neoprene socks/boots if the water is extremely cold.

What type of wetsuit do I need? 

Ready to embrace the neoprene and get swimming? We'd recommend choosing a triathlon and/or open water swimming specific wetsuit, rather than a surfing wetsuit which won't offer the range of motion or the speed benefits you're looking for. 

Look for a wetsuit that offers a good level of buoyancy, while still offering flexibility around the shoulders. Here at SBRX, we'd recommend both Yonda Spook and the Sumarpo Race as great entry-level options.

Shop our range of handpicked triathlon and open water swimming wetsuits.

Jenny Lucas-Hill