The buoyancy of a wetsuit is a beautiful thing for weaker swimmers, but whether donning neoprene all the time is a good idea is up for debate. We’ll let Sara McLarty take it away with this month’s challenger, Ryan Pettingill, a coach with Washington, D.C.’s Team Z.
Sara: Just because a race is “wetsuit-legal” doesn’t mean that everyone has to wear a wetsuit! The USAT allows athletes to participate in a wetsuit up to 83.9 degrees. That’s crazy warm! Problems can easily arise from overheating. In a longer event, some athletes will spend an hour or two in the water without any hydration. The cramping and dehydration that can occur can be serious.
Ryan: I agree on the challenges of proper nutrition, and the disadvantage in cases of extreme heat. But saying that the USAT cutoff puts athletes at risk is a bit of an overstatement. The factors relating to heat-related illness are so individual that what works for some may not work for others—thus the wetsuit-optional rule. Keep in mind that triathletes have been known to suffer from hypothermia during the swim leg even during warm races.
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Sara: In the summer, in many race locations, temps are pushing 90–100 degrees. I encourage anyone who is worried about heat issues during the bike and run to consider not starting out in a depleted state. Instead, use the first leg of the race to stay cool before a long, hot day.
Ryan: Everyday amateur triathletes experience a tremendous advantage from the buoyancy of an appropriate-fitting wetsuit. Because of this, athletes find it easier to maintain an efficient stroke and turnover (in some cases giving them the confidence to participate in the race in the first place). In a sense, wetsuits level the playing field. Wait a second … maybe that’s why you are looking to eliminate wetsuits! I’m on to your strategy here.
Sara: Ha, yes, but I’m happy that the pros’ cutoff temp is much lower. Considering the increased number of deaths during races, I don’t ever want someone to get in the water if they are not confident in their ability. A wetsuit is not a lifesaving device and should not be treated as one.
Ryan: Yes, athletes overestimating their abilities can be dangerous. But as a coach of a beginner-friendly team, most of my conversations are about the opposite—I try to encourage people who regularly swim thousands of yards in a pool to feel comfortable swimming much shorter distances in open water. The wetsuit often gives them the confidence to take on a challenge that they are already fully capable of doing without one.
Sara: Even a well-fitting suit can be constricting and claustrophobic, causing more panic, especially for athletes who have never tried a suit in open water. Increased restriction on the shoulders can also result in earlier fatigue during a race.
Ryan: If racers feel shoulder fatigue earlier than expected, it usually is because of a problem with their fit (like the shoulders being too narrow), or because they didn’t put it on properly. I disagree that most athletes typically experience shoulder fatigue that counteracts improvements in speed and endurance due to their improved body position in the water from wearing a wetsuit.
Triathlete’s verdict: The decision of whether to wear a wetsuit during a race should be made on a case-by-case basis—driven by race conditions, ambient temperature and the individual athlete’s comfort level and strength in the water. A proper wetsuit fit can make all the difference in terms of both comfort and efficiency.