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Lessons Learned: Open Water Swimming in a Surfing Wetsuit

   October 12th, 2017   Posted In: Articles   Tags:

Don’t Be Fooled, a Triathlon Wetsuit Is the Best Suit for Open Water Swimming

Kirk Trach signed up for his first-ever triathlon on a whim. A friend was interested in training for a race, and Kirk, who had previously run the Richmond Marathon, was looking to branch out into some exercise that wouldn’t pound so hard on his soon-to-be middle-aged joints.

“I figured, what the hell? I’ve always been a strong swimmer and I love to bike, so it seemed like a good fit since I was bored with running all the time.”

Kirk and his partner had about three months to get in shape for the Wallis Sands Triathlon in Rye, New Hampshire. The race included a 1/3-mile swim in the Atlantic Ocean, a 14.5-mile bike ride along the New Hampshire Seacoast and a 5K run that ended at Odiorne State Park.

Since the race is held annually in mid-September in water temperatures of just 55 to 60 degrees, a wetsuit was a must. “When I went to try them on, I figured I’d get the lightest one I could, probably with short sleeves. It just didn’t seem like I’d get that cold in September. Luckily, the staff told me about the other benefits of a good wetsuit, like the speed you get from being so streamlined.”

Because a local surf shop was the only place nearby to try wetsuits on in person, Kirk ended up choosing a full-coverage XCEL wetsuit with an offset zipper with the idea that it would make transitions easier. He quickly learned, however, that the XCEL wetsuit was designed with surfers in mind, not triathletes. In particular, there was an extra Velcro tab closure at the neck to keep the zipper in place. While this is convenient for surfers who don’t need a quick escape from their wetsuits, it got in the way of stripping down to hop on a bike.

After a few tries on the beach, Kirk knew he needed something different. “Every time I opened it, it would close over the zipper again. In the rush of transition, I wanted everything to be easy, so I trimmed off the tab with scissors.”

Despite the modification, he admits that if he had it to over again, he would have chosen a wetsuit for triathlon swimming so he could fly through transitions and get a bit more buoyancy. Still, having a wetsuit was a definite training advantage. “I’m glad I went with a medium weight that would allow me to train during the shoulder seasons. The extra insulation let me get out there to swim in the ocean instead of the pool all through September.”

And it’s a good thing that he got the extra open water practice under his belt. The day before the triathlon, a wicked storm blew through the area and was barely off shore by the morning of the race. When the swimmers arrive on the scene and crossed the street to the shoreline, they were greeted with a daunting sight: 10-foot waves were crashing onto the beach, roiling and foaming.

wetsuit for triathlon swimming

“When guys would go down to the water for a warmup lap, that’s when you could really see the scale of the waves. Huge! We watched the first waves of swimmers get in, and guys could barely even get out into the water.”

Did the wetsuit make a difference?

“Oh, yeah. If nothing else, I felt a lot more confident heading into such rough, cold water fully covered. I made pretty good time on the swim too — especially for such a crazy-hard first attempt.”

Beware though, not all wetsuits are created equal. Don’t get surfing wetsuits and triathlon wetsuits confused with one another. Although they both are made of neoprene, they were built for completely different reasons. Surfing suits were created for performance in the waves and feature wetsuit technology such as smoothskin chest and back panels for wind resistance and grip, poly fleece for warmth and quick drying properties, different styles of zippers (back, chest or zip-free), and durable kneepads.

Meanwhile, a wetsuit for triathlon swimming has all the performance benefits and features strictly for swimming/tri use. Unlike surfing suits, triathlon suits are made with glideskin on the entire suit which helps with drag and speed in the water. Triathlon suits also have back zippers specifically designed to make getting in and out of the suit super easy and fast which is a must when you’re transitioning out of the water. They’re also anti-chafing and have buoyancy panels to improve swimming position.

Lauren (LoLo) has been turning words into blog posts for Wetsuit Wearhouse since 2014. She learned to surf for the first time ever in Costa Rica but she gravitates more towards SUP. When she's not scouring the web for travel deals, you can find her either hiking, running, gardening, tending to her animals, or reading a good book outside on a beautiful day.

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  • Al says:

    Hi LoLo / Team,
    I am 59 and overweight. I always snorkel on top of the water and never had a wetsuit. I will be going to the Big Island this Feb and according to what I can find water temp is between 73-78 F and thinking I may need one for this trip – not sure of thickness and suit size. What do you recommend? Is a two piece better for my size?
    Height 66″
    Weight 245 #
    Chest 51″
    Waist 51″
    Hips 47″
    Neck 16″
    Inseam 28.5″


  • Laura Lister says:

    Can you advise me? I am 78 years old and find my pool a bit too cold. I would like to purchase a wet suit jacket that is very flexible and easy to swim and do aerobics in. Since swimming helps arthritis, movement is very important. I do not do straight laps, but various exercises worked into a lap. Also – I am overweight so I do not want anything “sexy”.

    What do you think?

    • Crysta Goff says:

      I’m going to send you a private email, Laura. (:

    • John Gross says:

      Hi make sure it has a full zipper they can be hard to get off at your age,you dont want a full suit or a pull over that you may need helping getting on and off,i just checked ebay theres a xxxl camo jacket full zipper,25$bid 15 shipping.looks new.
      And you can use as out of water jacket if its super cold.they really hold heat in shockingly so.
      Because of how hard they are to remove you might want to start with hood gloves and feet.try searchs like neoprine gloves socks hood.jacket check ebay cheap.also thift stores often have wetsuits for like 20$

  • Marco says:


    I read your blog in a quick and non efficient way. I didn’t find the answer I was looking for. I found your views very interesting, points are great too, thank you for your post. It helped me understand a little into what I was looking for. I hope you carry on with your views and different ways of wording your initial subject/subjects. Enjoy reading your book in hot summer days, it’s when you’re most alive in the most ways you can be.


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