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Triathlon Wetsuit Use.
By Tom Demerly


We used to tell customers the most important factor in triathlon wetsuit use was buying the right size. While sizing and fit of a new triathlon wetsuit are critically important we’ve since learned through testing that the single most important factor in wetsuit use in donning the suit correctly.

Full wetsuits- wetsuits with full shoulders and long sleeves, are the favorite of triathletes for their increased buoyancy, hydrodynamics, comfort and warmth. You’ll see more full wetsuits at the start of any triathlon swim than any other type. Full wetsuits not only incorporate arms but, most importantly, shoulders. It is the shoulders of the full wetsuit that likely contribute most substantially to a fullsuit’s advantages over sleeveless suits.

In any investigation of wetsuit use among triathletes you find a small group who says they do not like full wetsuits. They complain that full suits restricts arm movement. While there may be a very small percentage of triathletes for whom this may be the case (bodybuilder types with very large upper bodies), the overwhelming and statistically supportable trend is that full suits are faster in nearly every case as compared to sleeveless suits. People who complain a full suit is more restrictive than a sleeveless suit usually do so because they have never had a full suit on correctly. In tests we conducted we learned that a full wetsuit one size away from the recommended size for a given swimmer from a manufacturer’s size chart- but put on correctly- still swam better than a perfectly fitted suit that was donned incorrectly.

The bottom line is: A full suit will almost always be faster if you put it on correctly.

Correct donning of a full triathlon wetsuit takes up to ten minutes. Allow plenty of time before your wave start to get your suit on correctly, apply wetsuit lubricant and get in the water to “swim your suit into place”.

Step 1: Wear socks!

Step one of donning a wetsuit is putting on socks to slide your feet through the legs more easily. Since the full wetsuit is one unified garment from ankles to wrists you must get the legs on correctly for the rest of the suit to function well. Putting on socks before sliding your feet through the legs prevents toenails from snagging the nylon lining of the suit and makes your feet glide quickly through. Take the socks off before you get in the water.


Step 2: Grasp suit from the inside.

Since the exterior of a triathlon wetsuit is smoothskin neoprene it is best to do most of your pulling and tugging from the nylon lining when possible. It is very easy to damage the smoothskin with fingernails. Grab the inside of the lining and pull the suit over one foot.

Step 3: Slide your legs through the suit.

You’ll have to pull on the outside of the suit to get the legs up high enough. Be very careful with the smoothskin outer surface- it is amazing how durable wetsuits are for swimming and racing but how vulnerable wetsuits are to fingernail damage. Use caution with fingernails when pulling on a full wetsuit.

Step 4: Carefully tug the leg up avoiding fingernail damage.

Pull the leg up carefully but firmly in the front and in the back. For a full wetsuit to work correctly the legs must be fully pulled up in front and in back.

Step 5: Be sure there are no wrinkles behind your knee.

Smooth the back of the legs to make a clean, hydrodynamic surface for the suit to slip through the water.

Step 6: Continue to work the suit up your legs.

Once you have both legs in the suit continue to work the neoprene up your legs to your crotch. Female triathletes liken this to putting on stockings. Switch back and forth between legs to be certain the legs are pulled up high enough on the suit. Wetsuits fit very tight and pulling the legs on can be most difficult part of wetsuit donning. Wetsuits always seem to “loosen up” in the water, making a tight dry land fit very important.

Step 7: Be sure the crotch is pulled all the way up.

You’ve got your legs pulled up so now you need to tug the crotch and abdomen of the suit up very high. The crotch should be snug against your body- no room between you and the suit. Once you get the wetsuit pulled up in the crotch area it should feel as snug as a pair of bib cycling shorts. The crotch needs to be pulled all the way up. This is also a good time to double check that the fabric in the legs of the wetsuit is not twisted around your legs.

Step 8: Begin to tug your torso up.


Begin pulling the torso up by creeping the neoprene up your body. Making sure your legs and crotch are straight and tight, tug the neoprene up your lower body being careful with your fingernails.

Step 9: Make sure the butt of the suit is pulled up too.


Reach behind you on each side and tug the butt of the wetsuit up over your hips and butt. If you got your crotch high and tight enough it should fit correctly here. Keep tugging the suit gently up being careful with your fingernails.


Step 10: Continue working the entire torso up your body.

Now its time to get the torso pulled up in preparation for putting your arms through the sleeves. This is the place a lot of people go wrong. If the torso isn’t high enough on your body the sleeves will not work correctly to make you faster. Pulling the torso up- especially the sides- will position the arms of the suit for fastest swimming. The suit will also feel very snug here as you pull the torso up.


Step 11: Begin to put your sleeves on.

Now it’s time to push your hands through the sleeves. When a full wetsuit fits most people correctly the wrist of the suit will ride just behind their wristwatch- unless you have very short arms.


Step 12: Start to pull your sleeves up.

As with the legs you need to tug and pull the sleeves gently up your arm, repeating the process several times and taking great care with your fingernails to not chip the exterior of the suit.

Step 13: Continue getting those sleeves pulled up!

Extend your arms to insure the sleeves are on straight and not twisted. This starts the critical part of getting the armpit seated correctly under your arm. This may be the place where most people develop problems getting the suit on correctly.

Step 14: Be sure the arm is not twisted.

The best check for proper full wetsuit donning is making sure the underarm is snug against your armpit. To be sure your suit fits snugly pull the armpit of the suit firmly up into your own armpit. Your goal is to have absolutely no space between your armpit and the armpit of the suit. The fabric should be snug against your underarm

Step 15: Get those shoulders pulled up nice and snug.

Switching to the top of your shoulder pull the shoulder of the suit up to snug the suit against your armpit. If you find small wrinkles on top of your shoulder once the suit is pulled up this may be fine. The key concern is getting the arms pulled up as far as possible, seated tightly under your arm.

Step 16: Watch that underarm!

Smooth the underarm out and check for space between the underarm of the suit and your own underarm. This is a critical step and where most people go wrong. You need to have no space between your underarm and the suit.

Step 17: Double check the underarm for gaps.

Check the arm and shoulder flexibility of the suit. If the arms and shoulders are up high enough you should have free and unrestricted arm movement.

Step 18: Re-adjust the torso pulling up to the neck.

Now, go back to the torso one last time to be certain it is pulled up. We’re focusing on getting the neck of the suit in the correct position now. Work the suit up your chest and toward your neck. Don’t sock yourself I the face if your hands slip!

Step 19: Pull that neck up for a good seal.

Check that the neck lays snugly against your skin, making an effective seal so water cannot pour in as the swimmer moves through the water.

Step 20: Have an assistant zip you up.

Now an assistant can help you zip your suit up. If your arms and shoulders are on correctly and the torso has been pulled fully up the suit should zip up reasonably easily, but you’ll still have to pull the left and right sides of the suit together for the zipper to join in the center of the back.

Step 21: Final check of your underarms: NO GAPS!

Once the suit is all the on and zipped do a double check of your armpits by pressing on the fabric one last time to be certain there is no space between the suit and your underarms. Now it’s time to get in the water for your warm up and allow a thin layer of water to creep inside the suit between the fabric and your skin. Your body will warm this thin layer of water providing extra insulation. As you take some warm-up strokes your suit will “swim” into place as the thin layer of water lubricates the suit over your skin. Wetsuits always seem to “loosen up” in the water, making a tight dry land fit very important.


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© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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