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Not all wetsuits are the same. Let’s imagine a scenario; you have a 200m distance of open water, with two swimmers at the start line. One in a swim-specific suit and the other in a surf suit. They are equally matched as athletes, with the only difference being the type of wetsuit they’re wearing. The one in the surf wetsuit will begin to feel fatigued faster, as free movement in the arms is reduced. This causes surf suits to feel restrictive around the shoulders, whilst encumbering rotation and increasing the risk of muscle ache. 

In short, these specialist swimming wetsuits are designed with a swimmer’s natural movements in mind, where energy efficiency and drag reduction are paramount. In contrast, a surf wetsuit has to account for the amount of time you’re not actually moving when sat out back waiting for the next set to roll in. Simple.

The Proper Fit

When choosing a tri wetsuit, the most important factor to consider is fit. If the fit is not right, you are not going to be comfortable and the wetsuit will not be able to perform properly for you. Ultimately, the correct fit depends on your preferences.

How Should A Wetsuit Fit?

  • Snug but not tight.
  • No folds or excess material.
  • Full range-of-motion through shoulders.
  • Neckline should be comfortable and not suffocating.
  • Arm and leg holes should be snug so water cannot get through.

If you are buying new or used, specially for the first time, it would be recommended to always try it on. Simulate some freestyle strokes to feel how it feels around the shoulder area.

Generally wetsuit sizing is set by height and weight, if you are borderline between 2 sizes, consider the size that you will be most likely fit in most of the season. If you are at your “race weight” and the wetsuit is just barely fitting you, then it might be a too tight. Try one size up, shouldn’t feel loose but not constrictive either. A wetsuit should fit you for most of the season you intend to use it too, and at the start of the open water season you might not be at your “race weight” yet. 

What Is Too Tight?

  • Should have no painful restriction anywhere.
  • Should have a full range-of-swim-motion so arms move freely and comfortably.
  • Should not feel like it is riding up in the crotch area (may mean wetsuit is too short).
  • Should move with you and not against you; the suit should feel like a thick second-skin.
  • Should have a certain degree of comfort in your wetsuit so you can perform optimally, but not so much comfort that it defeats the purpose of performance properties of the suit.
  1. Thickness and Material

Neoprene thickness ranges from about 1mm-5mm (5mm is the maximum thickness allowed in competitions). There is “stretchability” throughout tri wetsuits, but the thinner, most-flexible material is around your shoulders and arms for fast, easy movement.

Check the races rules you intend to participate for the wetsuit cutoff/rules, conditions apply based on temperature of the water (up to when a wetsuit is allowed) and the thickness of the neoprene in the wetsuit.

Generally for Ironman events as an example the thickness of any portion of the wetsuit cannot exceed 5mm. 

What to look for:

Buoyancy / Flexibility

The rubber/neoprene used to make wetsuits floats naturally. The higher you float in the water, the easier and faster you can swim. The thicker the material, the more buoyant but less flexible it is—find your ideal balance. The thinner layers provide more flexibility so it is easier to move, preserving energy. Arm and shoulder area should have thinner neoprene. Note: the thinner the neoprene the more expensive the wetsuit is.

Thicker neoprene should be in chest and leg areas—how thick is based on your preference.


Tri wetsuits hold a small amount of water inside the suit so your body can warm the water to form a barrier between you and the cold.

Be sure the wetsuit is tight enough because too much water getting in slows you down.


Tri wetsuits with a silicone surface make them slippery through the water, but it is not required.

This feature is found on most mid- and high-end wetsuits.

The Cut

Full sleeve – Gives full-body coverage and provides maximum buoyancy.

Sleeveless – Does not cover arms, but still covers legs. Offers maximum range of motion.

Full-sleeved suits are more buoyant and warmer, which is ideal for colder swims. Sleeveless suits are easier to get out of and offer more arm movement. Ultimately, your personal preference will determine your decision. Some people are more comfortable with sleeveless wetsuits, even in colder water.

If you plan to have only one wetsuit factor that would need to be used in most conditions you will be swimming in open water. This will depend on your tolerance to colder temperature and duration of the event. Eg. longer and colder favor full sleeves, shorter and warmer favor sleeveless.

Men’s tri wetsuits have a bit of extra room in the crotch and a narrower hip area than women’s tri suits. Women’s wetsuits also have extra room in the chest.

The Bottom Line:

A triathlon suit should fit like a second-skin; it shouldn’t be too loose or too tight and you should have a full range of motion in your shoulders. The three wetsuit qualities to pay attention to are:

  • Buoyancy/flexibility
  • Warmth
  • Hydrodynamics.

 The full-sleeved and sleeveless wetsuits simply depend on your preference. When searching for your ideal wetsuit, stay with what you are most comfortable in because that is ultimately the most important. Your perfect wetsuit is waiting for you, now it’s time to go find it!