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Don’t fear the wetsuit: Tips from a pro

A triathlete's first experience with a wetsuit can seem like a daunting prospect.

Triathlon athlete running in motion out of the water

A triathlete’s first experience with a wetsuit can seem like a daunting prospect. It doesn’t need to be, though. If you take the time to find a proper fitting suit, and practice with it, you’ll arrive at your first race confident that you’ll get through the first leg of the race without any problems.

Check out our 2016 Buyer’s Guide wetsuit picks here.

First off ensure you have given yourself plenty of time before your race to find or buy a suitable wetsuit. Don’t leave it until the last minute. I was once at the London Triathlon in the Blueseventy tent at the expo when a man ran up asking if he could buy a suit 45 minutes before his wave start. You need to give yourself time to find the suit that fits, practice using it, get comfortable swimming in it, and also take some time to practice of getting it off in a hurry.

Finding the right wetsuit starts with the fit. These days there are multiple top quality brands that all offer suits to fit all budgets, shapes and sizes. The top brands also offer women-specific suits, which provide a significantly better fit for female athletes. Never borrow, or buy, a suit without having tried it on first. Wetsuits are just like running shoes: one size in one brand will be entirely different in another.

Before you can tell if the suit you are in fits, you must first be able to get it on properly. An improperly worn suit can be the difference between a great swim and one of serious discomfort. Also, without having the wetsuit on correctly, it is difficult to know whether or not it fits in the right places.

How to get a wetsuit on properly:

Step 1

Put your foot through the leg opening and slowly pull the suit up to your knees. Pull up from the inside rather than the outside as finger nails can often knick or even tear the rubber. Repeat for both legs.

Step 2

Gently pull the wetsuit up inch by inch you’re your knees to your waist, ensuring that the suit is in line all the way, usually a suit will have seams or markers in the design to show where the outside of each leg and knee should be positioned.

Step 3
This stage is definitely tricky, but by far the most important. Once the suit is at your waist simply pull it up, get your arms in, but leave the zip undone. Don’t worry if it’s all over the place at this point. Bend over 90 degrees at the waist and grab the fold of wetsuit around your belly button. Work the wetsuit up inch by inch all the way to the neck and repeat two to three times. This ensures the chest, neck and shoulders are all correctly positioned.

Step  4

The arms can be difficult and often it is easier to have a friend help you for this part. The best way is to put your hand on your friend’s shoulder and get them to work the wetsuit material up, inch by inch, from the wrist to the elbow and then from the elbow to shoulder.

Step 5
Zip yourself up and repeat stage 3, if necessary. You can also get your friend to grab a fold of wetsuit around the zip at the back and lift it up a few inches. This is often a good trick for making sure the back of the suit is in line with the front.

Practice makes perfect – you will eventually get used to this process. It helps to have a friend there for moral support and to help get the suit on, especially on race day.

The trade secret to determine whether or not a suit fits correctly is to lay face down on the ground and get someone to grab the wetsuit at the base of the spine. If they can grab a handful of material, then it’s too big. If they struggle to get a grip, you are in a well-fitting suit. You do not have to worry too much about the arms or legs, these can be cut down to fit. Make sure you get help from someone who has done this before because, once you’ve cut the suit, it cannot be undone. If in doubt, just leave it as it is, although it is common to cut a suit 1 to 2 inches clear of the wrists and ankles to help with a quick transition.

Now that you know you are in a suit that fits properly you need to practice. The more time you spend in the suit the more comfortable you will feel on race day. The suit adds buoyancy and will most probably make you swim a lot faster (usually around 5 seconds/100 m). You can use your wetsuit for an occasional swim session to get used to it. The best option, though, is get down to the race site or local lake a few weeks before race day and practice there.

Getting out of your suit:

But what about after the swim? If it took that long to get into your suit how will you ever get out? Getting a wetsuit off is significantly easier than getting one on.

As you are running out of the water, grab the long strap attached to the zip (you can connect the zip strap to the Velcro at the back of the neck so you know exactly where the strap will be) and yank away. Some suits have a pull down zip, others a pull up, but whatever direction ensure to give it a good pull to make sure it travels the full length of the zip. Pull one side of the neck down and over your shoulder while wriggling that arm out of the suit. Repeat for the other side.

Once you reach your bike, grab both sides of your suit, which should now be down at your waist, and pull down toward the ground. The best way to get your feet out is to kick them forward a few times. If this doesn’t work, use your thumb to pull the material over your ankle.

Give yourself plenty of time to find, try on and practice in your suit. That way, on race day, you won’t worry about your equipment, you will stand on the start line looking forward to the adventure.

Mike Adams is a Scottish professional Olympic distance triathlete and swim specialist. Mike has led some of the world’s biggest triathlons out of the water and continues to rack up top 20 finishes along the way.