Swim Magazine

How should you choose a wetsuit for swimming?

There are many different types of wetsuit, and what you buy will depend on what you are using it for. They come in a range of thicknesses (more on that later), and be sure to choose one designed for swimming, as opposed to surfing or other watersports. Swim-specific suits tend to be thinner than general watersports suits. They’re also more flexible at the shoulder, hips and knees so they don’t impact on your stroke.
Words: Jonathan Harwood
Picture: Zone3

What are the benefits of wearing a wetsuit?

Wetsuits work by trapping a layer of water between your skin and the neoprene suit. This is warmed by the body and, provided the suit fits properly, will insulate you. This will allow you to stay in the water longer and could be just what you need in order to get into the water in the first place. Wetsuits are compulsory for many outdoor swimming events, so even those who usually swim without them may want to consider investing in one. 

Wetsuits have other benefits that might not be so obvious, such as offering UV protection, increased buoyancy and extra speed through the water – there’s a reason bodysuits were banned from swimming competitions. 

What are the different types of wetsuit?

The most common type of suit is the full cut – a suit with full-length arms and legs. These are ideal for cold water, below 15ºC, and are what most people envisage when they think about a wetsuit. 

If you plan on swimming in icy waters, a full-cut wetsuit with hood might be the best bet. If you find suits restrictive and don’t mind the cold, or are swimming in slightly warmer water, a sleeveless suit may be the answer. These cover your legs and torso but have no arms. They are also known as Long John or Long Jane suits. 

For summer swimming, many people opt for a shorty-style suit. These have short legs that finish at the knee and short arms, but can also be sleeveless. 

How thick should your wetsuit be?

Just as important as the type of suit is the thickness of the material – usually neoprene, a type of synthetic rubber. This affects not just the insulation, but also the flexibility of the suit and the amount of buoyancy it offers.  

The thickness is measured in millimetres, and for swimming suits there will usually be two figures – for example a 5/4mm or a 3/2mm suit. The first number relates to the thickness of the suit around the torso, and the second to the thickness in the arms and legs. The torso is thicker to keep the core warmer, while the extremities are thinner to allow more movement. 

Ultimately, the thickness you choose comes down to personal preference and what temperatures you’re comfortable with. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s important to remember that wetsuits are good at keeping you warm, and wearing a suit that is too thick in warm water can be dangerous, as it can lead to overheating.

Making sure your wetsuit fits properly

The fit must be precise and it can be a matter of centimetres between a suit that is the wrong size and one that fits, so it really is important to try a suit on before you buy.  

A wetsuit should fit like a second skin: it needs to be tight, but not so tight that it’s hard to breathe or move your limbs.  

The neck opening needs to be tight enough to stop water getting in, but not so much that you can’t move your head from side to side or it feels constricting. On a full-length suit the arms and legs should end above the wrist and ankle and need to be watertight. You should be able to lift your arms above your head and lift your knees – but there should be some resistance.  

Make sure there are no folds or loose material under the arms or at the crotch. Around the midriff the suit should be tight and there should be a feeling of suction when you pull the material away from your stomach. The suit should sit flush to the back. If there are folds it’s too long, and if the material is taut and pulled away from the skin like a drum between shoulders and backside, it’s too short.

What sort of price should I pay for a wetsuit?

Wetsuits come at a lot of different price points. You can pick up a shorty wetsuit for summer fun for less than £50, while a top-of-the-range full-cut suit can set you back more than £500. 

This is where factors like the quality of the material, seams, lining and zippers come into play. It makes sense to consider what you can afford and how much you’re going to use the suit.  

Brands to consider include Arena, Orca, 2XU, Huub, blueseventy, Speedo and Zone3, and all of them make suits that come in at different price points.