The Differences Between Wetsuiting And Not

The Differences Between Wetsuiting And Not

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Over the years, we have observed different phenomena when comparing swims done with a wetsuit versus a swim done without a wetsuit.

Note that these are simply observations as opposed to a strictly monitored research test that objectively compares the speed of an individual swimming in an open body of water both with and without a wetsuit.

1. Speed of swimmer

The wetsuit advantage changes with the speed of the swimmer. That is, the wetsuit advantage (or time differential) becomes less among FASTER swimmers while the wetsuit advantage becomes greater among SLOWER swimmers. So, based on different factors, a wetsuit advantage could about 1 minute among faster swimmers, but for slower swimmers the time differential would be greater – sometimes significantly so between wetsuit and non-wetsuit use.

Compared with less experienced swimmers, the faster swimmers have a better, more streamlined body position and create less resistance in the water due to better overall pulling, kicking and breathing techniques. The specific advantages of a wetsuit that enable a better streamlined body position and lead to less resistance (because of bending of the knees while kicking, suboptimal hand paths or body contortions when breathing) are less among the faster swimmers – or conversely, greater among less capable swimmers.

Additionally, the thickness of a wetsuit can (negatively) affect the way the faster swimmers pull with their arm stroke due to a more restricted arm pull/rotation. This is less the case with slower swimmers.

2. Water temperature

The wetsuit advantage changes with the water temperature. That is, the wetsuit advantage becomes less the closer the water temperature is to 20ºC. Or conversely, the wetsuit advantage becomes greater the closer the water temperature is to 10ºC. Note: we assume most competitive open water swims at least 1 km are in 10-20ºC water temperature range. So, while there may not much differential between 10-20ºC for swimmers who are acclimatized to water temperatures in that range, the time differential is much greater for swimmers who are not acclimatized. Therefore, the wetsuit advantage becomes greater the further away from the swimmer’s preferred water temperature.

3. Salinity and water conditions

The wetsuit advantage is fundamentally greater in fresh water versus salt water for swimmers of all ability ranges. However, in the cases when the water is relatively calm, the wetsuit advantage is relatively greater in fresh water versus salt water. On the other hand, in the cases when the conditions are rough and turbulent (especially in oceans or seas), the wetsuit advantage can be relatively greater in salt water versus fresh water. But this phenomena can be highly personalized based on a swimmer’s experience and comfort level in rough water conditions.

It would be most interesting to conduct a controlled experiment comparing the average time differential in different bodies of water and under different conditions among males and females of various ability levels with and without wetsuits.

Photo shows the start of the 2.8 km State King of the Bays on Auckland’s North Shore with Rangitoto Island in the background, the sixth and final race of the New Zealand Ocean Swim series.

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association