What sort of wetsuit do you need for swimming?

What sort of wetsuit do you need for swimming?

In a specialised swimming wetsuit, you’ll swim faster, more freely, and in greater comfort.

Designed primarily with open-water swimming in mind, swimming wetsuits differ from standard surf wetsuits in two or three main ways. The material used is more hydrodynamic, the cut is slightly different, and the distribution of neoprene foam follows a somewhat different logic.

What materials are used in swimming wetsuits?

Firstly, swimming wetsuits made from a single-lined, smooth-skinned neoprene. That basically means there’s only a jersey lining on the inside. The outside has been heat-sealed, so rather than the fabric-like feel of the jersey lining. you have this smooth, rubbery finish.

Single-lined neoprene is lighter and also more hydrodynamic. It doesn’t absorb water as easily, the slicker finish means water almost streams off it, and there’s less friction or drag. In other words, in a swimming wetsuit you’ll be able to glide through the water more efficiently. 

But you do need to be careful when putting them on as the smoothskin material is easier to nick or tear. One top tip – and this applies to all wetsuits, but particularly single-lined neoprene wetsuits – is to make sure all your fingernails and toenails are trimmed, to avoid making any cuts or nicks.

wild swimming with jazz in snowdonia
Jazz takes the plunge in the lakes of Snowdonia, wearing her new Zone3 wetsuit.

Swimming wetsuits’ cut

You’ll also notice that swimming wetsuits are much lower round the neck than conventional wetsuits, and often higher on the calf, too. The idea here is to provide additional flexibility in the areas a swimmer needs them most.

For instance, as a swimmer you’re likely to be twisting your neck to breathe every few strokes. The neck seal on a normal suit may well start to rub and restrict your movement. Likewise, the layout of the panels is designed with swimming strokes in mind.

There’s always a bit of a trade-off between warmth and performance when it comes to wetsuits. Remember that when swimming you’ll be on the move non-stop. You’re not sitting around waiting for waves at any point, so you don’t necessarily need the extra warmth.

Swimming wetsuits are also much more likely to have a back zip, whereas the chest zip is now the most common entry system.

Thickness & buoyancy

Buoyancy is another important factor. The thicker the neoprene the warmer the wetsuit, but also the more buoyant.

In a swimming wetsuit, there’s often extra foam packed into strategic panels, generally around the thighs and stomach, where it will help a swimmer maintain good form and posture through the water.

The Advance wetsuit by Zone3, for instance, is designed for front-crawl performance. Accordingly it has shoulder panels that are just 1.5mm, but “core support buoyancy panels” on the upper legs that are a full 4mm thick.

The same brand’s Aspect model, by contrast, is designed to allow open-water swimmers to swim breaststroke in addition to front crawl, and to switch between the two in comfort. There’s thus a different neoprene distribution, with less buoyancy in the lower body. This helps a swimmer keep his or her legs submerged and maintain a natural breaststroke swimming position.

Again, all these different features are designed to maximise efficiency and comfort.

Open-Water Swimming Safety

As an open-water swimmer, it’s crucial to be easily visible when swimming so you can stand out to boats and other water users. Hence the bright colours you’ll see on the sleeves and ankles of many swimming wetsuits.

You should also think about wearing a brightly coloured swimming hat, and/or investing in an inflatable tow float. This is particularly important if you’re going to be swimming close to a harbour or port, in the vicinity of boats, and/or on your own.

Cold-water swimmers at Battery Rocks in Penzance, Cornwall, with swim hat and tow float
Tow floats and swim caps are invaluable safety devices, making you more easily visible when swimming in open water.

Do you need a wetsuit for open-water swimming?

You don’t necessarily need a wetsuit for open-water swimming. It depends on the water temperature, the air temperature, your tolerance or appetite for the cold, and what you hope to get out of swimming in open water.

Cold-water swimming, for example, is gaining more and more popularity for what enthusiasts describe as the reinvigorating, restorative, even addictive effects of regular immersion in frigid water, be it salty or fresh. Direct contact with epidermis is generally preferable here for heightened sensations.

(Of course, swimming in extremely cold conditions brings with it a whole new category of hazards. We’d recommend doing so only as part of a group, and only for short periods.)

Meanwhile among certain sorts of open-water swimmer, and particularly in the context of codified long-distance endeavours, wetsuits are frowned upon, sometimes even prohibited. If you’re swimming across the English Channel, for instance, and want your swim to be officially recognised, you must do it in just a swimsuit. (You are allowed to grease yourself for insulation, however, goose fat generally being the substance of choice.)

Can you swim in open water wearing a normal wetsuit?

Obviously you can wear a normal wetsuit or surfing wetsuit for open-water swimming or wild swimming – nobody’s going to stop you.You just won’t go as fast or feel as comfortable. 

Ultimately it’s a question of how seriously you plan on taking your swimming and what sort of budget you have at your disposal. If you just want to go for the odd dip every now and then when the surf’s flat, it might not be worth buying a new wetsuit for it. Likewise, if you only want to own the one wetsuit, and want something that you can also go surfing or do other watersports in, then a surfing wetsuit makes more sense. 

But if you’re going to be swimming regularly, and certainly if you plan on training or racing, a swim-specific wetsuit is something you should be thinking about.

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