I get asked lots of questions about wetsuits especially when winter approaches and I recall in my own swimming journey. Choosing one was a carefully considered mission involving tons of research until I found my perfect suit. Although I don't often swim in one now I own five and am not opposed to popping one on if and when I feel like it.
All wetsuits are designed to keep you warm in the water, they work by trapping a layer of water between the skin and the rubber, this heats up by your body heat and insulates you. Simple? Maybe.
There are two different types of wetsuits, surf suits and swimming suits (three if you include diving suits too), so what's the difference?
Which as it says are made for surfing, these are generally thicker and designed for warmth. They come in various thicknesses of neoprene for different surfing temperatures and work by getting wet and trapping a layer of water between your skin and the suit, which then heats up with your body temperature and keeps you warm. They come in various thickness’ usually 2mm summer suits and 5mm winter steamers. The construction of the neoprene means they are fairly abrasion resistant, and often come with reinforced panels in the knees. Great for surfing and generally playing around in the water. However due to their thickness, if you are planning of doing any kind of serious swimming (front crawl especially) you may struggle with flexibility in the shoulders. They come in a wide variety of styles, from full length to shorties, sleeveless, vests, shorts and even swimsuits. Costs vary from as low as £15 in supermarkets to £300 for pro surfing suits.
Swimming wetsuits have been developed for speed, rather than warmth as swimmers are constantly moving in the water. The neoprene used in swimming wetsuits is slightly different in that it is more buoyant, lighter and has maximum flexibility. They have thicker panels on the legs and torso to increase buoyancy here and put you into a better position for front crawl and thinner panels on the shoulders for greater movement. They also have a smooth outer skin, which reduces surface resistance. These suits are designed to give swimmers an advantage and shave time off your events and triathlons!
These suits can vary dramatically in price from around £100 for an entry level suit to over £500 for an elite triathlon suit. Entry level suits can be slightly warmer (thicker panels all over) and the higher end suits will have more fancy panels designed to improve your 'catch' and speed.
There is now a huge range of swimming specific brands to choose from including...
Snugg also do made to measure wetsuits
Wiggle - Wiggle do an excellent try on at home service and stock lots of different brands.
There are now a few brands with swimming suits designed more for adventure than racing. A couple of these give a more natural experience and some have reduced the buoyancy that you get in a traditional swimming wetsuit, which could be great if prefer Breaststroke to the front crawl position most suits naturally put you into. It is possible that these suits may help with the backache that some swimmer experience from the buoyancy in the legs that regular swimming suits have.
The most important aspect of choosing your wetsuit is that it is comfortable, fits correctly and suits your swimming ability. The most important thing you want your wetsuit to be a good, snug fit. Try it on before you buy it and ensure there are no wrinkles of neoprene, no air pockets, you really don't want water to flush while your swimming and making you cold. It should fit you properly around the thighs, chest, shoulder, arms and neck. Check, are the arms and legs too long/short? (swimming wetsuits are often slightly shorter in the leg) Is the torso length correct? You don't want pools of water between your legs because it's too long or the neck pulling tight because the torso is too short.
As I mentioned earlier I don't often wear a full-length wetsuit nowadays but I am a fan of a neoprene vest, top or swimsuit when I am feeling the chill. Above all, make sure your new suit fits like a glove, lots of swimmers swear by having them made to measure. We are all different shapes, heights and sizes and there are plenty of different brands out there to try.
Spending more money doesn't necessarily get you a warmer more durable suit. More often expensive suits will be lighter, designed for increasing your speed in the water making them less hard wearing.
As I mentioned earlier I don't often wear a full length wetsuit nowadays but I am a fan of a neoprene vest or swimsuit when I am feeling the chill. Orca's Heatseeker Vest has been a staple of my winter swimming kit for years, designed as an extra layer to be worn under your wetsuit it is brilliant to keep the core warm over a swimsuit. I am also a fan of Orca's Wetsuit Base Layer, which is a similar idea in a long-sleeved top, it's super long in the body as well. These are both unisex, which I'm usually not a fan of, but they fit me really well. Highly recommend as a reasonably priced option to a bit of added warmth.
Usually designed for surfing rather than swimming, they can have similar issues to surfing wetsuits if you are planning on using one for your winter front crawl training regime. However, these are amazing for keeping the core warm on a chilly dip, I am a huge fan!