How To Take Advantage Of Swimming In A Wetsuit

  • By Dan Bullock
  • Published April 11, 2012

It’s time to dust down the wetsuit and hit the open water (if you haven’t already). But how can you make sure you are getting the most out of your wetsuit this year? Dan Bullock from Swim For Tri takes you through it.

1. Type of front crawl
There has been much discussion on the differences between a kayak style of front crawl as opposed to a near catch-up style. With the kayak style one arm is always providing a pulling effect against the water and the hands pretty much stay at opposites to one another. In a near catch-up style the lead arm is left outstretched and streamlined and waits until the recovering arm almost catches up to it. Usually both hands move into what is known as the front quadrant. Imagine starting your next pull phase of the outstretched arm once the recovering arm moves up towards the elbow of the outstretched arm. Many great long distance pool based front crawl swimmers have employed this to great effect.

The downside to this style near catch-up style of front crawl is that a good leg kick is needed to drive through the phase where the outstretched arm is not yet pulling and the pulling arm is recovering. In the pool this dead spot is softened by a strong leg kick and is something that we triathletes should be wary of. In my experience, though, the wetsuit provides so much glide and assistance to your swim speed the powerful leg kick is not needed to help you ride through the dead spot

2. Forearm
The grooving, knurling or ribbing around the forearm is a key area on a wetsuit that can help you swim faster. This is the only part of a wetsuit designed to create friction. It is designed to hold the water as you pull the body over and through locking the arm to create a handle on the water. If you know your swim technique is good and told you swim with an early vertical forearm then it is worth investing in a suit that offers this type of panelling around the forearm to get the best from your pull.

3. Hips
All kinds of ingenious hip panels have been inserted and attached in an attempt to help you rotate more effectively. As to how well these work depends on your belief on what an effective rotation is. The notion of driving from the hip is losing some followers because it is thought that without an effective leg kick – more for setting up a stable platform than propulsion – it is hard to rotate effectively and make full use of the kinetic chain running through the body. Thicker neoprene panels around the hips are unlikely to hinder due to greater buoyancy, so for whatever reason the added benefits are there to be gained.

4. Compression
Once the claustrophobic sensation of being suffocated inside your wetsuit subsides from repeated training you can start to take advantage of that feeling. The idea of compression in clothing which now appears in both performance and recovery garments carries over into wetsuits. Many studies have shown that enhanced proprioception and a decrease in muscle oscillation are two key areas to benefit. These are two key areas that can help swimming performance. As someone who has a highly tuned awareness in the water while swimming I can feel these two factors at play. I actually prefer to swim in a wetsuit now rather than without which is something I thought I would never say.

Should Your front crawl style change in a wetsuit?
There are techniques for racing open water and taking advantage of the buoyancy of a wetsuit. Not much should have to change with regard to the mechanics of your stroke, especially since wetsuits are so flexible these days. With enough rotation through the long axis you should still be able to recover with a good arm recovery. What will change are the various techniques to make an open water experience that much easier and that much more enjoyable. With a well-fitted wetsuit you can significantly improve your swim through reduced drag and improved buoyancy. A badly fitting wetsuit filling with water is going to create more drag. With this in mind you should not have to change the actual mechanics of the stroke dramatically. Subtle changes to the breathing pattern and lowering the strength of the leg kick will help you swim more efficiently though.

Just keep in mind…
1. No wetsuit will cure a bad leg kick. It will just lift it higher in the water and you will feel like you’re not working as hard.
2. The suit will elevate your body position in the water but poor mechanics will still create drag. Drag is still your main enemy demanding higher levels of air intake increasing breathing rates. Simply trying to swim faster in a wetsuit with poor mechanics just uses up energy leaving you tired for the bike.
3. Given the choice I would always take a wetsuit over a skinsuit or trisuit in terms of compression, buoyancy and drag coefficient. I generally find a wetsuit to be two strokes less over 50-metres compared to a skinsuit and four less compared to a trisuit.
4. I would be hard pushed to select the absolute fastest wetsuit out there and would suggest the fastest wetsuit is the one that is most comfortable for you. If the suit fits snugly without irritating you and leaves your stroke mechanics unaffected while providing warmth and buoyancy then you should be at your fastest.

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