Ask a Gear Guru: What’s The Best Tri Wetsuit for Beginners?
This article originally appeared on Triathlete
If you're new to the sport of triathlon, you're probably wondering what the best wetsuit is for beginners. Maybe you're thinking that a wetsuit is only necessary to keep you warm. You've seen people surfing out in the chilly fall or spring waters and figure it's about the same thing. Some beginners may actually be using or thinking about using a surf wetsuit because, hey, they're available almost everywhere, they're cheap, and they look cool. The first thing you should know is that no, a surf wetsuit is not a great choice for triathlon. Surf wetsuits are made to keep you warm, that's true, and they're generally made to prevent restriction in the shoulders so you can paddle, but that's where the similarities to a swimming wetsuit come to an abrupt end.
Surf wetsuits are made to keep you warm, but they’re also made to be durable: All of that laying on a waxy surfboard and popping up from your hands to your knees to your feet puts a lot of abuse on that fragile neoprene. As a result all surf wetsuits have some form of protection on the chest, on the knees, and sometimes in other places as well. That protection is great to prevent your fancy wetsuit from tearing, but it’s terrible for floatation and even worse for flexibility. Also, most surf wetsuits don’t care about how much floatation they provide, and no surf wetsuit is constructed to proved floatation in specific zones of your body.
RELATED: Can I Wear a Surf Wetsuit for Triathlon?
The best triathlon wetsuit for beginners will keep you warm, but almost more importantly, it makes you faster and more efficient--no word wetsuit will do that. And the slower you swim, generally, the greater the improvement that even the most basic tri wetsuit will bring. Tri wetsuits are specially designed to not only keep you warm and allow your shoulders to move freely, but the material is made to shed water, make you hydrodynamic, and actually float you in specific areas to put your body into a better swim position. The better your swim position, the faster (and easier) you’ll move in the water, and that’s a very good thing.
Ready to learn more about triathlon? Check out our beginner's guide to your first triathlon.
What to look for when it comes to the best beginner wetsuit for you--in order of importance:
This is at the top of our list for a reason, and it’s important to know up front that brands fit different people better. Even different level wetsuits need to be sized slightly differently. Higher-end wetsuits generally size down because the neoprene is more flexible, so it can be tighter without restricting your movement. Lower-end wetsuits should closely follow the size guide or go on the higher end if you're between sizes. Be realistic about your proportions (bigger shoulders, longer torso, bigger thighs, etc.), and follow the recommendations on the wetsuit's website or better yet if you can try them on in person in a store. Bear in mind a wetsuit will loosen up slightly after spending a session or two in the water.
How do you know if the fit is right? In the store--or before you get wet--it should feel pretty tight around the neck, almost too tight. Don’t worry, it’ll loosen up after about an hour in the water. In the water, you’ll know if a wetsuit is too loose if it’s filling up with water. In no situation should water be able to enter the neck and fill up the rest of the suit. If it does, that’s a sign the suit is too loose and that extra water in the suit will prevent you from staying warm, and more importantly weight you down, hurting that flotation you’ve spent your hard-earned dollars buying.
This floating effect that generally gives triathletes a five- to 10-second advantage per 100m. That can add up to around two minutes over just an Olympic-distance race! By strategically placing different thickness neoprene in different areas on the body, the best beginner wetsuit will help lift your hips and/or legs to prevent the dreaded "anchor effect" that's particularly prevalent in cyclists and runners, as a result of more muscular, heavier hips and legs. Some wetsuits have so much float that you can actually reduce your kick--so you're not only improving your posture to give you free speed in the water, but you'll actually be less tired when it comes time to bike and run. More advanced wetsuits may have less buoyancy with the tradeoff that they’re more flexible. These are typically reserved for very good swimmers--think former club or collegiate swimmers.
While many beginner wetsuits use thicker neoprene to save money, the best beginner wetsuits will have slightly thinner, more flexible material in the shoulder area to prevent fatigue and chafing. Too much space in the shoulders can not only allow water to get in, but can also cause dreaded chafing. Too tight, and you’ll feel restricted, like something is pulling on your arm throughout the entire range of your stroke--this will cause fatigue over time.
The neck area:
The best beginner wetsuit for any triathlete is one that won't chafe or irritate your neck while swimming. A thinner material with few stitches that are taped or welded down will lessen the chance of a raw neck post-swim. Higher-end wetsuits will have a very thin, supple neckline with innovative ideas like a magnetic clasp. As mentioned before, the neck should feel almost too tight when trying it on--don’t worry it’ll loosen and you’ll get used to the feeling.
Many brands claim to have "the best neoprene coating,” some sort of special catch panel on the forearm, interesting panels on the torso or shaped features on the legs. While these are rarely something that will slow you down, these little features are often far less important than the manufacturer would have you believe (but add on a substantial bit to the price tag). There's a reason "special features" sits at the bottom of our list, far far below fit.
RELATED: What Matters (And What Doesn’t) When Buying a Wetsuit
So before you spend a few hundred bucks at the local surf shop, check out the ten best beginner wetsuits options for triathletes below:
The best wetsuit for beginners looking to float
Orca Athlex Float
Recently updated from the popular (and very floaty) S7, this is a fantastic beginner wetsuit for those coming from running or cycling--or from a very new swimming background. The upper body has thin, flexible neoprene to allow for maximum range of motion through the shoulders, while the lower body has thick, 4.5mm neoprene (5mm is the maximum thickness allowed in most triathlon events). This “imbalance” in thicknesses creates an almost downhill feeling due to the over buoyancy in the legs versus the torso. The result is a pretty big assist for swimmers who struggle with their legs and hips dragging in the water (you know who you are!). Not only does this help with warmth, but it’s the key for a faster, easier swim split.
The best wetsuit for beginners looking for something flexible for warm swims
Rocket Science Sports One Long Sleeve
Testers love this wetsuit for warm swims or when flexibility is the name of the game--looking at you, experienced swimmers who hate shoulder restriction, but don't want to spend a fortune. Despite the lack of floatation and warmth, the One does a great job of holding a neutral body position in the water and never bunches in the knees while kicking. Compared to the Orca Athlex Float, the One has a maximum thickness of 3mm in the legs and 2mm/1.5mm in the torso/neck area.
Best wetsuit for beginners looking a no-frills experience
TYR Hurricane Cat 1
If you're looking to stay warm and buoyant, but want a low-key look and no-frills design, the Hurricane Cat 1 is the wetsuit for you. While it's not the most flexible suit on the list, it does its job well and is durable to boot. Athletes with a longer torso, take note.
Best wetsuit for beginners looking for a high-end experience
Synergy Volution Fullsleeve
Synergy is known not only for good prices (and good sales on Amazon!), but also for great bang-for-your-buck. Not only does the Volution boast neoprene that punches well outside of its weight class (meaning it’s flexible and buoyant without encumbering upon your stroke), it also comes in 11 sizes for men and eight sizes for women. Most brands, with a few exceptions, only offer suits in nine and six sizes respectively. Why does that matter? More sizes means a better chance that you’ll get that perfect fit--which is worth more than its weight in gold.
Best wetsuit for beginners looking for flexibility
This is one of our favorite options for flexibility under $300, and the Sprint has been updated in 2023 by adding 39 cell Yamamoto neoprene throughout the entire suit. What does this mean? It means more flexibility and less weight to carry in the water. It can also mean a slight hit in durability, but not so much that you’d have to wear gloves when you put it on (yes, some suits are that fragile!).
Best wetsuit for beginners looking for bells and whistles
Zone3 Advance Wetsuit
Made from eco-friendly limestone neoprene and scrap rubber from tires, the Advance wetsuit punches way outside of its class with features usually found on a wetsuit for nearly twice the price. Weighing in on the slightly more lightweight/flexible side of beginner wetsuits with a 4mm max neoprene thickness around the hips and legs, the arms have a new and incredibly flexible construction rounded out with a laser-cut collar.
RELATED: Ask A Gear Guru: How In The #$*& Do I Put On A Triathlon Wetsuit?
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