It’s fair to say that the subject of wetsuits tends to divide those who swim in cooler waters.
Many dedicated cold water swimmers will undoubtedly regard anyone who uses one as a bit of a wuss. Those that prefer a birthday suit to a wetsuit will tell you that nothing beats the feel of the water directly against the skin and that it will result in an enhanced and enormous high as the endorphins pump around your body.
Certainly, you will lose a certain connection with the water and a wetsuit may throw your stroke out slightly initially as you adapt to the extra buoyancy it offers, particularly in the legs. Some also find a wetsuit uncomfortable and claustrophobic and a bit of a faff to get on and off again. However, for newcomers to cold water swimming, using a wetsuit can be a very useful intermediate step – and one many folks never get past. And there’s absolutely no shame in that.
So if you’re going to use one, what should you be looking for, and what is the easiest way to get one on with the minimum of fuss?
Whilst we may not endorse any particular brand or model there are a few basic principles to look out for. Most importantly make sure the wetsuit is a good fit. You may have to try on a great number before you find the one which is perfect for your body shape. Buying one without trying it on first is a lottery you are unlikely to win. Imagine all the body shapes there are and then imagine how many variations a manufacturer can possibly hope to satisfy. It may be hard to do, but the more you can try on, the greater your chances are that you will find the perfect one for you. The more expensive wetsuits tend to have better features and might be more flexible in fitting a variety of body shapes. In selecting a suit you’ll need to decide on the thickness of the material, balancing the level of protection you get from the cold against the level of flexibility and ease of movement the wetsuit offers. If you plan on swimming in very cold water no doubt you’ll want to use a wetsuit with full arms and legs (a bodysuit) but if you are going to be in slightly warmer water you might prefer a short-sleeved or no-sleeved style instead.
Once you have chosen the model best suited to you there are a few tips and tricks involved in getting into it efficiently without damaging it
When putting it on, look for any gaps between the neoprene and your skin. It should fit you like a second skin. Pay particular attention to under the arms and at the crotch; these are places where pockets of cold water can accumulate. Not only is this uncomfortable but it’s also potentially dangerous when temperatures are low. Make sure you pull the wetsuit on so that it is as snug as possible, yet without restricting the movement of your shoulders and arms. It’s a good idea to use cotton gloves to do this as the areas you need to pull on around the shoulders etc are also often where the neoprene is at its thinnest. It is easy to tear the wetsuit resulting in a tricky repair job.
It’s often useful to have someone to help you eliminate all the wrinkles and creases. Never refuse an offer or be afraid to ask for assistance if the offer isn’t forthcoming! (An extra pair of hands can be equally invaluable when it comes to getting out of the wetsuit later as well!)
Another useful tip is to take along a flask of lukewarm water. Once you are in it, pour the water down the neck of the wetsuit. The water will help it stick to your skin. Your body will also begin to heat the water up which will be much easier than heating up the water which seeps in once you are immersed!
Gloves, booties, and neoprene caps should also be considered. Several layers if necessary. Whilst caps in particular and make some people feel a bit claustrophobic, these too should be snug about the head. The same is true for gloves and socks. Swimming with gloves full of water is both tricky and unpleasant. Make sure the wetsuit goes over the joint between the two items.
One of the disadvantages of wetsuits can be the chafing which results, particularly at the neck, so don’t forget to use a lubricant. Apply it liberally! There are many brands on the market but good old Vaseline can often work just as well
For some, it can be a good idea to get the blood circulation going a bit faster before you enter, so a bit of swinging of the arms, a little jog, or a few star jumps can be beneficial. If you want to do a little dance be my guest. No-one is going to think you’re odd for doing it. They’ll probably already think you’re odd for contemplating going in in the first place. Some experts question whether warming up really helps but if it works for you that’s all that really matters.
Finally, give some consideration to your swim cap. Your head is a major source of heat loss. A neoprene cap is going to give you the best insulation. Even if you are wearing a neoprene cap (which is usually black), I recommend placing a brightly colored swim cap over the top to be easily seen by others; fluorescent orange, pink or yellow have been proved to be the best colours. Your cap is more than a fashion choice; it’s a potential lifesaver.
Wetsuits aren’t for everyone. Others swear by them. It’s simply a matter of personal choice. Whatever your opinion there is no doubt that they allow many more swimmers to take to the waters, enjoying the pleasures of open water swimming than would be the case if they didn’t exist. And that can only be a good thing.