On Monday I was coaching at the Cherry Beach open water session with the sun shining and a bit more heat on the water than we were used to. One swimmer decided to take his wet suit off to manage the heat a little bit. When he got back in the water, he told me that much to his surprise, he felt faster in just his trunks. Curious, he asked me what I prefer. “I told him that I would never want to wear a wet suit for a race and that if he was comfortable without one as well, that I would strongly encourage him to race without the suit.”
Today I want to elaborate a bit on why I think that racing without a wet suit is the best course of action for most, if not all triathletes, as well as go over some important things to consider when deciding what to bring to your goal race. Before I begin, I want to cover some obvious bases. If the water is twelve degrees, wear a wet suit! If the water is 29 degrees, don't wear a wet suit. If you have swam all of your previous races with a wet suit and you have an important race this weekend, now is not the time to make radical changes.
With that out of the way, I would like to start with the assertion that the goal of every race is to win. Now this may not be a realistic goal for every competitor and for many "finishing is winning." All the same, every organized triathlon or open water swim you will ever do WILL BE TIMED and the common goal for everyone who jumps in is to have the fastest possible time. Beyond that, we want to have the fastest time in relation to our peers. There are many triathletes who could walk out the door tomorrow and complete an Olympic distance Tri and time themselves. However, I think we can all agree that the time would be less meaningful than one gained on a course where everyone follows the same path for the same distance in the same conditions. We want to measure ourselves against others and as much as crossing the finish line is the goal for a significant chunk of the community, the time that you do it in as it relates to others on the same day will always be relevant. We all race to win, even if winning means finishing with a smile!
With that established, you have different tools at hand to help you churn out the best possible time. The bike has more technical widgets, gadgets and high priced carbon frames available than a NASA spacecraft. The run leaves you spoiled for choice with various gels, bars, mixes, bottles, belts and tablets. In comparison, the swim is relatively simple. You need a suit and some goggles and the cap is optional. This is what makes the wet suit so seemingly important to the gear obsessed triathlete.
Let's get the obvious out of the way. A wet suit will make you faster. It does this in two ways. Firstly, it increases your buoyancy in the water. Simple. Secondly, it also decreases the amount of friction caused by tissue oscillation. Maybe not so simple. What this boils down to is that as you move through the water, your muscle and fat will move in kind of a weird wavy motion that causes friction and slows you down. By having a relatively thick rubber shell around you, this friction is reduced and you swim faster. I have heard the oft repeated statement that wet suits help novice swimmers more than advanced swimmers and as far as I know, there is no factual evidence whatsoever to support this claim. For the sake of argument, if a wet suit increases swimmers buoyancy by a hypothetical 10%, that increase would be independent of the skill of the athlete who is wearing it. However, the amount of tissue oscillation that a wet suit decreases will provide a greater advantage to an endomortphic body in comparison to an ectomorphic body. By this token, there is nothing to suggest that the advantage to be gained by wearing a wet suit has anything to do with skill level at all. It would be much more accurate to instead assert that different body types will experience varying amounts of drag reduction in comparison to what they would otherwise experience without a wet suit.
So we have established that the goal is to be as fast as possible and that a wet suit makes you faster. Why then would anyone in his or her right mind ever choose to race without one? For me, one of the big reasons comes down to training the way that I plan to race. During the winter months, we don't train in wet suits. We swim tens of thousands of meters with a certain amount of buoyancy and our entire stroke is built around that. All of the technical advice that your coach gives you is premised on how your body sits in the water without the wet suit. As soon as you introduce the artificial buoyancy that a wet suit provides, a significant chunk of the technical work that you did in the winter goes out the window and we start to lose a lot of the consistency that we worked so hard in the winter to attain.
To make this even a bit more complicated, your stroke and the way that you move through the water is largely based on how you feel the water moving on your skin. When Olympic swimmers shave down for competitions, it has less to do with reducing the drag from some scraggly hairs then it does with removing that first layer of skin cells. When you jump in the water after shaving down, you feel the water in a much more intense way and this translates into more speed in the race. By putting on a wet suit, you are taking the "feel" out of the equation. It becomes much harder to coordinate your stroke and whether your body moves through the water in the same way on race day as it did when you were training in the fall and winter becomes a total dice roll which again, hurts our long term consistency.
When you get up in the morning to head to the start line, there has to be some expectation that not everything on that day will go according to plan. This could be something as irksome as a flat tire on the bike or as menial as your watch not working properly. Typically in the swim if anything is going to go wrong, it is going to happen in the first 400 meters. Everyone launches themselves into the lake with a type of reckless abandon that conjures up scenes from a Mad Max film. As the epic struggle to sort out the pack rages, swimmers get pushed and bumped and jostled and the whole thing can be very unnerving. In this preliminary push to break away from the beach, a HUGE chunk of swimmers(regardless of skill or speed) will experience a moment of panic and we see this materialize in ways that range from a few short breastroke pulls to triathletes rolling onto their back and floating with some strange interpretation of an elementary backstroke.
When I ask athletes how their swims went, I expect one of two answers. The first is that it was awesome and they crushed it. The second is that they felt like their wet suit was pushing on their chest and they could not breath and wound up floating their way through the swim. Aside from the obvious time related issues (keeping in mind that we are racing to win), this moment of panic and subsequent back float strategy has huge mental implications on the way you perceive your race evolving from that point. Put simply, it hurts your confidence. I would be lying I said that I can relate to or understand why that momentary freak out occurs. I simply don't get it because I've spent so much time in the water over the course of my swimming career that I have a level of comfort and confidence in the water that most triathletes just don't have. However, I can say for sure that this phenomenon occurs for a significant group of swimmers regardless of their skill level and that it's not where you want to be at on your race day.
So we have now established three variables that wearing a wet suit introduces: The first being that your stroke mechanics will change. The second being that the way you perceive your stroke mechanics will change. And the third variable is that in all the chaos of the swim start, the feeling of a wet suit on your chest can lead to panic and anxiety.
Now you may be thinking, "So what, speed is speed. All this hippie sounding mumbo jumbo about the feel of the water isn't going to change the fact that I am WAY faster in a wet suit." If such a thought happened to float through your consciousness while reading this, I would invite you to do an experiment. Swim 750 metres as fast as you can without a wet suit on. Then the next day, come back and do the same swim but with your wet suit in tow. Time yourself on both days and note the difference. The only rule is that on the second day you are not allowed to stop your watch until you have completely removed your wet suit after the swim.
Once you have your data in front of you, sit down and seriously consider if the advantage gained by racing in your wet suit is worth the added variables on race day. The choice of whether or not to don a wet suit is up to you and there really is no wrong decision. However, I would posit that when athletes use words to describe other athletes that routinely perform at an elite level, consistency and confidence are perhaps the most common to hear. I believe that leaving your wet suit at home will inspire more confidence and lead to more consistency in your races and by doing so, will help you to achieve your goal which, lest we forget, is to win.