My Study on Speed: Wetsuit vs. Non-Wetsuit

>> Saturday, August 27, 2011

Here's what we all hold to be true: you can swim faster in a wetsuit than without.

My issue is that it takes me a long time to get out of my wetsuit in T1 during a race. Just before a race 2 years ago, I actually hurt myself getting out of my wetsuit. Here's what I posted on my blog back then as I described the incident:

I was taking off my wet suit, and I had it around my ankles. I had my left foot in the air as I was trying to get the suit off my left leg. I started to lose my balance, so I thought I’d quick pull the suit off so I could catch my balance. Well, I DIDN’T get the suit off, but I DID manage to bend my thumb all the way backwards and sprain it pretty bad as I quickly tried to pull off my wetsuit. It HURT! Right after I did it, the ball of my hand under my thumb swelled up HUGE.

Within a week of having that little wetsuit mishap, my hand looked like this:

I posted those images along with this: "Pharmie can’t look at it because it makes her sick. Chicks dig scars; but apparently swelled, purple hands make them throw up a little in their mouth."

So, anyway, back to the "swimming faster in a wetsuit" thing....

I've always said that I (personally) should NOT wear a wetsuit in a sprint triathlon. Sure, I might have a faster swim split than without the wetsuit, but that time would be negated by having to struggle to get out of the wetsuit in T1. I'm always dizzy and fumbling in T1, so trying to work my way out of a wetsuit would take too long in a sprint.

But I never tested this theory.

Until last weekend.

At the Waseca Sprint Triathlon a few weeks ago, I raced against a BT buddy who goes by Scuff. Here's Scuff and I pre-race

Remember all the mosquito bites I talked about in my race report?
Well, you can see them all over the left side of my body. Nasty.

Scuff and I starting the swim together to the far left

Scuff and I both had an "OK" swim at Waseca - we both veered a little, made a few mistakes, but it wasn't a horrible swim for either of use. And we both raced WITHOUT a wetsuit as you can see from the photo above.

Then, a few weeks later (which was last weekend), we did the Lake Marion Sprint Triathlon. Scuff did it again WITHOUT a wetsuit (in the same tri-top as Waseca), but this time I did it WITH a wetsuit. We both did better at Lake Marion - we both felt like we sighted better and swam better.

Me, Matt, and Justin - note that I'm wearing a wetsuit
(I didn't get a photo with Scuff at this race)

I mention that we both felt we did "OK" at Waseca, and we both felt we did "better" at Lake Marion just to note that we think we had similar swims at both races, and that one of us didn't have the "swim of our life" while the other nearly drowned - we can actually compare the times because we had comparable "feeling" swims.


Waseca Tri:

Swim: 9:52 (592 seconds)
T1: 0:58 (58 seconds)

Swim: 10:52 (652 seconds)
T1: 1:14 (74 seconds)

Lake Marion Tri:

Swim: 6:49 (409 seconds)
T1: 2:16 (136 seconds)

Swim: 8:19 (499 seconds)
T1: 2:24 (144 seconds)

To calculate the percent change, I used this formula:

The percent change is given by "(A-B) / B x 100," where A is Scuff's time and B is my time.

Using that formula:

- I was 10.14% faster in the swim at Waseca
- I was 27.59% faster in T1 at Waseca

- I was 22.00% faster in the swim at Lake Marion
- I was 5.88% faster in T1 at Lake Marion

The percent difference in the times should be the same from race to race - it doesn't matter if one race is a "longer" or "shorter" 400 meters. If I was faster by XX% at one, then I should be faster by XX% at the other, and the difference between the 2 should be 0%. BUT, with the wetsuit at Lake Marion, my time was 11.86% faster than the difference between our times at Waseca.

At a speed of 1:40 / 100 yards (100 seconds / 100 yards), a difference of 11.86% is a difference of 11.9 seconds, dropping the time down to 1:28 / 100 yards. Over a 440 yard (400 meter) swim, that's a difference of 52.4 seconds overall.

However, being I had to take off a wetsuit in T1 at the Lake Marion Tri (where my swim time was better), my T1 time suffered. I was 21.71% slower than the difference between mine and Scuff's T1 time at Waseca. But, being that T1 is a shorter amount of time than the swim, that difference of 21.71% is only about 31 seconds.

Even in a sprint triathlon with a short swim, the benefit of wearing a wetsuit during the swim is NOT erased by having to take extra time to get out of the wetsuit in T1. I gained 52.4 seconds in the swim, but lost 31 seconds in T1. Overall, this "study" showed a gain of roughly 21.4 seconds being taken off my finishing time.

(OK, I understand this is far from scientific. I did the math all correctly based on that formula, but I don't know that I did everything perfectly with regards to the percentages. STILL, I feel that it shows me that it WAS worth wearing a wetsuit in the sprint! And that I need to learn to get out of my wetsuit quicker....)


Greg 4:40 PM, August 27, 2011  

Great report Steve! I did the Maple Grove Tri (Oly) This am and with 1/4 mile left in the swim, my left leg and right foot started to cramp. I was wearing a suit and was able to float my legs in. I know, your study =), was the benefits of a suit in a sprint....just thought I'd share some other qualitative factors to consider!

Kurt @ Becoming An Ironman 5:51 PM, August 27, 2011  

I've been really curious about the overall benefits based on the various tri distances. Overall, i simply need to rent a wetsuit and give it a try.

Having been a competitive swimmer for 9 years, I start off a bit anti-wetsuit since I've raced in speedos all my life. Being covered in material just seems restrictive, but everyone seems to say it's ok as long as I get a sleeveless.

I love the comparison.

Greg 7:14 PM, August 27, 2011  

Forgot to mention.....nasty hand!

The Banter 8:53 PM, August 27, 2011  

That hand bruise looks suspiciously like an injury that happens when a man, umm, ...

Okay, maybe that's just what my hand looks like after I, umm, ...

mountain_racer 9:19 AM, August 28, 2011  

The other benefit that I find is that I simply don't have to kick as hard with a wetsuit due to the buoyancy. This saves energy for the bike and the run. So not only am I faster on the swim, but I also feel better exiting the water and running through transition AND starting the bike.

SteveQ 12:18 PM, August 28, 2011  

I'm still trying to figure out why triathletes shave their entire bodies and then put on a wetsuit.

I've had that same hand injury from lawn mowing - at least you were doing something you enjoy!

Beth 9:25 PM, August 28, 2011  

I've done a sprint in both with and without a wetsuit, and even if the times were the same I would opt for the wetsuit. It's a lot easier to swim without a wetsuit and the sleeveless ones aren't too hard to take off. Thanks for the scientific analysis!

Ellen 9:58 PM, August 28, 2011  

As someone who has done zero triathlons this year (hey, I've got three kids in college!), I can only say that I've trained quite a bit in a sleeveless suit but never worn one for a race.

Yes, I felt more "floaty" but I also felt much more constricted in my kick. I do plan on doing a Lake Superior swim next year and wearing a full wetsuit so I guess I'd better start wrapping my mind around it soon.

Love seeing the compare and contrast information!

Melissa C 12:54 PM, August 29, 2011  

Great compare and contrast info. I am glad to see that my improvements were not just mental, in that I HATE to swim without my westuit. I had the opportunity to race at the same course many many times over the past couple years and have my fastest swims with wetsuits, and my slowest without. I love my wetsuit, it is my wubby, and I bring it with me to all races, "just in case".

michael,  1:09 AM, August 30, 2011  

Overall good swimmers would benefit less or even suffer from wearing a wetsuit as compared to "less good" swimmers. It mainly has to do with body position. Good swimmers have good body position and better bouyancy. Poorer swimmers, like myself, tend to drag their legs and rotate to much which are both corrected qhen wearing a wetsuit.
On topics of getting out of your suit, have you ever tried lubing your ankles (not trying to be kinky here ;)). If you're wearing compression tubes its also alot easier to get out of your wetsuit.
What i usually do is take the wetsuit of directly after i exit the water, not running through t1 to my bike first. Because most of the water is still in your suit its easier to take it of, where as when you run to your bike first most of the water has washed out and the suit tends to cling to your legs.

Hope any of these tips help you to strip faster :)

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