Finding the right wetsuit comes down to comfort and buoyancy. “But not just buoyancy, the location of that buoyancy,” says Genadijus Sokolovas, Ph.D., senior physiologist at Global Sport Technology. Sokolovas, who served as USA Swimming’s director of physiology and sport science from 2000 to 2008, designed and uses a machine that can identify just how effective one suit is for a particular athlete compared to another. While he has not found specific “elite” suits that are faster than all the others, two major trends have emerged. The first is that “people who have very good natural buoyancy benefit least from additional buoyancy, and different suits have different buoyancy up and down the suit,” he says.
Sokolovas recommends a simple test to determine if a swimmer needs a suit with exceptional lift in the hips and legs. Hold a streamline pose at the top of the water without moving forward. Record the time it takes for the legs to drop toward the bottom of the pool. “Fast sinking is [going vertical] within 10 seconds. Slow is holding a semi-vertical, semi-horizontal position for up to 30 or even 40 seconds.” If you sink within 10 seconds, a highly buoyant suit is likely to save you a ton of time. Athletes who are capable of staying closer to the surface can consider options with less flotation without losing too much speed.
The maximum neoprene thickness allowed for USAT and WTC races is 5mm. So if you failed the buoyancy test, limit your wetsuit search to models with the 5mm panels across the hips and legs. Aerated neoprene with little air pockets between the rubber can be even more buoyant than standard neoprene.
The comfort and freedom of a sleeveless suit can be a psychological benefit, but there is a reason that even the most skilled and experienced pros choose to race in full-sleeve wetsuits. “The more of the body you cover, the less friction you have with the water,” says Sokolovas.
The second universal trend he has learned is that full-sleeve suits are more efficient than sleeveless. “Some don’t like to cover the arms, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t benefit from sleeves. It’s just a feeling they have.”
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