Not all wetsuits are created equal, so we put seven very different suits in the water to find out how they stack up in speed and comfort.
Originally used to protect swimmers from cold water, wetsuits now rival TT bikes in technological features. Not only do many of today’s suits fit like a second skin, they also enhance speed and efficiency by improving body position, aiding rotation from stroke to stroke and reducing overall drag. And now they can make an athlete look like a superhero, six-pack abs included (see Tyr’s Freak of Nature). But just like bikes, not all wetsuits are created equal, so we put seven very different suits in the water to find out how they stack up in speed and comfort.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
2XU ST:3 Sleeveless Team $280
Best for: Good swimmers
It’s tricky to make a sleeveless suit with neck and shoulder openings that form a good seal without feeling uncomfortably tight. 2XU comes close with the ST:3. “I can’t believe no water slipped down my back and chest,” one tester reported. Swimmers with naturally decent body position will find that this suit does not force up hips and legs awkwardly while still making nice hydrodynamic body position. The wetsuit has respectable flexibility through the torso and legs, however the collar might be too tight for some.
Tyr Freak of Nature $1,200
Best for: Showing off, comfort
For athletes looking to make a statement on the start line, the Freak is clearly the frontrunner. But what do you get for $1,200? “It feels like it was custom-made for me,” said one enthusiastic tester. Made entirely of the most flexible wetsuit rubber, Yamamoto #40, the Freak conforms to the entire body like a second skin, with panels for extra buoyancy placed in exactly the right spots to aid swim position and rotation without noticeable bulk. The low, comfortable collar keeps water out without hindering sighting, while the tire-tread forearm panels feel like they enhance forearm propulsion. With the right aero helmet, the Freak could also be worn as an Iron Man superhero costume on Halloween, an extra use that may help justify the eye-popping price tag.
RELATED VIDEO: TYR’s Freak Of Nature
Orca Alpha $650
Best for: Comfort
Made from a mix of the most flexible Yamamoto #40 rubber and their second-most flexible variety, #39, the Alpha fits like a second skin. “It’s like the wetsuit equivalent of a Snuggie blanket, if Snuggies could glide through water,” raved one tester. Featuring thick five-millimeter patches of neoprene over the butt and quads, the suit gently raises hips up into perfect alignment without sacrificing flexibility anywhere in the suit. The low-profile collar kept water out without feeling too tight or limiting ability to sight. It’s best for experienced swimmers who don’t need a big lift in the water and need to feel uninhibited by their wetsuit. Our testers didn’t feel the forearm panels made a noticeable difference in stroke efficiency.
Xterra Vortex Sleeveless $300
Best for: Hip draggers
Nothing pops hips and legs out of the water like five millimeters of neoprene, and that’s exactly what this suit is made of: five millimeters of neoprene—the max USA Triathlon allows—straight down the front. For athletes whose legs feel like dead weight, the Vortex is a delightful pick-me-up. Of course, a compromise must be made for that benefit. Stretch in the torso is minimal despite the three-millimeter backside, so the swimmer’s body must conform to the suit instead of the other way around. But because it’s sleeveless, shoulder rotation remains uncompromised. Our only gripe: The large closure tab in the back of the neck makes sighting uncomfortable.
Blueseventy Axis $550
Best for: Forearm propulsion
Touted as a suit for hip-dragging non-swimmers, the Axis features extra buoyancy in the hips and legs to promote horizontal position in the water. While the Axis does make it easy to stay high and horizontal, skilled swimmers will appreciate the suit most for its flexibility and the proprioceptive feel for the water it creates. Instead of generating propulsion, the forearm grippers allowed the tester to feel when his forearms were not catching water properly, allowing him to quickly correct stroke mechanics before they deteriorated. The soft, comfortable neck sits lower than most other wetsuits, which testers said made sighting a breeze without allowing water into the suit. All that tech combined made one tester remark, “It feels so fast!”
RELATED: Finding Your Perfect Wetsuit Fit
Nineteen Pipeline $280
Best for: Hip draggers
Named for the Queen K (state highway 19) on which much of Kona is raced, Canada-based Nineteen created a suit both hip draggers and their pocketbooks will appreciate. Extremely buoyant hip and thigh panels pop the legs out of the water, placing the body in an aggressive, streamlined swim position so it “feels almost illegally advantageous,” one tester said. Despite all of that lift, the suit remains flexible, providing a surprisingly good range of motion in the shoulders for a suit at this price point. That thick blue stripe isn’t just for looks—it’s the stretch panel that gives the suit much of its flex.
Zoot Force 1.0 $200
Best for: Large chests and shoulders
Testers were impressed with the Force’s flexibility, a feature typically missing in lower-priced suits. Because of its ability to stretch and conform, the Force allows comfortable shoulder rotation and will fit a variety of body shapes. One tester said, “It easily fits over my huge back and shoulders. And, you know, my belly.” Best for swimmers with good body position who don’t need a lower extremity boost, the Force also features a thick collar that keeps water out but might be a bit too bulky for some athletes. And just like all of the suits featured here, the Force rips off with minimal effort, so any time gains made in the water won’t be lost in transition.