A wetsuit's short lifespan is usually attributed to poor care, not poor quality.
Triathlon wetsuits have an average shelf life of about two years, according to Kenzie Jones of Poco Loco Swim Shop in Provo, Utah. However, that short lifespan is usually attributed to poor care, not poor quality. “I know someone who takes amazing care of his wetsuits, is in the water multiple times a week, and has a suit that’s lasted him seven years,” says Jones. “It’s just now showing visual signs of wear and tear.”
You can be like that guy, saving some money and enjoying a long, happy relationship with your wetsuit by showing it some love with these tips from Jones:
Go for quality
Jones estimates splitting seams cause 90 percent of premature wetsuit failures. A suit with more stretch, more layers, and more than one type of seal is more likely to go the long haul without a tear. Look for suits with super-seal seams or glued and blind-stitched seams, like the BlueSeventy Sprint or De Soto T1 First Wave, which are sturdier and keep more water out of the gate then a flat-lock stitched suit.
Wear it often
If you only take your wetsuit out once a year for your “A” race, chances are you’ll find it difficult to pull on each time. A wetsuit in storage for long periods of time, especially if the suit was not properly rinsed and dried beforehand, becomes brittle. “A suit that is never used will begin to harden and seem to have shrunk,” says Jones. “The suit’s size hasn’t really changed–it just doesn’t stretch anymore, so it’s harder to get into.”
To increase the pliability of the neoprene, take the suit out for several practice swims throughout the season, increasing the frequency before your races.
Use the warranty
If you notice a malfunction in the suit, call the manufacturer. Most have some type of warranty on wetsuits, with the majority offering coverage for about a year. However, many wetsuit companies are notorious for offering above-and-beyond customer service: “A lot of companies out there choose to work directly with the customer instead of using the retail establishment as a middleman. That’s really nice for the customer, because their issues get directly taken care of. There are even manufacturers out there who will work with the customer after the warranty has expired. Most want to keep the customer in the water in the most cost effective way possible.”
Dress for success
“Most of what breaks down a wetsuit would fall under user error,” says Jones. “It can be totally prevented if people are just conscious of what they’re doing when putting on and taking off the suit.”
1. Be aware of the Velcro on the wetsuit, and don’t let it touch the neoprene; that can break the seals and cause small tears.
2. Trim your nails before wearing the suit, and make sure the nails do not puncture any part of the material when putting on the suit.
3. Don’t rush putting the wetsuit on or taking it off, which usually stretches the suit.
4. Consider skipping the wetsuit strippers: “Be aware that in a race situation, if you use the people whose sole job is to get that suit off of you as fast as possible, they will stretch the suit and put nicks in it from their nails because they are moving too fast for the suit.”
Be water aware
Chlorine and salt are bad for any type of wetsuit. For maximum longevity, it would be ideal to train and race in fresh water. The good news for triathletes who don’t have that option is that swimming in chlorine or salt won’t automatically cause the suit to degrade; a proper rinse can cancel out much of the damage to the material.
Wash and dry
After swimming in any body of water (fresh, salt, or chlorine), rinse the wetsuit in cool to warm water. Avoid hot water, which will reduce the flexibility of the neoprene, and keep your suit out of the washing machine. If a cleansing with detergent is needed, soak in a mild detergent (or, better yet, a specially-formulated wetsuit shampoo like McNett Wetsuit Shampoo) before rinsing.
After you’ve rinsed your wetsuit, turn it inside out to reduce the potential for UV damage, which can degrade the outer layer of the suit. And never hang your suit like a shirt:
“Putting it on a hanger in a traditional way will put the weight on the neck or shoulders and stretch it out,” says Jones. “Instead, you want to feed the suit through the hanger and drape it over the bottom bar, much like you hang pants on a hanger.” A wetsuit can also be draped over a banister or railing in similar fashion.
Know when it’s (really) time to let go
“There is one misconception about a suit being done when it really isn’t,” says Jones, “and that is that the suit starts to stink.” Though most swimmers assume this happens because the material has somehow “gone bad,” Jones says the real culprit is bacteria. “This happens when the suit has been improperly dried and left damp too long, or you’ve been peeing in it. This is something you can fix just by cleaning the suit properly.” (See: Wash and dry)
There are other signs that indicate a wetsuit has reached the end of its lifespan, including excess water in the torso (a sign the material has been stretched out) which can slow you down by cutting buoyancy and creating drag; nicks and holes; and inflexible, cracking neoprene.