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Of course you can wear a surf wetsuit for triathlon. There are no rules against it—unless it happens to be thicker than 5 mm—and quite literally thousands of triathletes have done it in the relatively short history of the sport. As long as you don’t mind a few judgmental gazes from the triathlon elitists, a surf wetsuit will do a fine job of keeping you warmish in temps as low as 55 degrees F. But that’s about all it will do for you. If you’re looking for buoyancy, flexibility, and a quick exit at T1, you might be better off with no wetsuit than a surf wetsuit.
When you should consider wearing a surf wetsuit at a triathlon
Let me tell you a little story about my good friend Marcus. When we were both 25, he came out to live with me in San Diego for a month so he could train for his first Ironman in Arizona. Like me, he was a former collegiate water polo player, so he had no concerns about the swim, but he needed to get his cycling and running in order in a hurry.
The problem was he also wanted to learn how to surf because he was moving to New Zealand. The day he arrived, he bought a surfboard and surf wetsuit off Craigslist, and I really didn’t see much of him for the next four weeks. He surfed upwards of six hours a day, and spent the hours in between riding his road bike to different beaches with his board and wetsuit in a little trailer he also found on Craigslist. He did not run a single time during that month.
Come race day in Tempe, Marcus didn’t have money for a tri wetsuit, and thought he’d be slower with the surf wetsuit, so he entered Tempe Town Lake as one of three people not wearing a wetsuit (water temp was in the low 60s). Given his strong swimming background, I expected him to be out of the water in about 55 minutes, so I started to get concerned once the clock hit 1:05. Then I was really concerned at 1:15 and started pacing the bridges looking for him.
At 1:35, his massive, 6’5” figure came stumbling out of the water and collapsed to a rush of volunteers. Marcus is typically very pale, but every inch of his skin was as red as a raspberry. He had hypothermia, and not a mild case, either. Someone grabbed towels and blankets to wrap him up and asked if he wanted to go to the med tent. I let him know that entering the med tent would mean his day was over. He took him a solid minute to speak. “No, just let me sit here and warm up and I’ll be fine.”
About 15 minutes later, he slogged his way into T1, and another 10 minutes later he was on his bike and his skin was starting to return to its typical lack of pigment. All told, his little hypothermia episode cost him about an hour. If he’d just used the surf wetsuit, he might’ve lost a couple of minutes due to the lack of flexibility, but it would’ve been significantly less uncomfortable than hypothermia.
That was a long way of saying that the only time you should ever consider doing a triathlon with a surf wetsuit is if the water is cold enough to induce hypothermia, and it’s your only option. Some surf wetsuits will actually do an even better job of keeping you warm. Otherwise, tri wetsuit brands have done an excellent job of introducing affordable, entry-level options in recent years, and most will cost less than a sprint-distance race entry.
If you’re going to wear a surf wetsuit in a tri, some advice…
“Before you think of doing your first triathlon in a surf wetsuit, I suggest getting in the pool or open water and swimming at least 500 yards to see how it feels,” said Marcin Sochacki, a wetsuit engineer with 30 years of experience and the founder of Rocket Science Sports. “It won’t give you much buoyancy, but if you’re not too restricted, and you’re just trying to stay warm, there’s no need to invest in another suit.”
Surf wetsuit for tri: A better option
The difference between a $250 set of wheels and a $2,500 set of wheels is massive. The difference between a $150 wetsuit and a $950 wetsuit is relatively small, especially for someone new to open water. The fact that there are multiple triathlon wetsuits on the market right now going for north of $1,000 seems insane, but those are designed for the top 1%—or the 10% who want to pretend they’re the top 1%.
“Wetsuit brands saw where the triathlon market was going a few years ago and they adapted,” Sochacki said. “Many brands—ours included—found that you can build a really good wetsuit and sell it for $150-$175.”
If you don’t want the discomfort of a surf wetsuit, and you don’t want to end up like Marcus, there are plenty of options for under $200.
Rocket Science Sports ONE Fullsuit
Zone3 Sleeveless Vision
After later wearing a surf wetsuit in an Ironman swim, Marcus finished Ironman Arizona in just over 15 hours. He now splits time between China and Cincinnati (as one does), working as a rock climbing and whitewater rafting guide. He is a phenomenal surfer.