Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Many North American races and most Ironman races currently are “wetsuit legal” swims. In addition to keeping athletes warm, wetsuits also help novice swimmers get through the swim. While the buoyancy of a wetsuit improves swim speed for most swimmers, some athletes swim relatively poorer than their counterparts in a wetsuit-legal swim. Usually this problem is solvable. Here are 3 keys to faster wetsuit swimming:
1. Choose The Right Wetsuit
Consider a couple of points in selecting your best suit to perform in. Sleeveless wetsuits are easiest on the shoulders, allowing for full, unrestricted range of motion. Some of the bigger, broader shouldered guys struggle in a full sleeve as they can’t get room to move. The same can be said for athletes with chronic shoulder issues. Some athletes feel they overheat in full sleeve.
Full sleeve wetsuits are more buoyant, more hydrodynamic, and the quality of neoprene in wetsuits improved remarkably in the last decade, providing better shoulder mobility. They are also warmer in cold water. Generally, a full sleeve wetsuit is faster.
Fit is critical. A proper fit can reduce shoulder tension and the chance of chafing, minimize water flow through the suit and improve overall comfort. In the store, a proper fitting wetsuit should feel almost as if it is too small. It should be tight through the low back and front of your hips, and should fit snuggly to the neck. Wetsuits tend to stretch slightly after a few uses but, most importantly, the tightness will minimize the amount of water flowing into your suit. You want to swim quickly through the water, not drag half the lake around with you.
2. Put It On Right
Your swim performance can be impacted by how you put your suit on. You can injure your shoulders swimming with a suit with twisted arms, as it pulls your arm around like a super-size tensor bandage! A suit not pulled all the way up can place restrictive pressure on your shoulders and limit body rotation. It usually takes a few minutes to properly pull on a wetsuit. Slipping each foot into a plastic bag can help slide the suit past your feet and ankles. Before you put your arms through the top half, make sure the bottom half of the suit is pulled up as high as it can go. Starting from the ankles, grab the outside of the neoprene and pull upwards (make sure your fingernails are clipped, or wear gloves!). Keep pulling the suit upwards just like you would to put on nylons or running tights, but make sure you don’t have any wrinkles. Use the plastic bag on your hands to help slip your arms in and pull the suit up towards your shoulders, starting from the wrists. Pull the suit from the sides of your torso into you your armpits, getting as much mobility as you can through the shoulders. Do a couple arm circles and assess the range of motion. If it’s feeling too restrictive, pull the arms up higher.
3. Do Specific Training to Get You Race Ready
Once you have mastered the basic skills of open-water swimming, you should incorporate some wetsuit race simulation swim sessions into your workouts. This is an ideal time to develop an efficient race day warm up, and get used to shifting gears from race start speed, into mid-race-pace.
Most triathletes do great swim warm-ups in training, but don’t warm up nearly enough on race day. A good warm up gets the body ready to perform. It also alleviates nerves and tension, so you can focus on simply executing your swim fitness. In a wetsuit, we fill tighter than normal, so it is even more critical.
Building your Warm-Up
- Start with three to four minutes of easy swimming. Check for water flow through the suit and readjust if necessary.
- Do 3-4 sets of 20 strokes of drills. Incorporate some drills that make you feel fast (this is not the time to reconstruct your stroke!)
- For wetsuit, close-fisted freestyle forces you to pull water with your forearms, not just your hands. We can’t feel the water with our forearms in a full sleeve, so it a good reminder of proper swim arm mechanics.
- Pick a drill that reminds you to rotate and glide long, like kicking on your side. Wetsuits tend to flatten us out because they feel restrictive, resulting in a shorter, less efficient stroke.
- Finally, the drills should be done with a bit of tempo, not just floating along.
- After the drills do some pick-ups to engage your muscles in a race specific range of motion, and to increase arterial blood flow.
- Increase your stroke rate and build up your speed over a certain number of strokes.
- An athlete who needs more warm-up may do 150 meters (or 100-150 strokes) at your triathlon 1500 meter race pace.
- The athlete who needs less warm-up may do three or four repeats of 20 to 30 strokes at race pace.
- At the end of your warm-up you should leave at least 50 to 100 meters to swim back in easy and loose and to check out the swim exit.
Here is a sample open-water wetsuit session for triathlon race simulation:
- Perform your race day warm up.
- 5 min standing on beach to simulate race meeting before start.
- Run into water and swim fast for 100m then continue for 200-400 meters (out around a marker and back to the start) at race pace. Run hard out of the water and continue for 20m up the beach.
- Rest, and repeat swim sequence 2 more times.
- End session with 3-5 min. easy swimming, and taking wetsuit off as you would in transition.
A good race start is slightly faster than your average pace for the race distance. This gives you opportunity to catch onto a faster pack and reap the benefits of the draft, which allows you to swim at a faster pace with the same level of energy output. So it important to practice starting fast, and getting used to how it feels.
After your race simulation session, take note of how you felt swimming hard after your warm-up. This will give you clues as to whether the warm up is effective for you, or needs to be fine tuned.
This session also develops the ability to find your rhythm. This means keeping yourself in check during the race and not losing your pace or falling off faster feet. Arm cadence is key. Like on the bike, maintaining cadence is critical to maintaining speed.
Practicing in the Pool
You can also simulate with your friends in the pool. Swim with your wetsuit in the pool. Swim with 3-4 friends of equal fitness and pace.
- Practice your race warm-up protocol.
- Do 2-4 x 500 meters swimming as a pack in chevron formation. Each 50m a swimmer from the back of the pack breaks for the front to simulate making a jump. They have 50m to get to the front.
Finally, training with paddles is beneficial. They help prepare the shoulders and lats for the extra load of swimming with wetsuit resistance. Once or twice per week, start with a total of 400-800m of pull buoy plus paddles swimming done as shorter intervals, (i.e. 8-16 x 50m with 15-25 seconds rest) and add 10-15% of paddles volume per week until you can swim 1500-2000 meters with paddles.
On the most basic level, make sure and train in your suit, and get used to how it feels. Adapt to swimming your race distance in your suit so that race day there are no shocks to the system!
Lance Watson, LifeSport head coach, has trained a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 28 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Contact Lance to tackle your first Ironman or to perform at a higher level.