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Race Tips

Ask A Ref: Race-Legal Swimwear

Confused by all the fancy new swimwear options and what’s legal to use in a race and when? Jimmy Riccitello goes over the basic rules.

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Q: Between all the fancy new swimwear options—neoprene shorts, speedsuits, wetsuits—and various racing formats, I’m confused by what’s legal to use in a race and when. What are the basic rules for race-legal swimwear?

The old-school days, when men raced more skimpily clad than women and the entire race was completed wearing nothing but a nylon or Lycra swimsuit, are long gone. Part of me is thankful (men in bikini briefs is not a good look, in my opinion), yet part of me misses the simplicity.

We’re now in the age of technological warfare with regard to swimwear material. Non-textile material (very thin neoprene or polyurethane) increases buoyancy, decreases drag and is faster than textile material (manmade fibers such as nylon or Lycra) and human skin. This paved the way for the creation of “speedsuits” (non-textile swimsuits that often cover as much of the body as possible in an attempt to improve a swimmer’s buoyancy and decrease drag) to be used in swimming and triathlon events.

One of the problems with increased buoyancy is that it will help weaker swimmers more than accomplished swimmers. So in an effort to create as level of a playing field as possible, in 2010 FINA (the international governing body of swimming) and the ITU (the international governing body of triathlon) decided to prohibit non-textile materials, and to put limits on the amount of coverage a suit may provide.

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Ironman events in the U.S. adhere to FINA and the ITU policy, and require swimwear (in non-wetsuit-legal swims) to be made from 100 percent textile material and to not extend beyond the shoulders or the knees.

To complicate matters here in the U.S., USA Triathlon (USAT) decided not to adhere to FINA and the ITU’s swimwear policy—it currently allows the athlete to wear non-textile swimwear material (in non-wetsuit-legal swims) in its sanctioned events (not including Ironman events).

However, in an effort to have consistent global rules, a Rules Harmonization task force recently recommended that USAT adopt the swimwear policy followed by FINA, ITU and Ironman. So stay tuned …

The latest rage for triathletes is the “wetsuit short,” which looks like bike shorts made out of 4–5-millimeter neoprene. They were designed as a swimming aid, similar to a pull buoy, that may help swim technique and may allow athletes to simulate swimming in a wetsuit without going through the trouble of actually wearing a wetsuit.

The wetsuit shorts are an awesome innovation and very helpful swimming tool. However, athletes must understand that wetsuit shorts may not be worn in non-wetsuit-legal swims. And while the shorts alone can be worn in wetsuit-legal swims, they may not be worn in combination with a wetsuit, since rules mandate that wetsuits not exceed 5 millimeters in thickness.

RELATED: 3 Innovative Wetsuit Design Ideas

Here’s a concise cheat-sheet to the swimwear policy:

In non-wetsuit-legal swims, Ironman events require swimwear to be 100 percent textile, and material must not extend beyond shoulders or knees.

Any 100 percent textile material may be used as swimwear.

In wetsuit-legal swims, non-textile swimwear may be worn instead of a wetsuit (think about swims that are right on the temperature border—non-textile speedsuits may keep you cooler than a wetsuit).

In wetsuit-legal swims, “wetsuit shorts” may be worn instead of a wetsuit, but not in combination with a wetsuit since wetsuit thickness may not exceed 5 millimeters.

USAT-sanctioned events (not including Ironman events) currently allow non-textile swimwear to be worn in non-wetsuit-legal swims. However, USAT will most likely prohibit non-textile material in the near future—so keep tabs on this for your future triathlons.

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