Triathlon, Surfing and Diving Wetsuits – What’s the Difference?
Wetsuits are snug-fitting suits, typically of a neoprene foam base material, which may incorporate other fabric layers in order to make the suit more durable or lend it favorable hydrodynamic properties. Their premise is that the thin layer of water that is allowed to enter between the suit and the skin will quickly warm to body temperature, thus providing an additional level of insulation against the loss of body heat.
Suits may be full length in the sleeves and legs, or shortened, may or may not include zippers and can be of various thicknesses and colors. One common aspect, both in terms of comfort and functionality, is that the suit must fit properly, in order to be effective.
There are several different characteristics that triathlon, surfing and diving wetsuits all exhibit to varying degrees, although all are not equally important in each use. The primary considerations in selecting the most effective suit for any use are:
- Hydrodynamic resistance
- Ease of removal
All of these factors aren’t critical in each use, so naturally, a wetsuit purchased for one activity won’t be the best possible choice for the others. In a moment, we’ll take a look at how each of these factors comes into play. But first, let’s examine what they have in common.
All three are designed to provide the wearer with some level of thermal protection. When a person is immersed in water, the total contact of the water with the skin can cause a rapid loss of body temperature. This can affect a swimmer’s ability to function, can drain his energy and can be extremely hazardous if the body’s core temperature falls below 95 degrees F.
Beyond that, wetsuits that are designed for specific uses provide varying degrees of these benefits.
Triathlon wetsuits certainly provide the athlete with some thermal protection. Depending upon the water temperature in which the competition takes place, the swimmers may use either a swimskin or a wetsuit. Swimskins, however, offer much less buoyancy and thermal insulation than their counterparts.
Triathlon wetsuits involve all five of the above characteristics. They provide buoyancy, which lifts the swimmer higher in the water, thus allowing for easier, hence faster, swimming.
They also provide thermal protection, although generally less than that of a diving wetsuit, as they are typically not as thick. Due to the strenuous activity involved in the triathlon swim leg, over-heating can be an issue, so a high degree of insulation isn’t desirable. In fact, most triathlon competitions will prohibit the use of wetsuits in warm waters, for that very reason.
Another very important characteristic of these suits is the reduced hydrodynamic resistance of the suit’s surface. Pores, hairs and wrinkles actually present a significant resistance to the flow of water over the skin, and the engineered surface of a wetsuit can reduce a swimmer’s time by a minute or more, over an Olympic length swim.
Flexibility is a major consideration, as each stroke saps the swimmer’s strength, and any restriction of his full range of movement can dramatically affect both his energy reserves and his elapsed time.
Finally, transition time between the swim and bike legs (T1) can be another significant factor in a competitor’s overall time, and a great deal of design effort is dedicated to facilitating a quick and easy removal of the suit, while avoiding damage.
Unlike triathlon competitors, surfers are typically exerting themselves less. That means they are generating less body heat, so will often need greater thermal protection in similar water temperatures.
A thicker suit material will tend to offer more buoyancy as a side-effect, but that additional buoyancy isn’t really of any significant benefit to the surfer.
Flexibility in the suit isn’t a great concern for surfers, either, as their range of movement and repetitive motion isn’t as crucial a factor for them.
Similarly, the hydrodynamic properties of a suit are of little interest to surfers. They are typically only partially immersed while paddling out or awaiting a wave, and not at all, while surfing the wave (at least until they wipe out).
Ease of removal isn’t a tremendous concern for surfers, either, beyond the extent that difficulty may make damage to the suit more probable.
For SCUBA divers, the wetsuit certainly offers benefits. Buoyancy is a factor, but not a critical one, as the diver usually wears a buoyancy compensator with which the varying buoyancy at different depths can be adjusted to maintain a constant factor.
More important is the thermal insulating effect, as divers often spend an hour or more submerged and can find themselves subjected to significantly colder water beneath the surface, due to thermoclines (the transition between cold and warmer water, caused by the natural layering of water of different temperatures).
Flexibility isn’t a huge concern for divers, although it certainly plays into their comfort. Most of the strenuous activity for divers involves their legs, unless they happen to be working underwater.
Hydrodynamics isn’t an issue, either, for most divers. They normally aren’t competing against the clock or each other, so their suit’s resistance in the water isn’t a concern.
Ease of removal is no more a problem for a SCUBA diver than it is for a surfer. Potential damage to their suit is the only real concern.
There is another aspect of wetsuits that is an important factor for a diver, while it doesn’t really apply to either triathletes or surfers: cushioning.
Divers have to carry bulky tanks and heavy weights strapped to their back and around their waist and sometimes will have other equipment strapped around their legs or arms. Typically, those straps are nylon webbing, and they can chafe uncomfortably against bare skin, even without the weight they support. A wetsuit prevents that chafing, allowing the diver to concentrate on other things.
While triathlon, surfing and diving wetsuits aren’t readily interchangeable, due to the unique requirements of each, they do share some common features and characteristics.
Most wetsuits can have minor repairs easily performed with an appropriate neoprene glue, while major repairs may have to be accomplished by a wetsuit manufacturer.
Proper fit is critical in any wetsuit, in order to control the amount of water that enters the suit and to provide sufficient freedom of movement.
Wetsuits are no longer as expensive as they once were, in spite of the advancements in materials and fabrication technologies. Never the less, they represent an investment that the user will want to protect, so care must be taken not to damage them against rocks, reefs or with the fingernails.
Once you have found the right wetsuit for you, whether you’re into triathlons, surfing or SCUBA diving, by caring for it properly, you should be able to get years of good service from it. By the time you need a new one, who knows what new technology may exist?