The benefits of triathlon wetsuits have largely remained unquantified—until now. With help from one of the world’s leading sports science and physiology experts, Triathlete conducted testing on a variety of wetsuits to determine the actual gains a swimmer experiences by wearing specific suits. This type of data, previously reserved exclusively for Olympic swimmers, arms every wetsuit buyer with tangible information to make an informed choice about not just comfort, but performance as well. It also helps decipher actual speed-boosting features from marketing jargon by removing the mystery that surrounds most wetsuit technology. Here’s how eight wetsuits representing the cost spectrum measured up in the lab.
Genadijus Sokolovas, Ph.D., USA Swimming’s director of sports science and physiology from 2000 to 2008, designed the Swim Power System to measure the force and speed a swimmer creates at every point during a stroke with the goal of helping athletes become more efficient. Sokolovas has used it to test more than 45 Olympic gold medalists. In addition to examining technique, he created this protocol to determine how effective a suit (bathing suit, swim skin, wetsuit) is for a swimmer, and it was used to select race suits for American Olympians prior to the Beijing Games. The steps:
- Tester swims a warm-up without a suit.
- Tester swims six 25’s of increasing intensity—from easy to sprint—in each wetsuit.
- A buoy is held in place between both ankles to eliminate the kick as a variable.
- Sokolovas records swimmer velocity and distance per stroke while the swimmer is driven only by his or her stroke (the swimmer stopped at the flags, removing the factor of the wall push-off).
- Results are reported as difference in distance per stroke (DPS) when swimming in a wetsuit compared to swimming without a suit.
By connecting the data points at various swim speeds, Sokolovas creates a chart describing the swimmer’s distance per stroke—his or her efficiency—in each suit. The further a swimmer travels with each stroke at each speed, the more effective the suit.
The swimmer’s efficiency at race pace and overall average efficiency at each of the six speeds tested is reported for every suit.
- Different wetsuit features help swimmers in different ways, meaning that these data, while relevant to everyone, only apply directly to the athletes tested, one who’s a power swimmer and one who’s a balanced swimmer. There’s no guarantee these results will be duplicated in any other swimmer.
- The subjects may not have swum with the same technical efficiency during every test, regardless of the suit. Although they were both in mid-season fitness, their strokes could have changed during the course of the test as they warmed up or started to fatigue.
- Kicking wasn’t a part of the test protocol. While this helps to improve repeatability, it might put suits with less lower-body lift at a disadvantage. Fatigue was also not considered. The strain of swimming in a less flexible suit may have a effect of efficiency late in the swim.
- Fatigue created by the suit also wasn’t considered. An inflexible wetsuit may wear a swimmer out and decrease efficiency in the late stages of a race, but this test was conducted with ample rest between trials.
“DPS: +XX%” indicates the extra distance per stroke compared to swimming without a wetsuit
For more detail on the test, see the individual swimmer data and statistical explanation in the last three tabs.
VIDEO: Learn more about how the test was performed.