It’s time for quantitative testing to replace vague narrative as the driving force behind wetsuit design.
This article was originally published in the Sep./Oct. 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
A flexible wetsuit is better than a stiff one, right? That’s the story that wetsuit makers have been selling since Quintana Roo created the first tri-specific suit back in the ’80s. The value of flexibility has been repeated so many times that it has become dogma—we all put our faith into elasticity without any empirical evidence that it actually makes a suit faster.
While bike design has become a scientific process controlled by engineers with advanced degrees in fluid dynamics and computer wizards using hundred-thousand-dollar software, wetsuits are still crafted around vague and speculative narratives about how a fast wetsuit should look. Data don’t enter the equation—but the tools are available for that to change.
While serving as director of sports science for Team USA Swimming, Genadijus Sokolovas, Ph.D., created a device called the Swim Power System that is capable of measuring the change to a swimmer’s stroke efficiency while wearing a wetsuit. Prior to the Beijing Olympics, every U.S. Olympic swimmer used Sokolovas’ test to select his or her swim apparel (technical suits were still legal for pool swimmers in 2008). We performed an independent test with Sokolovas using that same protocol to compare triathlon wetsuits and found a striking conclusion: Popular narratives that attempt to explain which suits are fast might be wrong.
Of the eight suits tested on two swimmers (see test results below), both subjects found the Orca Predator to be the most comfortable, yet it tested slowest. The same testers agreed that the Tyr Category 3 was notably less comfortable than many or all of the other options, but both swimmers were fastest while wearing the Tyr.
This test does not mean that a rigid wetsuit is necessarily better than a flexible one. Nor does it offer any answers about the attributes that helped the Tyr outperform the more expensive Orca, but it proves that perception alone isn’t enough to judge a suit—performance has to be measured.
Sokolovas’ test only gives part of the picture. Among other factors, it doesn’t account for fatigue caused by the suit or heat dissipation. More and different tests are needed to flesh out the aspects that make a wetsuit truly effective. Shifting to quantitative wetsuit design is long overdue. Just as many won’t buy a race wheel that hasn’t been vetted and refined in a wind tunnel, your expectation for wetsuit quality should be just as high.
Test Results: Thick vs. Flexible
Tester 1: Leg-dragger
TYR Category 3: +22% DPS*
Orca Predator: +9% DPS
Tester 2: Efficient floater
TYR Category 3: +17% DPS
Orca Predator: +1% DPS
*This number is the change to distance per stroke (DPS) while wearing the wetsuit compared to swimming in a simple bathing suit.