01 July 2022

Surf wetsuit v triathlon/open-water wetsuit – what’s the difference?

April 3, 2015

So… you’ve signed up to an outdoor swim and now all you need is a wet suit.  You can just borrow someone’s scuba or surf wet suit, right? Well, think again, because having the right wet suit will seriously impede or enhance your swim.

Wet suits for surfing or scuba diving, and triathlon wet suits for open water swimming may look similar but they are in fact completely different. Here’s some handy advice from swim specialist Aqua Sphere.


Surf or diving wetsuits are generally designed with warmth and protection in mind, not with swimming movement or speed. With the exception of high-end surf suits, these wetsuits don’t give you lots of arm movement, so they will feel restrictive around the shoulders. This will encumber rotation and make your limbs ache and in turn affect your stroke.

The neck seal may be a lot higher on a surf suit, making it uncomfortable for swimming and since this area is not designed for lots of repeated head and neck movement you are likely to get some serious chafing (surf rash).

Generally the suit will be made from two or three different thicknesses of neoprene (to add warmth and durability where needed and flexibility in areas of movement), plus they often have reinforced knee panels that will increase drag.

Finally they can take a while to get on and off, which in your first swim will just add to the stress.  In short, these wet suits are not designed for open water swimming or triathlon!


Triathlon/open-water wet suits are also made from neoprene, but it is a different quality which is far more stretchy and far less bulky. It will also have a smooth skin to aid movement through the water.  The suit is designed to fit snugly, skimming under the arms and hugging the body at the base of the spine for comfort and to reduce the intake of water.

With movement in mind, a tri or open-water suit will have different neoprene thicknesses on each panel – for example more buoyancy for the legs to give you an improved position in the water, and thinner panels in the back to give you optimum arm movement.

The back zip is also a lot longer so that if you are doing a triathlon you can get the suit off quickly and jump on your bike. The longer zip is a great help for swimmers too – when you’re tired (and possibly starting to get cold) it will be very welcome, as anyone who has ever struggled in a beach car park will know!

Finally, ensure you try your triathlon wet suit on before you rent or buy as you need to make sure it’s the best possible fit.  You don’t need to spend a fortune, but getting it right will ensure that you get the most out of your swim – both in terms of your swim time and your enjoyment – and hopefully it will be the start of a long lasting love affair with open water swimming!

For more information on the various features of triathlon wet suits, from beginners to elites, visit www.aquasphereswim.com

Sportsister, The Women’s Sport Magazine

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