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Many triathletes starting out towards their first race wonder if they really need a tri-specific wetsuit. Unfortunately, borrowing a surf wetsuit from a friend won’t do you any favours. Here’s our guide to deciding which triathlon wetsuit to buy.

Typical wetsuits made for snorkelling or waterskiing won’t help you achieve your optimum speed. This is because the sleeves will be too tight, restricting your arm stroke.

Triathlon wetsuits are also thinner at the shoulders to allow better movement, longer zips to help with quicker transition, their surfaces are smoother, for less drag through the water, and they’re super buoyant. Not all wetsuits are made to the same proportions, so don’t expect to fit into a medium or small in every make.

Triathlon Wetsuits: Beginners' GuideBe sure to try on a suit before you buy it, as most shops are unlikely to take them back once they have been worn. If you’re nervous about investing (and wetsuits are a big investment), them many tri retailers will allow you to hire a wetsuit for a season. Also, look out for special events at open-water swim venues as manufacturers will sometimes allow you to try a wetsuit for a quick swim to see what suits you best.

They’ll also be able to advise you on how best to look after your wetsuit to maximise its lifespan, such as by not using petroleum-based lubricants, which can damage the neoprene.

How much do you need to spend?

Next to buying your bike, your wetsuit is the most expensive item of equipment you’ll need to buy for your triathlon. The cost of wetsuits ranges from around £120 for entry-level triathlon wetsuits to the high-end £450-plus suits worn by the pros.

You’ll need to get a wetsuit if you are doing any open-water swimming in temperatures below 14C and at most UK amateur races you’ll be advised to wear a wetsuit for temperatures below 21C; they’re compulsory at the London Triathlon. The maximum thickness for triathlon wetsuits is 5mm and the more you pay for a suit, the thinner it tends to be, allowing much greater movement in the water. However, the thinnest wetsuits are less buoyant and so will only really be suitable for good swimmers.

More expensive suits also have more technical features to help you swim fast: the outside of the suit is designed to have low resistance in the water, there might be shaping on the body to improve your body position, and on the forearms to help you ‘catch’ the water.

If you’ve got a lot of cash to splash but are a weak swimmer, you’ll be better off buying a cheaper suit and working on your swim technique. Don’t be nervous if you think it’ll be hard to swim in a wetsuit – the opposite is true, and if you’re a new swimmer you’ll find your wetsuit really speeds you up.