Triathlon wetsuits are a vital piece of gear for any triathlete looking to compete in open water swims.
However, knowing what wetsuit to choose for a particular water temperature and race conditions can be confusing. In this article, we will discuss the different types of triathlon wetsuits available and provide a temperature guide to help you choose the right one for your needs.
I will also cover the USAT and IRONMAN rules for triathlon wetsuits when racing and frequently asked questions about triathlon wetsuits.
Whether you get cold easily, find yourself overheating or appreciate the buoyancy and security of a wetsuit this guide will help you chose your first or new triathlon wetsuit.
Types of Triathlon Wetsuits
Triathlon wetsuits come in two main types – full suits and sleeveless suits.
Full suits provide the most coverage, with neoprene material covering the entire body, including the arms and legs. This type of suit is best for colder water temperatures, as it provides better insulation and helps keep the body warm.
Sleeveless suits, as the name suggests, do not have sleeves, and provide less coverage than full suits. They are more comfortable to wear in warmer water temperatures, as they allow for more freedom of movement and breathability.
There are “shorty” style swimming wetsuits like the Vitalis Shorty Men Open Water Wetsuit which are starting to become popular for swim training in warmer open water conditions. This will help with your buoyancy, but also help you avoid over heating in warmer water. This type of wetsuit may not be suitable for racing and before investing in this type of wetsuit check with your race rules.
Triathlon Wetsuit Temperature Guide
When choosing a triathlon wetsuit, it’s important to consider the water temperature. Wetsuits are designed to keep the body warm by trapping a layer of water between the neoprene material and the skin. The thicker the neoprene material, the more insulation it provides.
Here’s a temperature guide to help you choose the right wetsuit for your needs:
Under 53°F (11.5°C)
Very cold water that is generally considered too cold to swim in. If you are going to be swimming in water this cold may want to select a thermal lined wetsuit plus a thermal cap or hooded vest, neoprene gloves, and booties.
Always ensure you never swim alone and have all the safety support you need when swimming in cold conditions. Also observe to maximum time permitted for the temperature of the water. Make sure you know and understand the signs and symptoms of hypothermia such as shivering, exhaustion or feeling very tired, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech, and drowsiness.
53°F to 61°F (11.5°C to 16.1°C)
The water is cold, but swimmable for most triathletes. If you are regularly swimming in water this cold, we would recommend a 5mm wetsuit with thinner fabric around your arms (around 1.5mm) which will provide warmth while still allowing for full swimming mobility. If you find yourself getting cold at this temperature you can try to double layer your swim cap, use a neoprene swim cap, neoprene gloves, or booties.
62°F to 76°F (16.2°C to 24.4°C)
Most triathletes will find themselves training and racing in water temperature in this range. The water may feel cool when you first get in, but once you begin to swim you will warm up and find swimming in a wetsuit to be very comfortable. In this temperature range a 5mm wetsuit is recommended for buoyancy but if you do find you overheat as you get further into your swim you may prefer a thinner fabric. It’s worth considering replicating race conditions in this temperature range so that you get used to your race kit.
77°F to 83°F (24.5°C to 28.3°C)
Most athletes will find the water in this temperature too warm to swim in a wetsuit. You may find yourself feeling sluggish and overheating in a wetsuit. If you do want to wear a wetsuit for buoyancy you could wear a sleeveless wetsuit which has thinner main body fabric, for example 3mm, which will keep your body temperature slightly cooler.
You could also use a swimming wetsuit with short sleeves and legs like the Orca Vitalis Shorty Open Water Wetsuit which may be good for training swims but on race day it’s worth checking in the race rules if you can wear this style of suit.
Many races will not allow wetsuits to be worn in this temperature range, or if a wetsuit is worn, those athletes may be ineligible for awards.
Over 83°F (28.3°C)
Virtually all athletes will find the water temperature too warm to wear a wetsuit. Wearing a wetsuit at this water temperature can cause premature fatigue and overheating.
It’s always worth checking in advance what your race water temperature will be so you can practice swimming in open water without a wetsuit to make you more confident on race day.
Water Temperature Immersion Guide
How long should you stay in cold water? Here is a summary of what the British Canoeing Association recommends. You can download this full information sheet here.
|Water Temperature||Loss Of Dexterity||Time To Exhaustion / Unconsciousness||Expected Survival Time|
|Less Than 2 Minutes||Up To 15 Minutes||Less than 15 – 30 Minutes|
|Less Than 3 Minutes||15 – 30 Minutes||30 – 60 Minutes|
|Less Than 5 Minutes||30 – 60 Minutes||1 – 3 Hours|
|10 – 15 Minutes||1 – 2 Hours||1 – 6 Hours|
|Up To 40 Minutes||2 – 7 Hours||Up To 40 Hours|
This Table Shows The Effects Of Cold Water Immersion As Specified By The British Canoeing Association
Triathlon Wetsuits and Race Rules
Before investing in a triathlon wetsuit, it’s worth understanding the race rules and doing your homework around your target race. All races will have race rules and guidelines plus you can find details of the typical water temperature on race day based on past events.
If your race is typically on the cold side then consider a thicker full body wetsuit, for warmer temperatures maybe a sleeveless one would be more comfortable. If your race water temperature is always above 84° F or 28.9°C, then you won’t be able to wear a wetsuit so try to do some of your swim training in the same conditions.
Below are the USA Triathlon and IRONMAN rules surrounding the use of wetsuits during races relative to water temperature.
USAT Wetsuit Rules 2023
The temperature parameters for the use of wetsuits and maximum time to be in the water for the varying swim distances are as follows:
Elite or Development (inclusive of Youth, Junior, and U25)
|Up to 1500m||60.6° F (15.9 °C) and below||68° F (20° C) and above|
|1501m and longer||60.6° F (15.9° C) and below||71.6° F (22° C) and above|
USA Triathlon National Championship and World Triathlon Qualifying Age-Group Races
|All Distances||60.6° F (15.9° C) and below||76.2° F (24.5° C) and above|
All Other Races and Waves*
|All distances||60.6° F (15.9° C) and below||Up to 78° F (25.5° C)||78.1° F (25.6° C) – 83.9 (28.8° C) F**||84° F (28.9° C) and above|
*Participants in a non-competitive race or wave are not eligible to have their results submitted for rankings.
**Participants who choose to wear a wetsuit in a competitive non-National Event Age Group race when the water temperature exceeds 78°F (25.5°C) are not eligible to have their results submitted for rankings or Age Group Awards.
Maximum Stay in Water
|Swim Length||Elite and Development||Age-Group|
|Up to 300m||10 min||20 min|
|301m to 750m||20 min||30 min|
|301m to 750m – 87.8° F (31°C)and above||20 min||20 min|
|751m to 1500m||30 min||1h 10 min|
|1501m to 3000m||1h 15 min||1h 40 min|
|3001m to 4000m||1h 45 min||2h 15 min|
You can find more details here in the USAT competition rules.
IRONMAN Wetsuit Guidelines 2023
- Wetsuits cannot measure more than 5 mm thick.
- Wetsuits are permitted if the water temperature is up to (and including) 76.1 degrees Fahrenheit (24.5 degrees Celsius) or colder.
- Wetsuits are mandatory for professional athletes and age-group athletes for water temperatures below 60.8 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius).
- Wetsuits will be prohibited in water temperatures greater than 83.8 degrees Fahrenheit (28.8 degrees Celsius).
- Athletes who choose to wear a wetsuit in water temperatures 76.2 to 83.8 degrees Fahrenheit (24.55 to 28.77 degrees Celsius) will not be eligible for Age Group awards, including World Championship or Rolldown slots.
- Full wetsuits are permitted (arms and legs covered).
- The De Soto Water Rover and the Speedo Elite Triathlon Wetsuit with forearm flaps wetsuits are PROHIBITED.
- Athletes should contact the wetsuit manufacturer directly to confirm whether their suit is legal.
- On Race morning Race Officials will publish the final decision about the wetsuits and they will be monitoring athletes on morning to enforce wetsuit restrictions.
You can find more details in the IRONMAN competition rules.
Conclusion: The Triathlon Wetsuit versus Temperature
The right wetsuit for the water temperature and conditions is essential for a successful and enjoyable triathlon experience. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced triathlete, it is important to understand the basics of wetsuit temperature ratings and know what type of wetsuit is best for your race conditions.
It’s also worth familiarising yourself with the race rules applicable to your event and the typical water temperature on race day so you can select the right triathlon wetsuit for you, which is comfortable, appropriate for your race conditions and flexible so will not inhibit your natural swim stroke.
Spending time swimming in open water be it the sea, lake or river will help you not only with your technique under race conditions but also help you understand how your body reacts to the cold or the warm water. It will also ensure you have selected a wetsuit with the right thickness for buoyancy, warmth, and flexibility.
With the right triathlon swimming wetsuit appropriate for your water race temperature and conditions, you can swim with confidence and comfort and complete your triathlon in style.
Triathlon Wetsuit FAQ
USAT, ITU and WTC (IRONMAN) have rules restricting the thickness of the wetsuit to no more than 5mm. Most brands will put the thickest rubber on the front torso and legs to give the heaviest areas of your body the most buoyancy. Thinner rubber (1.5-2mm) at the shoulders allows for greater flexibility and arm speed.
A triathlon wetsuit is a specialized type of wetsuit designed for use in open water-based triathlons. It is made from neoprene, a synthetic rubber material, and is designed to provide buoyancy and insulation in the water, as well as to reduce drag and increase speed.
The main benefits of wearing a triathlon wetsuit include increased buoyancy, improved insulation, reduced drag, and increased speed. These benefits can help triathletes swim faster and more efficiently, conserve energy, and improve their overall performance.
The optimum water temperature for wearing a triathlon wetsuit is generally considered to be between 55- and 70-degrees Fahrenheit (12 to 21 degrees Celsius). In water temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius), a wetsuit is typically required for safety reasons, while in water temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), a wetsuit may not be necessary or may even be prohibited in certain races.
The appropriate thickness of a triathlon wetsuit depends on the water temperature. A general guideline is that water temperatures below 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius) require a wetsuit with a thickness of 3 to 5 millimeters, while water temperatures above 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius) require a wetsuit with a thickness of 2 to 3 millimeters.
In some races, triathlon wetsuits may be prohibited in water temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius). However, even if they are allowed, wearing a wetsuit in warm water can cause overheating and dehydration, which can be dangerous. It is important to check the race rules and regulations before deciding whether to wear a wetsuit.
To care for your triathlon wetsuit, it is important to rinse it thoroughly with fresh water after each use and hang it to dry in a cool, shaded area. Avoid exposing the wetsuit to direct sunlight or heat, as this can cause the neoprene to deteriorate. It is also important to avoid using harsh chemicals or abrasive materials to clean the wetsuit, as this can damage the material.
When trying on in a shop, the suit should feel tight but not restrictive. Once it’s on correctly (not bunched up around the crotch or under the arms), there should be no air pockets or creases in the neoprene. Perform some shoulder swings and front-crawl arm strokes to ensure you have full range of movement and it’s comfortable.
There are several popular brands of triathlon wetsuits, including:
Blueseventy – A brand that focuses on producing high-performance wetsuits for triathletes, including their popular Helix and Reaction lines.
Orca – Known for their high-quality triathlon wetsuits, Orca offers a variety of options, including the popular Alpha and Predator models.
Zone3 – A brand that offers wetsuits for all levels of triathletes, from beginners to professionals, including their popular Aspire and Vanquish models.
TYR – Known for their high-quality swimming gear, TYR offers a variety of wetsuits designed for triathletes, including their popular Hurricane line.
2XU – A brand that produces a range of sports apparel and accessories, 2XU also offers a variety of high-performance triathlon wetsuits, including their popular Propel and P:2 models.
Roka – A relatively new brand in the triathlon market, Roka has quickly gained popularity for their high-quality wetsuits, including their Maverick and X models.
HUUB – A UK based brand worm by many professional triathletes.
These brands offer a range of wetsuit options for triathletes with different levels of experience, budgets, and preferences.
While surfers need a wetsuit with built-in flexibility to swim (just like us triathletes), they also spend a lot of time bobbing about, waiting for that stellar wave. So, surfing wetsuits are usually thicker than triathlon wetsuits on average – when you take into consideration torso, back, shoulders, arms, and legs.
Yes, you can as long as it’s not thicker than 5mm but it in not designed for swimming specifically so it’s worth investing in a triathlon specific wetsuit for comfort and safety.