H2Open Magazine made a really interesting study to find out how much a wetsuit really affects swimmers during the race. Read about it in this article and learn the answer!

Whatever your opinion about wetsuits, there’s no escaping they change the way you swim. For most people there’s a speed advantage, but how much, and is it the same for everyone?

To help examine these questions we teamed up with Henley Swim to promote the Suits versus Skins challenge as part of their Henley Mile event on 14 July 2013.

We asked participants to swim a straight line mile up the river, once with a wetsuit and then, after a rest, without. As we reported previously, the average time saving for swimming in a wetsuit was 3:39, but this disguised a wide range of performance changes.

Out of the 45 participants only two swam faster without a wetsuit, and one of those by a mere five seconds. Rupa Morris however cut her time by a massive 6:07 when she swam in just her costume. Unfortunately we don’t know what type of wetsuit she was using but it clearly slowed her down in a big way.

At the other end of the scale Paul Nix swam 19:01 faster with the wetsuit.

In general, the faster the swimmer, the less he or she gained from wearing a wetsuit, but there is plenty of individual variation, as shown in the graph below.

Suits vs skins3

Graph shows non-wetsuit swim time against the time difference for swimming in a wetsuit for the 43 swimmers who swam faster with a wetsuit, as well as the trend line. All times have been converted to decimals to make them easier to handle and plot in Excel.

Using the equation for the trend line we can therefore estimate an expected time saving for swimmers based on their non-wetsuit time as follows.

Base skins mile time

Time Saving with wetsuit

Time saving per 100m

00:18:00

00:00:36

00:00:02

00:22:00

00:01:32

00:00:06

00:26:00

00:02:28

00:00:09

00:30:00

00:03:24

00:00:13

00:34:00

00:04:20

00:00:16

00:38:00

00:05:16

00:00:20

00:42:00

00:06:12

00:00:23

00:46:00

00:07:08

00:00:27

00:50:00

00:08:04

00:00:30

00:54:00

00:09:00

00:00:34

00:58:00

00:09:56

00:00:37

01:02:00

00:10:52

00:00:41

More: Open Water vs. Pool Swimming 

Wetsuits in general then result in a compression of the field, in a similar way swimming with the current would do. Slower swimmers benefit more but, on average, not enough to overtake faster swimmers. If we all conformed to this pattern then overall finish positions wouldn’t change, but they do. A lot of people finished the skins portion of the race within three or four positions of their rank in the wetsuit race but Rupa Morris gained 16 places by losing her wetsuit while Toby Garbett lost 10 places in skins.

The variation in position can be seen on the chart below.

Suits vs skins2

The chart shows finish position in the wetsuit race plotted against finish position in the skins race. Dots below the line are swimmers who performed relatively better in skins while those above did better in their wetsuits.

Our Suits versus Skins experiment here wouldn’t stand up to any scientific scrutiny. For that we’d need control groups swimming both events in either skins or wetsuits, we’d have to measure the current both times (although it was scarcely noticeable and most likely didn’t change), we would have had to put everyone in the same type of wetsuit and controlled the recovery regime between the swims. Even with all of that we couldn’t control for everything. We don’t know for example whether swimmers held back in the first mile to save something for the second, and how much fatigue played a part in slower non-wetsuit swims. Nevertheless, it was fun, it’s provided interesting food for thought and best of all encouraged a number of swimmers to try non-wetsuit open water swimming for the first time. The feedback from those was that they enjoyed it a lot more than swimming in their suits.

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