To Wetsuit, Or Not To Wetsuit...

It seems to be the age old debate among open water swimmers: to wetsuit, or not to wetsuit.  Recently the debate has heated up with an article titled "What's Wrong With Marathon Swimming" by Scott Zornig, president of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association.

In his article he states: "with the rare exception (i.e., disabled swimmers), wetsuits do not belong in the sport of marathon or endurance swimming. They should be limited to triathlons and special circumstances."

He concludes with this: "You would not enter a triathlon with a motorized bicycle….You would not play baseball with a corked bat ….You would not play golf with a loaded ball…You would not run in a marathon with roller skates. Therefore, please don’t use a wetsuit in marathon swimming. It provides an unfair advantage and goes against the spirit of our sport."

Since this article came out, other swimmers have posted their thoughts on the debate.  Here are a couple from blogs that I follow:

Now for my two cents...

You would have a hard time finding someone who did not believe that wearing a wetsuit provides and advantage in speed, warmth and buoyancy.  The issue, I think, is in making a distinction between triathlons that are held in open water venues, open water swimming races and marathon swims and their rules regarding the use of wetsuits.

Triathlon allows the use of wetsuits within a certain range of water temperatures, and actually requires them when the water dips below a certain temperature.  Since wetsuits are legal in triathlon and you actually put yourself at a disadvantage if you do not wear one, it is easy to see why the vast majority of triathletes wear wetsuits.  I found my way into open water swimming through participating in triathlon and I think this is true for many other swimmers.  For this reason, wetsuits are often carried over into open water swimming races.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of open water swimming races all over the world ranging from short cold water swims to marathon distances.  Rules at these races are as varied as the number of events and are often determined by the organization providing sanctioning for the event.  Many of these races offer both wetsuit and non-wetsuit divisions to try to entice more swimmers to participate.  In this case, the results for each division should be kept separate with separate awards are given to both divisions.

Marathon swimmers like Captain Webb and Gertrude Ederle were completing impressive endurance swims in cold water when swim suits were still made out of wool and long before wetsuits were even thought of.  Because of that history, marathon swimmers today try to swim under the same conditions and typically follow what are known as "channel rules".  In summary, swimming under "channel rules" means that you can wear one bathing suit, a pair of goggles and a cap.  No wetsuits.  In addition, you are not allowed to use any type of artificial aid or to touch any support craft or other people during the swim.  There are several governing bodies and organizations who keep official times and records for these swims and if you want your time to be officially recognized, you must follow their rules.

Regardless of the sport, if you want your time to "count" and be officially recognized, you need to follow the rules of that sport / organization / race.  Beyond that, it is just a matter of personal opinion and preference.  Personally, I choose not to wear a wetsuit unless I am participating in a triathlon.  I could outline my reasons for leaving the rubber behind, but I don't think it is my job to convince people to ditch their wetsuits or to look down on them if they don't.

In the end, if wearing a wetsuit will get more people to try the great sport of open water swimming, I am all for it.  Now what do you think?


James Jonsson said...

For an organized race it should be left to the race officials if they want to allow wetsuits, and if they do they should always be in a separate division due to the obvious advantage. As for recognized solo marathon swims, these are only certified if done in accordance to the English Channel Federation rules; one FINA approved pourous suit that for men does not go above the waist or below the knee and for women, does not extend past the shoulders or below the knee.

Christina said...

Like you, my first open water swim was a triathlon and I still see myself as a triathlete more than a swimmer. But I really enjoy the swim portion of the race and because of that I entered the Deer Creek Swim Marathon 5K last month. It was the first time I ever swam that far and the first time I ever swam in open water without having to worry about getting on a bike after. Because I viewed it as partially a training event for future Triathlon goals I went wetsuit. I learned a valuable lesson: Triathletes that swim okay (I usually finish in the top 3rd of the swim in my age group in an openwater sprint Tri) are not the same as Swimmers who swim fast. I took 6th place out of 6 in my division. The first five places were within 9:30 of each other. I was 20 minutes behind 5th. Without a wet suit I'm sure I would have been farther back still. This being said, I don't mind swimming without the wetsuit. I did a 1/2 ironman in Indiana this year and wetsuits weren't allowed. I still felt fine. I reality, I'm hoping to improve my swimming enough that the advantages gained by a wetsuit are mitigated by just swimming better. It was really cool to swim with so many good swimmers at that event and I hope to be able to learn from them and do it again next year. Maybe I'll go sans rubber then.

Ballplayer said...

Sorry, that comment by "Christina" was actually by me. Didn't realize she hadn't logged out.

Kevin Vigor said...

I'm a skinny bastard. There's no open water in Utah I can swim in without getting hypothermic (except the Great Salt Lake). Without the wetsuit, I'm just not participating.

PS: speaking of which, I'm going to try to catch you guys at Bountiful Lake next week - my morning schedule is more cramped now that school has started, and last time I was out at the marina it was still dark at 6:30, so going earlier isn't an option. Sigh. Are y'all still on a regular schedule for Bountiful, and what's the water temp?

Josh said...

Thanks everyone for your comments and thoughts on the wetsuit debate!

Kevin, I'm not sure if I'm going to be going out to Bountiful Lake any more this year. Water conditions have been getting worse. There is a group that swims at Blackridge reservoir in Herriman on Thursdays and I might start joining them.

Euroniekk said...

quote "in accordance to the English Channel Federation rules; one FINA approved pourous suit" end quote.
Sorry James but the Channel swimming Association rules are: (for both sexes) shall be of a material not offering Thermal Protection or Buoyancy and shall be Sleeveless and Legless : "Sleeveless" shall mean the Costume must not extend beyond the end of the shoulder onto the Upper Arm; "Legless" shall mean that the costume may not extend on to the Upper Leg below the level of the crotch.

Josh said...

Thanks for the clarification Euroniekk.

James Jonsson said...

I stand corrected. I was quoting from FINA sanctioned open water events.

James Jonsson said...

More on the subject just to confuse things. The Catalina Channel Swimming Federation states that: In any Catalina Channel swim attempt, no swimmer shall use or be assisted by artificial
aids of any kind. Swimmers are permitted to grease the body before a swim, use goggles,
wear one cap, wear one porous suit, neither of which may be designed either to retain
body heat or aid in buoyancy. No wetsuits are permitted.

The Manhattan Marathon Swim regulations states: A.One swimsuit, goggles, earplugs, nose clip and grease will be allowed. Women may wear suits that come up to their necks, with the zipper up the back. Men may not wear suits that cover their torsos. Both men and women may wear suits that go down to their knees. Neither men nor women may wear suits that cover their shoulders in any way. All swimming costumes must be made of a porous material and conform to the "traditional" swimming suit style.

So you can see, there is some discrepancy in where a suit can cover the body, but there is universal agreement on bouyancy or the porosity of the suit...which is strictly prohibited.