Sleeved vs sleevless wetsuits
An argument best kept at arm’s length
Here’s the bottom line – most of us can swim faster when we slip into a high-quality neoprene wetsuit. In fact, a suit can knock about 5 per cent from our swim times, which is enough to give about a 75-metre edge in a 1500-metre swim. Of course, there are several mitigating factors that will affect how well a suit can work for you. There’s your technique, the type of racing you do, your level of experience and your body’s level of buoyancy for example, and then there’s how easily you can find a wetsuit to fit you correctly – and then get out of it quickly. Taking all these things into account, both sleeveless and sleeved wetsuits have their advantages.
No sleeves, no dramas
More rubber definitely means more warmth and more flotation, but a wetsuit without sleeves can be a better choice for some people. In a nutshell, the sleeveless option can work out better for beginners, people from a strong swimming background, and those with shoulder issues – plus they’re easier to find the right fit since you don’t have shoulder panels and sleeves to worry about.
“I’ve always used a sleeved wetsuit in my races, but there are plenty of reasons why a sleeveless wetsuit may work for you,” says 2XU triathlete, Grace Musgrove. “If you’re only new to wearing wetsuits, a sleeved wetsuit can feel very restrictive, so a sleeveless wetsuit is a great stepping stone.”
For beginners, a sleeveless wetsuit is also simply easier to take off in transition – a factor that becomes more important in the shorter events.
The 2XU A1: ACTIVE Wetsuit (for men and women) is a sleeveless option that has several of the great features of more expensive sleeved wetsuits, such as a front buoyancy panel, a floating zip panels and Rollbar technology – in a nutshell, all these features help keep your body more balanced and higher in the water. When you’re higher in the water, that means more of your body is pushing through air instead of water, and air has a lot less resistance. The end result is that you use less energy keeping your body afloat and balanced in the water, and you can go faster. Women also have the option of the 2XU ST:3 Wetsuit, which provides the optimal balance between buoyancy and flexibility, without the expense.
“If you struggle with shoulder pain or have temperamental shoulders, then another advantage of a sleeveless wetsuit is it will decrease your chance of aggravating the shoulders,” Grace explains.
People with a swimming background may prefer a sleeveless wetsuit as they will appreciate the more “natural” feel and greater mobility through the shoulders, plus they will be more accustomed to a long, slower but more efficient stroke than the high stroke rate required when you use a sleeved wetsuit. They will also rely less on the extra rubber of a sleeved wetsuit.
A French study compared the impact of swimming in wetsuits on a group of international-level triathletes and a group of international-level swimmers. The clear result was that the wetsuits made less of a difference to the swimmers, who simply had more skill at keeping their body horizontal for less drag and a better technique that enabled them to naturally keep their body higher in the water (i.e. without relying on rubber to float – their higher body fat also helped).
Distance is another consideration. Some argue that for the longer distances like Ironman and half Ironman, a sleeveless wetsuit may be better unless you are a very strong swimmer. Sleeves and the stroke rate required for them can make your arms get very tired unless you have built up enough strength. In the shorter events (super sprint, sprint and Olympic), you won’t be swimming long enough for the sleeves to exhaust your arms, so your choice of wetsuit will not matter as much.
Full sleeves, full on
A sleeved wetsuit has many advantages – it adds overall buoyancy and aids speed and warmth - but there are also many complications and considerations.
“If you’re using a sleeved wetsuit, it’s really important to consciously think of keeping your stroke rate up,” says Grace Musgrove. “A high stroke rate is helpful in the open water, but wetsuits have the tendency to promote a slower stroke rate.”
Finding the right fit of a sleeved wetsuit is a little tricky, too. 2XU triathlete Sam Ward says the top three things he looks at when trying on a wetsuit are:
- the fit at the neckline – snug, but not too restrictive
- chest area –the wetsuit shouldn’t be too tight and it definitely shouldn’t restrict your breathing in any way
- the arms should be long enough and tight enough to not move up or let water in.
Also check that you have very good and easy movement around the shoulders. Getting your wetsuit right so you have all the mobility you want and need through the shoulders is perhaps the trickiest aspect of sleeved wetsuits. One solution some athletes turn to is to pull the sleeves up the arm – as high as about 5cm below the elbows. This lets more of the suit bunch up around the shoulders to allow more movement, plus pulling the sleeves up higher makes the ends tighter on the arms so that water is less likely to get into the suit. The 2XU range of wetsuits has up to 16 sizes available in some models, several of which have Intermediate Zone Stretch (IZS) panels and thin neoprene on the shoulders for unrestricted movement, so hopefully you won’t need this technique – but it could help you if your body shape changes after you buy your suit.
With so many features and the importance of a model fitting to your body shape and the requirements of your technique and needs, your choice of sleeved wetsuit is a very individual one. However, both Grace and fellow 2XU triathlete, Tamsyn Moana-Veale choose to race in the 2XU GHST Wetsuit.
“I only swim in the GHST wetsuit as it’s flexible, lightweight, yet still warm and buoyant,” Tamsyn says. “I use the GHST for racing and the slightly thicker 2XU V:2 Wetsuit for training.”
For Grace, the GHST wins with its super-thin material around the shoulders that lets her arms move freely.
“The seamless shoulder and forearm enhances flexibility and the forearm catch and feel panel allows me to connect with the water each stroke which is vital to my swim performance.”
Sam’s choice is the 2XU Propel Wetsuit for its shoulder flexibility, superior buoyancy from its Nano SCS Coating (which provides an extra 4% buoyancy) and the fit at the neckline.
“Sleeved or non-sleeved wetsuit, it’s really important to train at least once a week in your wetsuit so come race day you aren’t trying anything new and you can hit the swim with some confidence,” Grace says.
Something in between?
We have short sleeves for tri suits, so is this a feature we’ll see more of in wetsuits?
“I think short sleeves could be the next big wetsuit feature,” says Sam Ward. “It’s not a very common design yet – I’ve only tried long-sleeve suits, but I’ve seen more people cutting their suit to short sleeve and enjoying it.”
So what’s the attraction?
“Some people prefer short sleeves so they can ‘feel’ the water better through their arms, and they can allow more shoulder movement,” says Tamsyn Moana-Veale.
Get it off! – Top tips
You can’t talk about sleeveless wetsuits vs sleeved wetsuits without mentioning the drag of taking off the suit in transition, but here are a couple sneaky tips out 2XU triathletes use to slip out of their suits at T1.
- “Just before you exit the water (from the swim) let some water in through the top of your wetsuit – this will help with your legs slide out a lot easier. As you run into transition, take the arms of the wetsuit off. As you approach your bike, push your wetsuit down below your bum so that you can still run. Once you’re at your bike, push your wetsuit down as far as you can, then as you stand on the wetsuit with one foot, lift your other as fast and high as you can.” – Sam Ward
- “I use spray oil around the neckline to stop any chafing and I also put some around my wrists and at the bottom of the legs of the wetsuit – this helps the wetsuit slide off in transition!” – Grace Musgrove