The arms race – sleeved trisuits vs sleeveless trisuits
Your trisuit will be the only piece of gear that will stay with you from the start line to the finishing chute, so it’s well worth the time and research to choose the right suit for you. Sleeves are one factor that weighs heavily on the triathlete’s choice of trisuit. It might be a case of traditional vs modern, minimalist vs more-is-better, or it can depend on the course and the conditions – each have their advantages.
A trisuit is made from thin and breathable material, and it should be close-fitting but not restrictive, as flexibility through the arms and shoulders are very important for the swim leg. The bottom half is similar to a cycling short, with jammer length legs, but a lighter, thinner pad as it needs to dry out quickly. Trisuits come with different types of leg grippers and pocket placements, and they come in one-piece and two-piece suits.
Trisuits need to strike a balance between comfort, performance and practicality, while design factors that might make you faster in the swim are compromised because they would negatively impact on your run and/or cycling performance. The obvious benefit comes at transitions, where the trisuit can save you seconds or even minutes when you don’t have to slip on a pair of shorts over your swim bottoms for cycling and running.
Here are some issues to consider when you make the big choice between sleeved or unsleeved tri-suits.
K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple & Sleeveless
Trisuits are not meant to provide additional flotation, but a good trisuit made from hydrodynamic material will provide benefits such as reduced passive drag (resistance that exists when a swimmer does not move) and friction drag (drag caused by the friction of water against the surface of a swimmer in motion). This effect is enhanced with highly compressed and highly water-repellent fabric, found in suits such as the 2XU Compression Trisuit. However, many athletes will prefer that the suit stops at the armpits because they feel they will benefit more from the freedom of movement at the shoulders this allows for their swim stroke. This may apply even further if the water temperature calls for a sleeved wetsuit – the trisuit can be worn completely done up, without any additional bulk or restriction around the shoulders and arms. If you prefer to roll the top of the tri suit down to the waist under the wetsuit (as many athletes do), the sleeveless tri suit has less bulk and will be fractionally easier to pull up at T1.
Another concern some athletes have is that the material of a sleeved trisuit will ripple in water in a way that it doesn't in air.
One issue some people find with sleeveless models, however, is that the seams around the shoulders and armpits can cause chafing. This can be offset by use of a lubricant such as Body Glide or your choice of trisuit – all 2XU trisuits are made with Flatlock seams to minimise chafing. However, you can also increase your comfort with the cut of the trisuit you choose. This is especially true for women. In the 2XU range, women can choose from models with broad straps and full upper back coverage, such as the G:2 Active Active Trisuit, to models with thinner straps and open back panels such as the GHST Trisuit and the Perform Y Back Trisuit.
In hot conditions, having the arms and armpits uncovered allows the body to cool easily on the run and bike leg. Some athletes, especially in longer events, may feel that the benefit this provides outweighs the additional reduction in drag sleeves may provide to a rider who sits in a more aero position.
More coverage, more benefit
Sleeved trisuits are a more recent development, and it’s sometimes been a little confusing where they fit into the rules. The World Triathlon Corporation eased its regulations in February 2016 to allow sleeves to the elbows for trisuits, however it’s always worth checking the rules for your event. It’s also possible to find trisuits with full sleeves, but at present, they are rarely allowed for non-wetsuit swims in triathlons.
An obvious benefit of sleeved trisuits is sun protection. The shoulders get a ton of sun, and there’s no time to apply sunscreen at T1 – even a rushed lunchtime training session by yourself can leave you with blotches of sunburn! The extra coverage doesn’t have to come at the cost of retaining more heat when you choose a suit like the 2XU Compression Sleeved Trisuit, which is made with the ICE X CT fabric for enhanced cooling while still providing UPF 50+ sun protection.
Swimming with sleeves doesn’t have to compromise your swimming stroke, especially if you get in plenty of practice. For a greater sensation of mobility through the shoulders and arms, you can choose a trisuit that caters especially for this, such as the 2XU Project X Trisuit made with the proprietary SENSOR MESH X fabric for freedom and flexibility. Many athletes will even swim with their sleeved suit done up under a wetsuit.
Sleeved trisuits can also help reduce drag on the bike, and some models in the 2XU range will specifically help support the aero position, such as the Compression Full Zip Trisuit, while the Project X Trisuit has engineered sleeves that go all the way to the elbows for better aerodynamics.
One piece or two?
One-piece trisuits have clear advantages for shorter-course racing, while two-piece suits have advantages for longer triathlons. Separate tops and shorts are more practical in general for training, while one-piece suits are usually saved for racing and transition training.
Here are the advantages of each option:
- Fabric sits smoother and tighter with less bulk, so it will be more aerodynamic and hydrodynamic.
- No problem with top riding up or shorts slipping down – you don’t want sagging shorts in aero position!
- Less seams, so less risk of chafing.
- Avoids the gastric distress and/or chafing that can come from a tight waistband on shorts.
- Better sun protection – gaps between top and shorts may require sunscreen when wearing a two-piece.
- A lot easier and faster to take a toilet break! This will usually only apply to longer races and training sessions.
- A two-piece can feel less restrictive for some people.
- They allow more natural body cooling.
- Two-piece suits are more versatile – you’re more likely to use the shorts and/or top during training.
- If you don’t like wearing a tri top under a wetsuit, you can simply wear the shorts alone then put the top on at T1.
- More options to match garments to your taste – e.g. the 2XU Compression Tri Shorts might be your favourite, but you might find that for the upper body, the 2XU GHST Tri top works best for you.