fitness · swimming

Water water everywhere: what wetsuit to pick?

Swimming is fun. Swimming in summer is double-fun: hot days, blue skies, refreshing (or maybe bracing) water, and the feelings of exertion and weightlessness, all in one glorious package.

But after summer comes fall. And fall means cooler days and colder water. But, intrepid swimmers have options, and technology has provided us with a good one: the wetsuit.

Women in triathlon wetsuits, waiting for the start of a race.

My friend Norah swims at Walden Pond as often as she can in the summer, and it’s one of her favorite things. This year, we’ve been speculating about what life will be like come fall, when our access to outdoor activity starts to drop off. I suggested she think about buying a wetsuit to extend her swimming well into October, maybe longer. There’s a lot of variation in temperature, but who knows.

Temperature ranges for Walden Pond, in Concord, MA, USA.
Water temperature ranges in the fall for Walden Pond, in Concord, MA, USA.

Seems like an obvious thing to do. I offered to do some online research and also ask around to get advice. Turns out, buying a wetsuit is complicated in a bunch of ways:

  • wetsuits vary by sport (swimming, diving, surfing, kayaking)
  • wetsuits vary by thickness
  • wetsuits vary a lot by price (fair enough, so do bikes…)
  • wetsuits come in different styles– shortie, full length, sleeveless, etc.
  • and then there’s the sizing
  • Who is in charge of this? I want to speak to them

Here is a sample size chart for women’s wetsuits:

Wetsuit lady sizes. None of these sizes are coming close to fitting me.

Just in case you think, oh, that’s just some wacky off-brand wetsuit site, here, Orca’s wetsuit size chart for women (Orca is a major brand of wetsuits):

Oh, Orca-- no sizes for me here, either. What up with that?
Oh, Orca– no sizes for me here, either. What up with that?

I’m actually not looking for a wetsuit for myself (at the moment). But I am looking to help Norah (who would fit in an Orca wetsuit) navigate the treacherous waters of wetsuit shopping. So:

Can you help?

Readers, do you have tips on how to buy a swimming wetsuit? In particular:

  • Do you tend to order multiple sizes online and then return them?
  • Do you go to a local store to try some one, and order from there or online?
  • How did you get help in getting the right fit for swimming?

I’m posting on some triathlon groups and getting some info. Any tips you have would be most welcome. Thanks!

8 thoughts on “Water water everywhere: what wetsuit to pick?

  1. If you’ve never worn one, I absolutely recommend ordering several sizes and trying them on (and swimming in them!). Most good companies will allow you to do this. If you are not looking to shave seconds off of race times, then I also recommend sticking with a slightly larger one. Primarily I say this because of how the necks fit: they are made to be very tight, to prevent water from getting into the suit while you swim & causing drag. But this tightness means that they compress the carotid, which will increase your heartrate and can cause you to feel a bit panicky – all the more so if you are unaccustomed to open water swimming or are prone to anxiety.

    1. Thanks (wordpress won’t let me like it for some reason…)! I’ve worn wetsuits for kayaking and diving but never for swimming, so good to know more about the effects of a very tight fit for the swimming ones. This is for recreational swimming, so a bit looser will be better.

  2. Wow, Catherine! I wish I could help! Those sizes are truly absurd in how limited they are, like shopping at a Chanel boutique for a dress.

    1. Srsly! I don’t get it. There are wetsuits for women who are bigger than these sizes, but they are (of course) more expensive, and there are fewer choices. Argh.

  3. No tips, unfortunately, just surprised at how poorly even my (small, well within straight sizes) measurements line up with the size charts. I think I’d need to try two or three different suits (based on my height, weight, and various body circumferences, which don’t all point to the same size) in order to figure out what fits.

    173 pounds also seems awfully low for an upper weight limit…

    1. Thanks, Emily! I agree with you. The Athena triathlete FB group gave me tips, and some said that the largest sized suits did fit bodies that were bigger than the dimensions specified. But still– do we need both psychic powers AND the ability to scrunch ourselves up to just be able to swim in colder water? Sigh…

  4. Oh, Orca.
    This chart is based on bust?
    For most women the hips are the fit point.
    And the weight…
    I have put opera singers into costumes for almost 30 years now. No one with the listed measurements weighs that little.
    Women who need a wet suit will have at least some muscle.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Wow, that’s so interesting about the disparity between dimensions and weight. I thought those weights were really low. Glad to hear this from someone with experience in fittings.

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