Are You Slower In A Wetsuit?

It's frustrating isn't it? You spend many hundreds of dollars or pounds on a beautiful well fitting wetsuit but when you swim in it you're no faster, or even slower, than you are without it. You might feel awkward and unbalanced in it too.

If you have this problem don't worry, you're not alone. Many triathletes suffer in this way - particularly females with a swimming background as a child. The reason is that when swimming without a wetsuit you already have a very good body position with the legs sitting up very high in the water. The extra buoyancy from your suit actually takes your legs too high leaving you feeling very unbalanced in the water.

If you already have a fantastic body position, a wetsuit can
leave you feeling unbalanced in the water.
Nearly all Kicktastics (often female with a swimming background) suffer from this problem - your strong leg kick gives you a fantastic high body position which is a major asset in your stroke. The added buoyancy of a wetsuit starts to lift your legs out of the water and you lose power and the stability provided from your leg kick.

An important adaptation for Kicktastics is to lift your head higher and look further forward when you swim in your wetsuit. This lifts you slightly at the front and brings your legs down a touch, redressing the balance in your stroke. Experiment with a range of head angles, from looking 1-2 meters in front to looking right ahead with the goggles just beneath the surface.

Pro Example: Kate Bevilaqua

Paul Newsome is coaching double Ironman winner Kate Bevilaqua who also suffers from this frustrating problem in the water. Prior to working with Kate she swam around 62 minutes for 3.8km. Our first breakthrough was a 58 minute swim at IM New Zealand in March this year, followed by a 53 minute swim at IM Lanzarote in May. Paul worked on two aspects of her stroke:

The Kicktastic:
- Strong 6-beat kick
- Often female
- Long limbs
- Hates wetsuits!
1) Kate was originally coached and led to believe that all swimmers should look straight down at the bottom of the pool or ocean to bring their bum and legs up. This is totally wrong for some swimmers and was terrible advice for Kate. Despite her lean muscular build, Kate has a very good natural body position in the water and maintaining this head position with a wetsuit or pull buoy was causing her legs to sit too high, leaving her feeling very unbalanced as a result. Paul raised her head a touch by looking forward in the water by around two meters and she immediately felt better.

The better view forwards also helped Kate's drafting which is something we worked heavily on in April. Given that this can save her up to 38% of her energy expenditure if performed well, or allow her to sit with the faster age-group men, this is a major benefit that is essential for her to exploit.

2) Kate often complained of tired shoulders when using her wetsuit. She was coached to maintain a very high elbow during the recovery phase but inevitably the suit's resistance lead to premature fatigue at the start of her races. To improve this, Paul worked with Kate to swim with a straighter arm recovery which led to more hand clearance over the water (ideal for rougher swims) and also allowed her to tap into her ability to maintain high stroke rates in excess of 85 SPM (strokes per minute). This change gives her rhythm and purpose in a tightly packed open water swim.

If you are slower or feel unbalanced in your wetsuit then don't despair, try the the changes above and we're sure you'll instantly feel a lot more comfortable in your wetsuit and faster too. Let us know on the comments section of this blog how you go! You will also find plenty more specific advice to improve your stroke in the Kicktastic Swim Type Guide here.

If you are a swimmer who loves their wetsuit and you gain significant speed from the buoyancy, then you may find this hard to believe. It just shows how different we all are and why modern swim coaching is moving away from traditional one-size-fits-all methods to an individual approach.

Swim Smooth!


Fatb10ke said...

I took swimming back up to compete in the Great North Swim after 20 years out of the pool. I did most of my training in a wetsuit and posted a time of 29:33 for the mile. Now I'm back in the pool without a wetsuit and I'm struggling to get below 33 minutes. Maybe I need to be looking further downward to raise my legs now I don't have the suit to help.

Sarah said...

I have been on a swim smooth clinic and I'm a kicktastic (Well now trying not to be!) I have a all the characteristics of a kicktastic - I hate my wetsuit and I'm slower in it, it's tiring and just feels wrong. Not surprisingly I am also from a swim club background and female!
I can't keep up with people in Open water that I can normally hammer in the pool which is frustrating. So come Saturday I'll do the wetsuit and try these things out in the lake- here's hoping it makes a difference!

Gregwh said...

Mr. Smooth, I have had a problem with arm/shoulder fatique in a wetsuit as well. Perhaps your athletes could try the sleeveless variety of wetsuit and avoid this problem. It worked for me and I set some PRs in the sleeveless. But this might bring their legs even higher in the water without the extra frontal buoyancy caused by the neoprene sleeves. Thanks for your helpful posts and insights. Greg

Frank Sole said...

An excellent point, I work with swimmers who also have the same issue when incorporating a pull buoy during their workouts. to much buoyancy? who would have thunk it

raradragonfly said...

This is totally ME!!! What a relief to read this ~ all along I've been telling myself that it must just be anxiety or adrenaline, but this last race m arms actually ached in te water and my legs felt like they weighed a ton and I just couldn't figure it out! I've got some work to do in open water!! Thank you!!

Anonymous said...

What am I missing here?? Thought I was supposed to do high elbows for ows? Lots of drills to reinforce that to be effective in the chop no? Or are we only talking about WITH the wetsuit??
Help pls?

Sarah B said...

I am an overglider, which is made even worse in a wetsuit as my legs which are already quite high in the water want to float up and out of the water with a wetsuit! Trying to work on the overgliding, but no idea what to do about my legs as they feel quite normal in a pool. Any ideas?

Frank Sole said...

I believe Mr. Smooth himself gives the best advice, and the same I give to all my swimmers who I coach, life your head ever so slightly, simply meaning not straight up but look a bit forward and this will help to drop the hips slightly helping to keep your legs in the water.

seanmullins said...

Just found the swim smooth site and have been engrossed for hours! I reckon I'm an Overglider - and always slower in open water than pool. Will apply the tips and see how I go!. Thanks, Sean. p.s. any clinics in Melbourne soon ?

Andre Cadet said...

Sir: As a retired (72 years old)university Div 1 swim coach and still competing experience has been similar for females BUT not for males --who, have 4 to 6% body fat! Because a female has most of her "fat" in her buttocks/hips/waist area --sure- she will be "unbalanced" in a wet suit (or even a shorty)But not for a male--because the top guys have 4% to 6% body fat) thay need all the help they can get can ---just to keep horizontal!!!. Sincerely, Andre Cadet

Adam Young said...

Hi Andre, quite right - something we mentioned in the last paragraph of the post.

Would I guess correctly that you're a bit frustrated and find body position a limiting factor with your own swimming?


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Kidi Nerea said...

Finally! It seems I have found an answer to my problems! Woman, with swimming club background, great body position in water with no wetsuit. But when I wear a wetsuit I cannot keep up with people that usually swim behind me in the swimming pool. As of tomorrow I am training with my wetsuit and putting into practice these tips.

Ann said...

Yes me too - finally help to understand that it is not necessarily my wetsuit that is the problem. I was a competitive swimmer as a child. My butt and legs feel too high in the water and it is tiring and don't feel I am make good progress through the water. I will try changing my head position for the crawl. Any advice for breast stroke? I just feel that my head is being pushed down and I am not really holding my balance. Thanks.

Cyndy said...

Swimming breast stroke in a wetsuit is always a challenge as the wetsuit will hold the legs too high. You could try adding some more undulation to lower the legs but it will be hard to get it efficient. Cheers Cyndy

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