What features should I look for in triathlon wetsuits?
- Proper fit.
The suit must be comfortable from crotch to shoulder; it must not limit your mobility or shoulder/arm reach. If it does, then it will hinder your swimming ability instead of helping it. It needs to fit in the torso - chest, waist, etc., but the most important fit dimension is crotch to shoulders. Arm length and leg length are not very important. Additionally, while some find it odd, shorter legs and arms on a wetsuit can make it faster to remove, too - but that is a function of the brand design, not something to look for in choosing a size.
- Material layout.
A wetsuit should have differing thicknesses of material in different parts. The shoulders and arms should be thinner; the chest and parts of the legs a bit thicker. How much thicker or thinner is different from brand to brand, but a wetsuit that is the same thickness throughout is going to be inferior in some way to a wetsuit that has varied thicknesses. You need more flexibility (thinner) in the parts that move a lot (usually the arms and shoulders, sometimes parts of the legs if you are a big kicker) and more floatation (thicker) in the right parts (generally the torso and the upper legs). The ends of the arms and legs should be extra-flexible, both to afford a good watertight seal, and to allow stretching to get the suit off faster. Remember, generally speaking, within any one price level the wetsuits will use types of neoprene with similar performance factors. You pay more for neoprene that "does" more.
- Neck and wrist seals.
A triathlon wetsuit should not let water flow in and out, and it should not hold water next to your body. That water becomes extra weight that you must carry with you during the swim. No one wants to add pounds to their race weight! A good neck-seal is paramount. Without that seal, the neck becomes a water scoop and the suit will fill with water. Same thing with the wrist - a loose wrist cuff becomes a water scoop (note that the ankles should have a good seal, too, but they can act as a release in some brands, too). All the mid and top-end suits have this, but they might do it with a different method. Trying on a suit is the best way to find out if the way they wrap around your neck will work for you, or will make you feel like you are being mugged.
- Ease of exit.
Can you get out of the wetsuit? If the suit makes your swim one-minute faster, but it takes an extra minute to get the suit off, there is not much gain. Zippers help here; one of the non-zippered wetsuits that came out a few years ago has added a zipper to make taking the thing off faster. Back to that neck, wrist and ankle seal - the suit must seal, but it must also allow you to get out - you don't want the suit to become handcuffs or legcuffs.
- Sleeved or sleeveless?
That is more of a personal preference, but almost everyone is faster in a full suit (with sleeves) than in a sleeveless suit, no matter what they say or think about losing some feel for the water. Sleeves reduce drag, sleeves help with float, and that adds up to more potential speed
A glued and stitched wetsuit should be more durable than a wetsuit that is just glued or just stitched, and for the price you pay for a tri-specific wetsuit, you want it to last for a while.
- Warranty and service.
I would only buy a wetsuit that is backed by the manufacturer. Will they repair any damage caused by manufacturing errors? Can I get the suit repaired when I damage it with my fingernails or when I try to put it on too quickly and tear it?
- Which features don't I need?
Tough question. More zippers, less zippers, break-away-zippers, different color panels, or extra-super-duper-super-metal-ceramic-carbon-fiber-silicone-impregnated-patented-double-secret-neoprene extra's don't make suits in the same price range slower or faster, just different. The number one concern is fit, crotch to shoulders. What fits you is the one big feature you must have - the rest are all personal preference.
- What should I expect to pay?
Around $300 for a good mid-range suit, and almost double that for the top-end from some manufacturers.
- What questions should I ask before buying?
You probably need to ask about all of the above - fit, construction, warranty, etc. You need to ask some questions of yourself, too. Can I afford this much for this wetsuit - is the cost of the top-end suit worth it to me, or is the mid-point one going to meet my needs? Would the $100 difference be better spent on a coach, new running shoes, or taking my significant other out for dinner to keep me in their good graces?
Whatever you decide, a triathlon-specific wetsuit will help make you a faster triathlon swimmer. This is one product that really works!