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Open water dilemma – wetsuit or skins?

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Never has a bit of kit been as divisive as the humble wetsuit. Some outdoor swimmers shun wetsuits, while others wouldn’t go near the water without. So do you need one or not?

Rowan Clarke, a keen open water swimmer and coach, looks at both sides of the debate.

Open water events

Much depends on what kind of open water swimming you are doing.

Wetsuits aren’t cheap or easy to put on, but they offer huge advantages to your warmth and buoyancy. So, thinking about your open water swimming goals will help you decide whether or not you need one.

During FINA events, wetsuits are compulsory in water below 18°C. Other events will set their own rules, depending on the weather and temperature.

Getting too cold is the biggest threat to outdoor swimmers’ safety, and event organisers don’t want to run that risk.

A good fitting swimming wetsuit works by trapping a layer of water between your skin and the neoprene. This layer warms to your body temperature, giving you valuable insulation.

Without this insulation, your body shunts warm blood to your core by closing blood vessels in your skin and extremities. This can cause muscle cramps and fatigue. Get really cold, and you can experience mental confusion, disorientation and impaired coordination.

But event organisers often allow for experienced ‘skins’ swimmers to apply to go without. Why? Because many open water swimmers argue that it’s the only way to swim outdoors.

What does ‘swimming skins’ mean?

Not to be confused with skinny dipping or Swimskins, ‘swimming skins’ simply means wearing normal swimwear.

Many open water purists argue that the focus should be on technique and hard work, rather than kit.

Wetsuits give swimmers an artificial advantage, so going without gives a more level playing field.

They also constrict movement. Skins swimmers love the freedom of moving unhindered through natural waters.

But what about the cold? Acclimatise properly and you can learn to deal with the cold. Lots of traditional distance swims, like the Channel swim, don’t allow wetsuits.

Winter swimming competitions ban neoprene too, proving that the human body can cope with extreme lows.

Are wetsuits cheating?

If you listen to the banter at open water venues, you might think so.

Wetsuits are designed to give you a sleeker profile in the water, helping you swim more efficiently. Different thickness of neoprene on the torso and legs makes you more streamlined, and a special coating reduces friction and increases speed.

Over time and distance, swimmers often lose form as they get fatigued. A wetsuit can help to negate this. They also allow you to swim without kicking, which is ideal if you’re competing in a triathlon and need to reserve your legs for running and cycling.

But many swimmers find that wetsuits make them too buoyant. It’s almost impossible to swim breaststroke in a wetsuit, because your legs leave the water and the extra buoyancy bends your spine.

This is especially true if you have your own buoyancy and insulation in the form of body fat – something outdoor swimmers fondly know as ‘bioprene’.

Your choice

Ultimately, wearing a wetsuit or swimming skins is down to personal preference. If you’ve got an event coming up, train in whatever you’ll be wearing for that event.

If you do choose skins, take acclimatising seriously. Gradually build up the amount of time you spend in the water (start with up to one minute per degree of temperature), wear a silicone swim hat, stick close to the shore and don’t swim alone.

If you pick the wetsuit option, make sure it fits properly — and that it’s fit for purpose.

Above all, don’t listen to the banter. Skins or wetsuit, there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy swimming in open water.

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