Wet Suit Testing

As I have mentioned in my last couple posts, I’ve spent some time since Ironman Texas pondering the impact of a wetsuit on my swim. I decided that rather than ponder about it and do nothing, I was going to take action and gather some data and based on that data I would be more informed about my options to improve my swim.

I have three wetsuits

  • Profile Design Wahoo, size Medium
  • Xterra Vendetta, size Small Long
  • Xterra Vendetta, size Smal

I reached out to a friend who I knew had a sleeveless ROKA, to see if I could borrow it for some testing.  Lucky enough for me, he not only had a Maverick Pro Sleeveless, but a Maverick Pro Full suit, both size Medium.

Some notes, background and caveats for the interests of disclosure.

I am 5 foot, 10.5 inches, and my weight ranges between 170 and 175 pounds.

For all three companies of wetsuits, I should be a size Medium, which happened to be the size of the Wahoo, and both Maverick’s.

The Small Long, and Small wetsuits are a legacy of me purchasing my first Xterra wetsuit back in late 2008. I was replacing my aging and worn Ironman (now b70) wetsuit, and was conversing back and forth with Xterra on sizing. I was displeased with the amount of water that the Ironman wetsuit let in, so expressed to Xterra, I didn’t want that problem. Based on their recommendation, I sized down, but got a long to give the chest and shoulders more material to work with. This seemed to work OK, but I noticed that there was a fair bit of looseness in the waist and upper legs where water would want to settle.

Later, in 2011, I contacted Xterra to get a support, because just like on my Ironman, the left armpit of the suit was wearing away – almost melted or rubbed apart – which to this day I’m not sure if it’s something I did in caring for the suits, or a product of my swimming style – interestingly my now 3.5 year old Small Vendetta shows no signs of this wear. My suit was out of warranty, but they offered to sell me a new suit at a steep discount.  I bought a small, the thinking being trying to resolve the water around the waist and legs issue for the Small Long.

So that’s the story on why I have a Small Long and Small of the Vendetta.

When I first started in on triathlon, in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 – I generally had very solid swims. I would swim hard and fast, my fastest IM swim is still my first in 2005.  With only a couple of exceptions go on to have very solid races.

This changed in 2009, where I began to have very inconsistent performances in races, and with a few exceptions generally had to simply loll through the swim in order to have a solid race. I still remember before IMWI in 2010 – that my mantra was – “One of these kids is doing his own thing” – after recalling feeling like my day was over about 800 meters into IMWI 2009.

And now I’ve finally arrived at today, having taken action to close the thought loop that started with the swim at IMTX.

The first thing I did was re-read the blog that Brian Stover posted back in 2009 about the protocol he followed for wetsuit testing. I closely approximated that protocol in my testing, the most notable change was that I was only going to test one wetsuit a day and do a baseline swim each day. I elected to do this on a couple of assumptions. First, my swim fitness isn’t going to change much at this point – it is what it is. Second, I have been known to have some really, really bad days in the pool so I wanted to identify those days, and not test if a day like that turned up.

The test protocol I used consisted of the following:
3×300 Swim/Kick/Swim for a warmup
2×400 @ 6:00 Swim (in speedo)
Put the wetsuit on
Do a 200 Easy to make sure it’s on right and help settle it
2×400 @ 6:00 Swim
Take the wetsuit off and cool down.

I timed all efforts with a wrist watch that I started when I submerged for my push off, and stopped after I touched. I wore the watch on my left wrist, and finished all swims with my right hand. So touch, reach over and stop watch.

I chose 6:00 for the send off because it would give me enough rest that I could swim hard enough that I couldn’t game the tests, but had enough time to get a very full recovery so that I would not have to deal with falling apart on the second swim.

My goal perceived effort was to swim these at around Half Ironman RPE. To help make sure that even if my RPE was off, I took a 10 second count of my heart rate starting 5 seconds after I finished a swim, with a goal of having it be 21 or 22.

Finally, all times are reported in short course meters.

Results
Average of all baseline swims: 5:16
Profile Design Wahoo: 4:57.5
Xterra Vendetta (Small Long): 4:59
Roka Full: 4:50
Roka Sleeveless: 4:52
Xterra Vendetta (Small): 5:07.5

Below are the results of each individual swim, times are in seconds. Because I paced very poorly on Baseline number 3 – I created columns that calculated the difference between all baselines, and adjusted to discard baseline number 3, which felt about right effort wise, but based on HR was a bit harder then the rest of the swims.

Swim One Swim Two Average Difference per 100 from Baseline Adjusted Baseline Difference per 100 Notes
Baseline 1 319 316 317.5 0.4 0.1
Baseline 2 316 315 315.5 -0.1 -0.4
Baseline 3 313 312 312.5 -0.9 Whoops, that was fast, HR 24
Baseline 4 318 319 318.5 0.6 0.3
Average of Baseline 316.5 315.5 316
Wahoo 296 299 297.5 -4.6 -4.9 Lots of water in the chest
Xterra (SLO) 298 300 299 -4.3 -4.5 Water in the hips and legs, not too much shoulder restriction
Roka Full 290 290 290 -6.5 -6.8 This did not feel like a wetsuit
Roka Sleeveless 292 292 292 -6.0 -6.3 Very similar feelign to the full, slightly less restrictive, but a bit more water
Xterra (S) 304 311 307.5 -2.1 -2.4 I just wanted these to be over.

The takeaways I have are is that like on the bike fit is really really important. I have impressions about each of the suits, and I’ll share them, but I think that especially regarding the Xterra suits, my feelings are very dependent upon the fact that I have suits that definitely are the wrong size for me.

Impressions

Wahoo – After swimming in the Wahoo, I knew that my Vendetta was causing me problems. I felt like I could kick, my body position felt good, and my arms didn’t feel like they were going to die. I was really pleased by the experience, and left the pool thinking to myself “It’s one thing to know a wetsuit makes you faster, it’s another to experience it.” I felt like the collar on the Wahoo did not seal well and it filled up with water a fair bit. By the end of the second 400 I could feel a small amount of fatigue in my shoulders, but not bad.

Vendetta (SLO) – I was surprised at how this suit felt compared to the Wahoo, and my recollection of how the Small Vendetta felt at Elkhart Lake. The shoulders felt pretty loose and relaxed, but it felt big around the waist and I felt like water wanted to gather there and in the upper legs. I also felt like my body position was off in this suit, way too much buoyancy in the chest, and not enough in the legs. It really felt like my hips were being driven down into the water, which made it really hard to kick effectively.

ROKA Full – This was simply incredible. When I jumped in for the easy 200 and the first 100 was a 1:15, I said whoa boy. The amount of freedom my shoulders felt was insane. I felt like my body position was really good, and I was able to kick and swim well. This was the first time I’ve swam in a wetsuit where I felt like I was actually able to control my speed, every other time I have always felt like my swim speed was simply determined by what my pull was doing, and I didn’t have a lot of conscious control over it. I could have swam that pace for 400s all day long.

ROKA Sleeveless – This felt very similar to the full, a little more freedom in the arms and shoulders, but it also let in the slightest amount of water compared to the full. Strong kick, good power through the pull. I did feel maybe just slightly overbalanced in my stroke, with just a little too much lift in the hips, but not enough in the arms. I can see a lot of value in the sleeveless for a race like the Triple T PM Olympic, where you want a wetsuit, but you are already hot and sweating. A sleeveless will help get your temperature down, is easier to get on, but still gives your legs the support and warmth to keep from getting shocked as you hit the water.

Vendetta (Small) – When I was a 100 through the easy 200 I seriously debated just stopping the test – as I knew it was going to be bad. As I was suiting up, I had “hope” that it wouldn’t be that bad, as compared to the ROKAs it was actually fairly easy to get on and in position, and a few arm swings and such felt pretty free. Once in the water though it was clear that my shoulders and arms were extremely restricted. Based on how it felt, I was surprised by how fast the first 400 was, and the second 400 was just a matter of me dreading it and feeling super tired and feeble. It felt like my stroke was getting slower and shorter with every few arm cycles. I had always thought that this suit was causing problems by having too much leg flotation, hindering my kick, however now I’m pretty sure that the kick is just a symptom. My kick slows down and gets weak in conjunction with my arms slowing down and getting weaker as I try to keep my stroke timing together.  The first rep was the slowest of any suited swims, and I lost 7 seconds on the second 400 – what does that translate to at 1500 meters, or 3000 meters?

Conclusions

I’m not sure what the next steps are from here. In a perfect world, with unlimited budget I would go buy both a sleeved and sleeveless ROKA, as they are clearly the fastest of the suits tested and I can see the utility of having both, but that’s a lot of money, even $800 for a sleeved ROKA is a tall order. Perhaps I could try a medium Vendetta or Xterra’s new Vengeance using their always circulating discount codes, coupled with their 30 money back guarantee to get a sweet deal, or maybe watch ebay or slowtwitch for a used ROKA. Or maybe I just man up and buy one.I’m not sure, but I do know that I won’t be wearing the small vendetta this weekend at Racine 70.3