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Triathlon Prep: Will You Wear a Wet Suit? (Here's Why You Should—and One on Sale!)

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Feeling lean and mean in my Fit2Race wet suit, customized for Team in Training. (Scroll down for more photos!)

With just a few short weeks until Whole Living's Danskin sprint triathlon on September 11, I feel like there are so many things left to discuss! One of which is wet suits: For first-timers, it's often an area of confusion and a source of anxiety. Should you get one? What kind? How do you put it on? And is it really supposed to fit like this?

If you've got a triathlon coming up and you've never swam in open water with a wet suit before, now's the time to decide—sooner rather than later—if you're going to wear one. Here are a few things to consider.

The Rules of the Game
For all USA-Triathlon-sanctioned races, it is legal for competitors to wear wet suits if the water is 78 degrees or below. On the rare occasion that the water temperature on race morning falls above that (we were close this year at the NYC Tri, but luckily still a degree or two below), you can still choose to suit up—but you won't be eligible for prizes or recognition if you happen to do well enough to "place" in your age group or race category. On the very rare occasion that temperatures reach 84, wet suits are not allowed at all.

The colder the water is, the more a wet suit comes in handy. And if it gets too cold, you may not have a choice. This isn't something to worry about in most parts of the country, but at a triathlon in Ontario this month, race organizers declared wet suits mandatory when the water hit 58 degrees. It's a good idea to know the average temperature of the body of water you're racing in for the time of year you're racing, so you can be prepared for any circumstances.

The Pros of Wearing a Wet Suit
Wet suits are designed to help you swim faster and more efficiently. They make you extremely buoyant, so it's great for anyone who's worried about sinking or who has trouble keeping their body horizontal in the water.

They also provide warmth in cold water, and they help you glide through the water with less friction—meaning you can do less and get further, faster. This also translates to less muscle exertion, and more energy saved for the bike and run. Plus, you know, they make you look like a superhero!

The Flip Side
If you're a strong swimmer who doesn't need the extra help, or if you're claustrophobic or very inexperienced with wet suits, you may think twice before diving into all that neoprene. Wet suits take some time to get in and out of, so you might lose some time in transition trying to take it off. (For most people, though, you'll more than make up for it with a faster overall swim.)

If you're not used to wearing a suit, it can also feel constricting or even painful—especially if it doesn't fit right or if you don't use a lubricant, like BodyGlide, to protect against chafing and pinching around your neck and arms. The bottom line? Practice with your wet suit, hopefully more than once, before the big day. And if it feels funny at first, give it some time before you ditch the idea completely.

To Sleeve or Not to Sleeve?
For most triathlon wet suits, you have two main options: Sleeved or sleeveless. This is a personal preference; I've worn both types, and I must say that I preferred sleeveless for a lake in New Jersey and sleeved (give me as much of a buffer as possible!) for the Hudson River in Manhattan. In Hawaii earlier this year, on a beautiful warm-weather day, I opted to go without a wet suit entirely.

People who get overheated easily or are worried about constriction may prefer sleeveless, which lets you feel the water with your arms but still keeps you afloat. If you're looking for maximum efficiency and the most help you can get from a suit, however, sleeved is the way to go. (Sleeved versions will also typically cost a bit more.)

Choosing a Suit
As far as brands for wet suits go, there are a lot. The important thing is to make sure you're getting one that's specifically made for triathlons and open-water swimming, as opposed to, say, surfing in January. This will ensure that the suit specifications—material, thickness, etc.—is on par with USA-Triathlon regulations. (Starting in 2013, suits exceeding 5 mm thickness will not be allowed.)

Expect to spend at least $200 for a full-length triathlon wet suit, unless you find one on sale or can buy it used. (In fact, here's one that's 50 percent off until September 30!) Anything with less material, i.e., those that are sleeveless or knee-length, are typically less than comparable full-body versions. And higher-performance suits can cost three or even four times that much!

If you have no idea where to even start, check out this handy wet suit calculator from TriSports.com; it uses your experience level, personal preferences, and measurements to give you the best options across several good brands. From there, you can buy online or head to a local retailer to try a few on. If you're buying online, however, make sure your suit comes with enough time for you to try it on—and practice in it!—and send it back for another size if needed.

Not sure yet if you're going to make jumping into open bodies of cold water a hobby? You might consider renting a suit for your first tri (many online retailers also offer rentals), but the same rules apply: Make sure you have enough time to test it out before the race.

Getting the Right Fit
The first time you try your suit on, by the way, it will undoubtedly feel too small. Give it some time, though, and be persistent: Pull the suit up from the legs (like you do with a pair of panty hose) and work out all of the bunches. Expect to feel squished. It gets better in the water!

The important thing, size wise, is to make sure that there aren't big gaps anywhere, like in the crotch or in the armpits if your suit has sleeves, that could fill up with water and slow you down. And here's a helpful hint for getting your suit on: Put your feet in plastic bags or socks first; they'll slide right through the leg holes and out the other side.

I polled a few of my friends and did some retail research, and compiled a list of a few different entry-level options. (There's also a few fun photos here of my friends and I sporting our suits—check out my friend Julie's crazy colorful custom-made ensemble!)

If you're wearing a wet suit for your triathlon, what kind is it? Have you worn one before, and what do you think?

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1 The XTerra Volt was named Deal of the Decade by Competitor Magazine. A sleeveless women's version is $200 at xterrawetsuits.com.

2 The Fit2Race Sockeye suit costs $300 with sleeves; $200 without, at f2r.com.

3 This Flash Wetzoot is lightweight, flexible, and perfect for beginners. $200 at zootsports.com.

4 The Synergy Endorphin Quick John cuts off just above the knee. $169 for a sleeveless women's model at synergysport.com.

5 Got a junior triathlete in the house? BlueSeventy offers a kids' version of its popular adult suit for $150 at blueseventy.com.

6 ProMotion offers a women's full-suit version of its Power Glide suit for $249 (and a sleeveless version for $169) at wetsuit.com.

7 Before the race begins, keep cool and prevent overheating by wearing your wetsuit only half-way. Underneath you can wear a tri-top, tank top, or sports bra.

8 Here's my friend Julie rocking her custom-built triathlon wetsuit designed for her by her employer, BuiltNY. Like the pattern? You can find it on all sorts of products (sorry, no wetsuits!) at builtny.com. Click on "Shop by Color: Nolita Stripe."

9 Sleeves or no sleeves? Either way, these wetsuits made us look -- and feel -- totally buff!

10 Here's me in last year's triathlon, racing toward transition after leaving the water. I'm reaching behind me for the zipper as I run!

11 Here's another shot, this one from this year's NYC race. Once you get the zipper down, trot into transition with your suit stripped down around your waist.

12 How does this thing work again? My team's first open-water swim practice with our brand-new wetsuits.

Amanda MacMillan is a freelance writer, currently blogging at LeanGreenBride.com. She has done four Olympic-distance triathlons and is looking forward to her first sprint tri, next month, with Team Whole Living. Her triathlon training blog runs every Thursday on Whole Living Daily.

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