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Is a wetsuit always necessary for triathlons?

Q: "I am thinking about doing a mini sprint triathlon at the end of the month. Water temperature is expected to be between 70 and 75 degrees. Do you think I can make a 400-meter swim without a wetsuit?" – Cheryl S., Allentown, PA.

A: Water has the ability to extract heat from your body about 25 times faster than air. What this means is that while you might be comfortable outdoors on a 60-degree day, you would likely start to shiver within minutes if you were swimming in water of the same temperature.

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A wetsuit, which is essentially a neoprene insulation suit, works by trapping a thin layer of water between your body and the suit. Your body then warms the water trapped inside, preventing you from losing too much heat while swimming. The thicker the neoprene, the warmer the suit will be.

In addition to providing warmth and protection during watersports, a wetsuit offers the added bonus of buoyancy and reduced drag, which, reportedly, has the potential to shave up to five seconds off your swim time per 100 meters.

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That said, the extra time gained in the water must be weighed against the extra time required to extract yourself from the wetsuit in transition.

According to usatriathlon.org, participants may wear a wetsuit any time the water temperature is 78 degrees or less. If the water temperature is between 78 and 84 degrees, participants who choose to wear a wetsuit will be removed from age group competition and rankings. The maximum water temperature for elite and professional triathletes is 68 degrees for swim distances less than 3,000 meters and 71.6 degrees for distances of 3,000 meters or more. Wetsuits are prohibited in water temperatures above 84 degrees, and swimmers wearing a wetsuit with a thickness of more than five millimeters will be disqualified. Wetsuit violations are, in fact, listed on the USA Triathlon website as one of the 11 most common rules violations in triathlon.

In water temperatures above 72 degrees, evo.com notes wetsuits are generally not applicable. A Water Temperature and Expected Time of Survival Chart on 360guide.info shows that swimmers can expect to remain in water that is 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit for three to 12 hours before exhaustion or unconsciousness set in, and can expect to survive in water of the same temperature for a minimum of three hours and up to an indefinite maximum number or hours.

Bottom line, according to active.com, is that if your triathlon is in open water and the water is predicted to be cold, you should probably consider wearing a wetsuit, especially if you are a beginner or a weak swimmer.

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As your swim is only 400 meters in water predicted to be 70 degrees or warmer, you are probably good to go sans neoprene.

Please email your fitness and health questions to me at leimlite@gmail.com or mail to:

As I See Fit

c/o The Advocate

115 Airport Drive, Suite 170

Westminster, Md. 21157

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