The Great Neoprene Debate

The first question a fellow open water swimmers asks you is, skins or suit? Most people are a mixture of the two. Here is our guide to neoprene accessories, how they work, and how to look after them!

Are you skins or suit is pretty much the first question fellow outdoor swimmers will ask you. And my answer is both. I have been swimming in the sea, year round, for 10 years. The first 6 in a very thick 5mm wetsuit, gloves, boots and hood and skins for 4 years, the last one forgoing boots and gloves too. I choose what to wear depending on my swim. I have a 5mm watersports wetsuit for teaching children in, when I can be in the water for up to 2 hours in the middle of winter. I even wear my swimming wetsuit when I am coaching in the summer a lot of the time so I am warm and prepared to deal with emergencies should they arise. I also wear it when I swim alone for long distances, again for the same reason, I want to be safe. But most of the time I swim in skins. And it isn’t because of the faff. After decades of putting wetsuits on and taking them off I’m pretty quick at it and I have plenty of space to dry them. It’s just because now I associate my wetsuit with work or a work out and I associate skins with fun!

IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT YOU WEAR AS ALONG AS YOU GET IN

Wetsuits

Wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water between your body and the suit, that your body warms up, so you need to get wet! Wetsuit wearers tend to gasp when the water finally trickles from the neck down the back. So you see, it does not protect you from cold water shock and you still get that initial ‘getting in’ screeching feeling, but you will be kept warmer over all by the neoprene. Neoprene is made of small closed cells that are filled with air which provide insulation against cold water by trapping heat in. The thing that they do need to be is tight. It will loosen a wee bit in the water, as it expands, but it does need to be close fitting without constricting the movement of your swim. Can you wave your arms about and do some squats is a good way to test it out for size. Too big and it will just fill-up with too much water to warm up, so pretty much pointless. If your core is kept warm by a wetsuit, a noticeable difference will be you hands, feet and head stay warmer for longer and so you may be able to swim head in and without the faff of socks and gloves as temperatures decline.

So what type of wetsuit? Oh and there are so many. So work out what kind of swimming you want it for and how you deal with cold temperatures. So you can opt for a swimming wetsuit or a watersports wetsuit. A swimming wetsuit is specifically designed for front crawl, lots of shoulder and arm flexibility, a smooth surface and it makes your bum buoyant to achieve correct body position. They can rip and tear easily so you need to be very careful when putting it on and it can make your neck and shoulders ache if you are wearing it to do head up breaststroke as you are fighting against a floating derriere. (There are also tri-suits which are specifically design for triathlons and transitions ). A watersports wetsuit is more robust but much less flexible making front crawl a lot of hard work. It is perfect for bobbing and head up chatting swimming though.

How thick should my wetsuit be? The thicker the suit’s neoprene, the warmer the suit will be because it has more heat-trapping insulation. However it is a trade off so the thicker the neoprene the less flexible and more constricting your suit will be. The normal range of thickness for swimming outdoors in the UK goes from 2mm in the summer to 5mm in the winter. The thickness various across the suit as it is thicker on the torso to aid with body position and keeping the core warm and thinner on the limbs for freedom of movement. You can of course opt for sleeveless, shortie, vest, cossie, zip up jacket, leggings….the list is endless. All aimed at keeping your core warm the difference is simply down to personal choice.

Accessories

Gloves
Many skin swimmers opt for neoprene accessories, like gloves when temperatures really begin to drop. Some swimmers suffer from Raynaud’s Syndrome, Cold water Urticaria and chilblains. For them gloves are a game changer and allow them to continue enjoying cold water swims. Indeed it allows most skin swimmers to continue as the hands feel the cold strongly and after a prolonged period in the water warm blood is redirected away from them to keep your core warm making them colder still. Much like your choice of wetsuit or neoprene core warmer the right gloves for you will depend on what kind of swimmer you are or swim you plan to do. If you wish to continue head in front crawl throughout the year then you need a thinner glove with good flexibility so you can continue to feel the water and adjust your stroke accordingly. It you plan on a head out breast stroke you may be happier with a thicker choice. What ever you choose the advantage of wearing gloves is that you are able to get dressed and warm quicker after your swim than someone with numb lobster claws.

Socks/Boots/Shoes
These are all slightly different and again should be selected for the swim you want to do or the swimmer you are. The purpose of neoprene shoes is to protect the sole of your foot but not keep your feet warm. The purpose of the neoprene sock is to keep your feet warm but not protect the soles of your feet. The purpose of a neoprene boot is to do both. Both the shoe and the boot will affect your ability to swim as they will make your feet too buoyant but a good sock should allow you to swim normally regardless of which stroke you are doing. Again they need to be tight fitting or they will end up full of water some have additional fasteners to keep them flush to your skin. The boots can be awful to get on and off but there are some that have zips to make it easier. All offer some form of protection, for example, allowing you to enter and exit the water safely if it is a steep shingle beach and stopping shar objects from cutting your feet. So some form of neoprene on your feet is a good option for swimming year round!

Hats/Headbands/Caps
It is a bit of an old wives tale that your body loses a lot of its heat out through the head. However as normally the only bit of your body that experiences the sea temperature, air temperature and wind chill while swimming outdoors it is a good idea to keep it warm. Again there are few options for swimmers to chose from. Whatever you wear cover your ears, they definitely need protecting from the cold water and ear infections and swimmers ear can keep you out of the water for long periods of time, so cover them up with some neoprene.

Aftercare
Neoprene is not cheap, and it goes through more stress than normal fabric, constantly being submerged in water, which in my case is salty. It is held together by a mixture of glue and stitching which don’t take kindly to be roughly treated. So look after it. Turn them inside out if you can and give them a rinse in fresh clean water. I put my watersports wetsuit on a gently rinse cycle in the washing machine, my swimming wetsuit I do not, it’s too fragile. If they really pong you can add a bit of specialist gentle detergent. To dry them, inside out again if possible, remembering to turn them the right way when they are dry to the touch and allow them to dry again. Outside in the wind is always best. Don’t use a coat hanger on your wetsuit – it will stretch and damage the shoulders. Radiators can be used but they can damage the seals and glue! Gloves and boots should be dried allowing the evaporating water to escape – so not upside down or they will remain wet. You can use newspaper or kitchen towel to absorb the stubborn moisture from the finger and toe area but remove it after a short amount of time, remaining in there wet and damp just hinders the drying!

So the choice is yours! Wear whatever you want as long as you swim safe and have fun! You can always strip back to just a cossie just as you are about to exit the water if you want to feel the water on your skin. And look after your kit so your kit continues to look after you.

Different Folks, Different Strokes. Post swim smiles are still the same!