What is a natural swimming wetsuit? 

Posted on: BY: Saga Svensson
Tags: high-performance wetsuits | natural swimming wetsuits | wetsuits

A natural swimming wetsuit 101. What is a natural swimming wetsuit, what are the benefits, and do I need one?

What is a natural swimming wetsuit? 

A natural swimming wetsuit is a wetsuit designed to feel more like a second skin when swimming, as compared with a regular triathlon wetsuit which is thicker and has more buoyancy. You might also hear a natural swimming wetsuit referred to as a ‘high performance’ wetsuit. However, not all high performance wetsuits are natural swimming wetsuits. 

‘Natural swimming’ refers to your body position and swimming style when wearing a wetsuit. A triathlon wetsuit tends to raise the body’s position in the water, especially the hips and legs. A natural swimming wetsuit on the other hand, strives to provide little-to-no buoyancy so that your body position is the same as without a wetsuit. Hence ‘natural swimming’.  

Are all high-performance wetsuits ‘natural swimming’ wetsuits?

No. But because ‘high-performance’ is really just a different way of saying ‘expensive’, there is some correlation between the two. High performance suits use more expensive blends of neoprene. They can protect us from the cold and from cuts and scrapes without being so thick and inflexible. 

Regardless, high-performance wetsuits often still have buoyant panels in important places and therefore by no means guarantee a natural body position. In short, there are plenty of super buoyant high-performance suits that promise ultra flexibility and freedom of movement while having buoyancy panels as well.  

Are natural swimming wetsuits faster?

Let’s start by asking ‘do wetsuits in general make you faster?’ The answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes’. 

For the majority of people, the thing that slows them down when swimming without a wetsuit is a high head position and a low leg position. Any tiny movement that breaks the perfect cylinder of your torpedo trajectory through the water will cause drag and slow you down. 

If you are swimming with your legs low in the water you are essentially pushing a wall of water along with you and it doesn’t matter how big and strong you are, you are not going to win that battle. 

What can help reduce that angle and raise the profile of your body in the water, immediately reducing your drag and increasing your speed? Why, strategically positioned buoyant panels of course.

So a wetsuit makes us faster because it cures a lot of the drag that slows us down.

Triathletes, and amateur swimmers in general, tend to benefit from a thicker, more buoyant suit which helps raise the legs and reduces drag. Men, who tend to have less fat in the hips and thighs also might benefit from a more buoyant wetsuit.

Even swimmers with years of experience and excellent technique are often more efficient with some additional help lifting the position of the lower half in the water. But the worse your position, the more you stand to benefit from a bit of buoyancy in the legs.

The minority of swimmers who hate their triathlon wetsuit

OK and what if you have been training and racing for years in a near-perfect freestyle position? What if you have a killer kick and a turbo hip-thrust in the pool? What if you are a fanatical technician of the art of swimming? 

In this case you might be in the minority of swimmers who hate their triathlon wetsuit. You might be in the minority of swimmers who are actually slower in their wetsuit than without it, despite the gains to be had from being suited in neoprene with all your lumpy bits tucked in.

You are the target market for a natural swimming wetsuit.

Man seen from below, swimming underwater in an xterra wetsuit
Swimmers from a technical background can sometimes find triathlon wetsuits too buoyant.

Swimmers in this category complain of feeling too high in the water when wearing a wetsuit. They fight the sensation of being on the surface of the water. They flap their feet in the air and splash too much. And they constantly battle these sensations, so that swimming in a wetsuit feels off-kilter, unnatural, and not half as much fun as with no wetsuit at all.

Those few eighths of an inch of height in the water can shave minutes off the time of a leg-dragger. But for swimmers with perfect body position, they might have the opposite effect. A change of position can take the sting out of a punchy kick and ruin the overall timing and firing of the stroke.

So which swimmer are you? This is the whole question. If you are finding that you are slower in your wetsuit, it is definitely something you need to investigate. 

READ: “Why I made the switch to a natural swimming wetsuit” 

Some swimmers are slower in a wetsuit because the wetsuit restricts their movement.

Some thicker triathlon wetsuits can be quite restrictive and prevent freedom and range of movement, especially in the shoulders. If you think your wetsuit restricts your movement, it’s worth experimenting with some thinner, more flexible suits to see if it makes a difference. 

Even a few milimeters of limitation in your reach or your pull can have a big corresponding effect on the length of your stroke and therefore your swimming speed. 

Just because you need a thinner or more flexible wetsuit though, doesn’t mean you need a natural swimming wetsuit. You might very well be in the majority of swimmers who still need the buoyancy that a triathlete suit can offer in the hips and legs. 

Aren’t natural wetsuits cold?

Natural swimming wetsuits can be cold because they are so thin, but like with any wetsuit, you need to check specific ratings and materials for different wetsuits. Just because a wetsuit is thin, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cold. There are thermal natural swimming wetsuits constructed in expensive materials that are rated for very cold water. 

Check out the Blue Seventy Reaction, for example, which isn’t an all out natural swimming suit, but is designed for swimmers who prefer a more natural position, and has a thermal model for swimmers in colder climates. Warning, it is a bit pricy .

open water swimmer in the blue seventy thermal reaction wetsuit, with neoprene cap and gloves, swimming freestyle in the sea
The Blue Seventy Thermal Reaction is a good option for open water swimmers who train in a cold climate.

I live in the Pacific Northwest where ocean currents mean temperatures rarely exceed 55F (13C). I have an Orca Zeal Perform that i have worn with a hood in temperatures as low as 50F/10C.

I’ve experimented quite a bit with different combos and personally i prefer to be cosy rather than push the limits of my wetsuit. I also want to swim as much as possible.

Managing the cold

My advice is that a decent neoprene hood is essential if you are going to wear your natural swimming wetsuit in very cold conditions. You don’t need to spend much – a cheap scuba hood with a swim cap over the top will work just fine.

A good hood keeps your head and neck warm, two crucial areas for heat leakage. I like the extra warmth in the neck because i injured my neck at the gym a few years ago and it took a long time to heal, so i am paranoid when it comes to twisting and turning it when it is cold.

When it is colder, i also wear a thermal undersuit but there’s a catch: it is 2mm thick and i do feel a bit of extra buoyancy when i wear it even with a natural suit.

Are natural wetsuits fragile?

High-performance wetsuits and natural swimming wetsuits, because they use thinner neoprene, tend to be extremely delicate. 

If you have your suit on and are swimming in normal conditions, you will be fine, but you have to treat your suit like a flower in transitions and out of the water.  

It’s common to find ‘mystery tears’, so don’t walk around the house in your suit or wander around the beach in it post-swim. Make sure you put it on and take it off like you would a delicate artifact.

Take extra care when swimming in extreme conditions. Always keep it in the back of your mind when you are swimming in wild places with jagged rocks or branches. Use your common sense and put on a back-up wetsuit when conditions are gnarly.

When you do inevitably develop minor nicks in the neoprene, take action early to stop them developing into anything worse.

Conclusion

Natural swimming suits are fragile, sometimes cold, and are designed for a very specific type of swimmer. If you feel like a fish out of water when you put on your triathlon wetsuit, you might find that a suit designed with minimum buoyancy in mind is exactly what your open water swimming has been missing.

READ: “Why I made the switch to a natural swimming wetsuit” 

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