Swimskins, Wetsuits, and Tri Suits

Swimskins are fairly new to the sport of triathlon, but are they worth the price tag? Before we dive into what swimskins are and what they can do, let’s review the basic gear for a triathlete when it comes to swimming.

The most basic of gear is a tri suit, which is a one or two piece kit that you can wear comfortably for all three disciplines without adding more layers. Tri suits can be sleeveless or have sleeves like a bike jersey. If the water temperature is at 78 degrees F or above, you’ll need to wear a tri suit if you want to be considered for age-group awards. Tri suits range in price from $80-$250 each, depending on the brand, style, and materials used in making the kit. In reality, a tri suit is not necessary to compete–you can always wear a training swimsuit, throw on a pair of running or cycling shorts and t-shirt for the bike and run. No tri suit needed and no money wasted when you’re getting involved in a new sport; save your cash for the bike because it’s a machine that you throw money at anyway.

Next up in a triathlete’s swimming stash is a wetsuit. Wetsuits come in a variety of shapes and sizes from full legs and sleeves to a shorti wetsuit. If the water is cooler, you would wear your wetsuit over your tri suit for the swim. Wetsuits are fairly easy to put on and take off with practice and have a drawstring attached to the zipper to close the suit and to unzip it as you run towards transition. Wetsuits range in price from $80-$500 and up, so it can be an expensive addition.

The advantage of wearing a wetsuit is the added buoyancy neoprene provides, helping to correct dropped legs and other types of poor swim form and body positioning. Many triathletes swim a few minutes faster for the entire swim segment of the race, but if you’re already a fast swimmer with good form, you might not notice much of a difference. From a personal standpoint, I’m about the same speed with or without a wetsuit, but a wetsuit will keep me warm when the water temps are in the low 60s or upper 50s F.

Now enter the swimskin. A swimskin compresses your body with hydrophobic material to make you cut through the water faster. Swimskins are also worn over the tri suit like a wetsuit and can be worn when the water temp is at 78 degrees F or above. Fast swimmers and pros who swim at 1:20 per 100 meters or faster, save an average of 2-6 seconds per 100 meters, which adds up quickly for an Ironman distance swim of 2.4 miles or 4,224 yards. However, the swimskin offers no extra buoyancy like the wetsuit and does little in the way of correcting poor form. It will reduce drag caused by form and your body line, but if you are an average swimmer, or if swimming is the weaker of the three sports, then it won’t help much in the way of decreasing fatigue caused by form and body position in the water.

So, should you get a swimskin? I wouldn’t. Most age-group athletes won’t actually benefit from wearing one on race day. Sorry, I wouldn’t spend the extra $200-$400 for one. Instead, I would spend more time in the pool since swimming is the neglected sport of most triathletes. If you do spend money on swimming, spend it on joining a masters team, get some new fins, a snorkel, pull buoy, new practice suits, open water goggles, fun swim caps, or a workout book for swimming. The point is: get better at swimming first before making another big gear investment in a swimskin that you’ll use a handful of times in practice and possibly for the wetsuit illegal race. And for the love of all that is holy, do an actual swim workout in the pool, learn how to do flip turns or efficient open turns, do all of the competitive strokes, and use the clock provided because you don’t need a watch for swimming, but that’s another blog post entirely.

Visualization and the Athlete

Lake Erie from Edgewater Park in Cleveland, OH during USAT Nationals on August 9, 2018

Lake Erie in Cleveland is known for its fickle ways, changing from smooth as glass to a washing machine of waves in a short amount of time, bringing with it sudden changes in weather. Any local will tell you to watch out for its rip currents. So, how do you prepare for something like that as an athlete?

USAT Nationals will be held in Cleveland, OH again this year at Edgewater Park, and, yes, you do have to prepare for the unexpected. Last year, I watched the Lake go from smooth to choppy, with waves over three feet high, in the course of thirty minutes, making it difficult for athletes to sight. Many of them swam for 1.2 miles instead of the 1500 meters of an Olympic distance event.

As an athlete, you practice the swim, bike, and run often in your training, eat the right things (mostly), and carve out time for rest in your busy day, but if you’re not practicing visualization and positive self-talk, you’re missing out.

Here’s why.

  1. See it: Practice visualizing how the race will unfold. Look up photos of the area where you’ll be racing so it will be familiar to you. Think of how you’ll set up transition, practice your race day plan and working with your gear in a mock transition to further reinforce your daily visualizations, and see yourself moving through the different segments of the race. Most of all, see yourself crossing that finish line, one step at a time.
  2. Plan it: Because you’ve spent time thinking about how your race will go, there is nothing new. However, if something new does come up, you can think about how you’ll work through those difficulties with a plan of action–dropping a bottle on the bike, getting a flat, dealing with a crowded swim field, handling heat or cold on the bike or run. Besides having a plan for the unexpected, have an overall race day plan of what you’ll eat and drink and when. Know how you will pace the race based on the course and terrain. All of this will help with your anxiety levels.
  3. Practice it: In addition to thinking through the unknown, develop a ritual before the race, practice your transition with all of you gear, and then visualize how it will all happen. A good ritual to have is: set up your gear, eat the same thing you normally do right before the swim, and find a quiet area or sit for a moment in transition to focus on your breathing (maybe even listen to music or headphones). When you’re ready to get in line for the swim start, focus on being calm in the crowd by breathing and visualizing your swim. In addition, practice the skills you’ll need such as changing your tire, setting up transition, eating and drinking on the bike and run, etc. It’s also a good idea to train for the swim, bike, and run in places with terrain that resembles your goal race.
  4. Win: No, everything won’t go according to plan all the time, but more often than not, you’ll be successful. Looking on the positive side will also help you learn from your mistakes so you can move on and become a better athlete.

See. Plan. Practice. Win.

Why Using “Sherpa” is Cultural Appropriation

Ever since I got into the sport of triathlon, I’ve heard other athletes ask me if I plan to have a “Sherpa” for my first Ironman, and if so what that “Sherpa” would do. This has always rattled me because it reeks of cultural appropriation. How can I possibly call my husband and family my “Sherpas”? It’s insensitive and inappropriate.

If someone is a Sherpa, they are part of an ethnic group of people, mainly from Nepal, and in addition to being their own distinct cultural group, they have helped many climbers summit the highest peaks of the Himalayan Mountains. But what they are first is an ethnic group of people–not a brand name for sports clothing and certainly not a name you give your support crew–they are people.

To me, calling your support crew “Sherpas” is just wrong. It’s no different than naming sports teams after Native Americans, donning feathers, and attending a baseball game while beating a drum and mimicking Native American Dances. It’s like calling your support crew your “slaves” for the day. Would you do that? I don’t think so.

Why not go with simply: crew? Or race crew? Race support? When Phil assisted me with all of my gear at the end of Ironman Maryland, he told me he would like to be called “Iron Mule” (wait here, hold my gear) because of the play on words. I motion that race support for endurance triathlon events be called “crew” or “IronMule”, depending on your support crew’s sense of humor.

IronMule (noun): person who waits all day long while their athlete does an Ironman, tries to track and find them on course to cheer for them for a matter of seconds, and then collects all of the gear at the end of the day while the athlete tries to eat normal food for the first time. It’s a thankless job, really, being someone’s crew, but the athlete wouldn’t be anywhere without all of the support of family and friends and especially the IronMule.