Dear PoPville – Do I Need a Wetsuit? Any Tips for a first Triathalon?

Photo by PoPville flickr user pablo.raw

“Dear PoPville,

I’m going to be participating in my first triathlon on June 19th. The swimming leg of the race is in the Potomac and I’ve heard that many participants buy or rent a wetsuit because the water is sort of cold and it also increases your buoyancy. I’m not a terrible swimmer, but I’m not amazing by any means. I’m reluctant to rent one because I don’t know if it’ll fit properly on the day of the race and I’ve already spent so much damn money on this race. So my question for your readers is: Do you think I’ll need a wetsuit for the Potomac in late June? And then beyond the wetsuit question: has anyone ever done the DC Tri before? Any tips to share with a first-timer?”

31 Comment

  • Make sure to drink a liter of Potomac water before the race.

  • Last year the water was 83 degrees and so no wet suits were allowed.
    If you want the added buoyancy (and wetsuits are allowed for the race, depending on the water temp), then definitely rent one. Otherwise, with all the heat we’ve been having, I bet the Potomac will be pretty toasty near Sunday- I’ll be there doing the Olympic/International distance.
    The wetsuit makes a big difference in terms of stroke, especially if you’re claustophobic. If you choose to wear one, make sure you train in it before so you’re used to the tightness.
    Best of luck- have fun and don’t be intimidated- there are tons of different people doing the race for different reasons- so enjoy!

    • Beat me to it!

      I can’t emphasize the claustrophobia sensation enough if you’re not used to it. I won one that I’ve used for scuba, surfing, tris, etc., and I still don’t really like wearing it unless it’s really really cold.

      I also feel that for a tri, the cold motivates you to move faster, and being a collegiate swimmer, I don’t need the buoyancy. (I do wish I could remove “buoyancy” for the run – ha!)

    • You can always get a sleeveless one with definitely helps with the claustraphobia

  • Depends on the temp. On a very humid day, a wetsuit might make you feel even worse. Some races don;t allow them, some encourage them, and some encourage them based on the temperature level.

    Also, for some races, when you’re swimming in such gross water as the Potomac or Hudson Rivers (depending on the recorded pH), they actually require them. So, check all of that.

    That said, if you do decide to rent one, make sure you try it out at a pool first. I had a friend who wore it for the first time when racing, and when she jumped in the water, it soaked up water (as expected), and she realized she felt like she was having trouble breathing and started feeling claustrophobic. They had to pull her out of the water as she started panicking. So, TEST IT OUT at a public pool or something before racing with it.

    Also, they do increase buoyancy, but they get very heavy when wet, and they can be difficult to take off when wet, especially if it is really humid….

  • You do not need a wetsuit (especially not for water temperature – the Potomac’s not bathwater, but it’s not cold), but it will increase your buyouancy and will almost certainly give you a better swim time. You may lose that time during the first transition if you are slow getting out of the suit, however. You can rent a suit from Conte’s in Arlington and they’ll let you try it on before committing. Last year the DC Tri was not wetsuit legal due to the high temperature of the Potomac (~82 if I recall correctly).

    The DC Tri was pretty well run, in my opinion (disclaimer: it’s the only one I’ve done). The main issue I had is the same for every big race: not enough restrooms. As for the race itself, bike hard (especially the downhill portion of RCP) and the jaunt up Capitol Hill at the end is no fun, so be ready for it. Know how to change a tube on your bike; I saw more than a few people riding on rims during the race.

  • I agree with Britt and Balls. You can rent one from Bonzai Sports in Falls Church–they set me up with my first tri wetsuit when i did Nations in 2009. They know what they’re doing and make sure it fits before you leave the store. Might want to call first since we’re so close to the race.

    All that said, with the temps we’ve been having I doubt it will be wetsuit legal. I’ve only done 2 olympics and 1 sprint, swimming is by far my weakest discipline, and I’ve only worn a wetsuit for one of the olympics. You’ll definitely be fine without one if you choose to go that route.

  • i recently noticed on the bike rack’s website that they rent them – $35 for a full week, so you’d have time to test it out first.

  • slight tangent:

    there’s a guy who lives in the dc area (somewhere out in va- maybe alexandria or fairfax?) who is a triathlete and has an amazing blog:

    talks about everything from training, technology, and gear, to travel and cooking. very interesting blog. i’ve been reading it for well over a year now and it has answered a ton of my questions about becoming a triathlete. also, if you email him a question, he’s pretty responsive.

    just thought i’d send the rec out

  • I’m a scuba instructor, not a tri-athelete, but there is a big difference in wet suit styles. A 2 ml shortie farmer john might be enough to give you thermal protection but will not be at all restrictive. A full body suit would definitely be too much. The fit at the neckline is important so you don’t “scoop” water down the suit. Good luck!

  • I’ve done them with and without. They definitely help with buoyancy but they are a bit restricting and if you’re not used to wearing one or practiced in one, this might be more of a distraction than it’s worth.

    As stated by others, it all depends on the water temp and whether it will be allowed by the organizers. They usually post the water temp leading up to the race. The water temp was on the verge of being too high for the Nation’s tri last year in September so I think it’s probably going to be too hot to wear one. You can always choose to wear one but they usually make you go in the last wave and your times won’t be official.

  • Being serious (my first post above was not. Although doing something like that may make you “run” fast), my advice for a first-timer is not to worry so much about the suit, buoyancy, etc etc., but to focus on relaxing during the swim. I remember my first tri swim was a bit overwhelming with the washing machine effect you get, getting kicked by others, and just generally it not being like the nice, calm waters I trained in. Because my goal was to just finish the damn swim leg, I picked a route a bit on the outside of the pack. Helped me not get panicky, I think. I’ve heard others say this helps too.

  • Okay, great information here. Question is, does one order a tux in a size larger so it can be worn over the wetsuit? Any recs on where to get a durable yet snazzy looking tux?

  • I tested neoprene positive at a tri I did last year. And I posted a personal best time on race day! (Which was still very slow.) Had the water temps been a few degrees warmer, they would have been disallowed. As it was, I didn’t mind having rubber body armor in the scrums at the turn pylons. Good luck!

    I rented from the Bike Rack on Q Street.


  • I did the DC triathlon last fall and refused to buy/rent a tri or wetsuit because they were too expensive (the race was already around $175). My solution was to wear a wicking (non-cotton) sports bra and bikini bottoms. I was one of the only people not wearing a wet suit or tri suit, but it worked perfectly, was just fine with temperature, and made the first transtion pretty easy, since I just put shorts and a top over the swim outfit.

    Good luck!

    • A surfing rash guard is also an alternative. I’ve done that before when it’s slightly cold, but not cold enough for a suit – a black one will heat you up in the sun a little.

  • Totally agree w/ everyone on the wetsuit…it might be too warm to use one. Other tips:

    1. get your nutrition ready, whether gels or bars know what works for you. put some on your bike (bento box or tape them to the handle bars). Also if it is hot out, take some salt tablets (or use the little to-go salts they give you in restaurants).

    2. make sure you know how to change a tire, espec the back one as it is trickier to put back on

    3. don’t panic as people swim on top of you, stay a little to the edge but be careful that you don’t swim too wide as you will need to make up the distance and that will cost you time/energy.

    4. take two types of goggles w/ you a shaded pair and a clear pair and depending on sun/clouds wear what is appropriate.

    5. if it very too hot outside you might want to deflate your bike tires for the night as they might explode (happened a lot last year). In the morning bring a pump and inflate again.

    6. have a s*&tload of fun out there, smile, and just be happy that you are able to do a tri! That evening and days later gloat/share your race story with anyone that will hear you!!!!

  • Didn’t read the article. I read the headline, looked at the picture and laughed out loud.


  • Wait.. People can legally and health-safely immerse themselves in the water of the Potomac? Where have I been for the past 10 years..

  • I’ve got a sleeveless Xterra Volt wetsuit for sale if anyone is interested.

  • I did a distance swim in the potomac last weekend without a wetsuit. I was in the 73 degree water for almost 4 hours, so I can tell you that you don’t need one (especially if it’s up to 77 or 80 around here). But the real reason most people in triathlons wear wetsuits is not for warmth but for buoyancy (like others have said).

    It’s really quite a big difference. I used to pooh pooh this because I swam all through college, but I gotta tell you, no matter what your skill level, it makes a difference. You get out quicker and having used a lot less energy. Taking is off is not that hard at all.

    The claustrophobia usually comes from the neckline feeling too tight. If you’re prepared for that feeling and just roll with it, you’ll be fine. I think renting one for $35 bucks at Bike Rack or out at Bonzai is a good idea. Practicing in a pool one day before the race is a good idea too.

    Good luck–enjoy the triathlon. I think you’ll find that as soon as you finish you’ll be thinking about signing up for your next one. When that happens, consider signing up for the DC Triathlon Club or the Snapple Tri Club (both local and very friendly to new triathletes).

  • There is an open water swim clinic this Sat at Sandy Point. It will be a great chance to practice in the open water before the race. Plus you can test out your gear. I myself am still unsure if I am wearing my wetsuit or not?

    You can also check out the DC TRI Club. It’s a great source to ask questions.

  • I have a sleeveless wetsuit, but that being said, the water was too warm to wear a wetsuit last year and the water is currently 77 degrees and too warm to wear one. I say rent it. It’s only $35 online and in most stores. If you can use it, great, if not, you aren’t out that much.

    Good luck on the race. I’ll be there too!

  • So many comments I’m not sure if I’m repeating something, but stepping away from the wetsuit conversation for a second…

    I think the most important thing to do if it’s your first tri and you’re not very, very confident in your swimming is to make sure you’re in the back or the side of the pack when you start swimming.

    My first race was Nation’s in 2007 (without a wet suit, one of the only ones in my heat), and I damn near lost it when I was square in the middle of 150 other dudes flapping around, hitting/pushing/kicking me trying to get going. It’s a weird experience and easily avoidable if you start with fewer neighbors.

  • Agree with the don’t panic in the water, particularly the first 100 meters or so. It’s pretty overwhelming the first time you do it so just find a happy place and keep strokin’… (Hey, get your mind out of the gutter – on the swim, people!). If you need to stop to tread water, just stay on the outer edges, stop, regroup and then move on.

  • Don’t wear a wetsuit if it’s not race day “legal”. Otherwise, U will be moved out of your division start and placed in the “non-offical” last group. You are either racing legit or you are not racing at all.

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