Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Why wetsuits aren't biscuits....

I had a conversation last week with a prospective English Channel swimmer who wants to start getting some outdoor distance under her belt as soon as possible, but doesn't live close enough to an open water venue to make it worth what would inevitably be relatively short dips at first because of the early season cold. Her suggestion to some marathon swimming friends that she might use a wetsuit in the spring as part of her training had been met with derision, arguing that she needed to acclimatise, and that she risked becoming dependent on the wetsuit in ways that would damage her Channel swimming plans.

This latter is one of the core objections from within the marathon swimming community to the use of wetsuits - that they create a dependence both in terms of body position in the water and their insulating effects. This talk of the risks of over-reliance on wetsuits reminds me of the conversations that happen routinely among dieters - that some foods have to be avoided because we can't be trusted around them. The 'biscuit' (or cookie, for my US friends) is the conventional unit of risk in these discussions - that you can't afford to have biscuits in the house because of the risk that you won't be able to stop eating them.

But wetsuits aren't biscuits.

Sacrilegious though it may be to say so in marathon swimming circles, it is perfectly feasible, and, I would argue, sensible for a marathon swimmer in training for a non-wetsuit swim to use a wetsuit as part of their preparations. For example, for those (like me, and my friend above) who live too far away from open water venues to allow for short acclimatising dips, it makes perfect sense to use the wetsuit to get some distance in, in combination with acclimatising swims. So, for example, in the early season, I might do a 2 hour wetsuit swim, followed by a 15 minute non-wetsuit acclimatisation dip. Then next time, I shorten the wetsuit swim by 15 minutes and lengthen the non-wetsuit portion by the same...until eventually, both acclimatisation and the warmer weather join forces and allow full session non-wetsuit swimming of ever-increasing distances. In the mean time, in addition to ongoing pool training, I've managed both acclimatisation swims and done some good foundational distance work (and most importantly, got to enjoy being outdoors).

For those who don't want to engage with non-wetsuit swimming at all, for whatever reason, my advice is to ignore the anti-wetsuit harrumphing of some parts of the marathon swimming community and dive in anyway. Wetsuits add comfort and buoyancy, and allow many more people to enjoy the water than otherwise would. For those who would like to try non-wetsuit swimming but are nervous to do so, find an experienced ally who can support you to do it safely and who will help you to learn what they find pleasurable about non-wetsuit swimming - and if you don't like it, go back to the wetsuit if you enjoy that more. And for those who are training for a long, non-wetsuit marathon swim, don't be afraid of wetsuits - they can be an effective training aid like any other. I know there are plenty of people who wouldn't be seen dead in a wetsuit, and that's their choice; but the non-wetsuit rules of marathon swimming only apply to the swims themselves. It doesn't make you any less of a marathon swimmer to use a wetsuit as part of your training.

There are many paths to successful and enjoyable marathon swimming, and wetsuits aren't biscuits.


  1. Couldn't agree more Karen, I think wetsuit swimming in very cold water with a brief period of non-wetsuit swimming at the end is a great way to acclimatise to cold water both physically and mentally. Ollie.


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