Triathletes and swimmers who plan to take on chilly water experience a special rite of passage: wetsuit shopping. Some may admire the sleek, superhero look of a wetsuit and welcome the extra buoyancy and speed it offers. Others may curse the inventor of neoprene while breaking into a sweat while working to pull said fabric over the gut.
One thing, however, that both can appreciate is the sheer amount of planning, research, and engineering that goes into the manufacturing and design of every single wetsuit before it makes its way onto the rack—not to mention the exciting prospects for future design.
At the Drawing Board
The design process for all wetsuit manufacturers starts with a simple question: “Who is this product for and how is it going to be used?” said Marcin Sochacki, founder and CEO of Rocket Science Sports, an Austin, Texas-based company that makes triathlon and multisport apparel, including wetsuits.
Is the wetsuit wearer a surfer? Is the race just an open water swim? Will the athlete need to make a quick transition to a bike and thus require a wetsuit that is easily removed?
Once the answers to these questions have been sufficiently determined, the market research can begin: “[We ask] what other companies and what other products are available to address needs of these athletes,” continued Sochacki. “You do your homework, in terms of what is out there, how is it used, and what are the features…what sells well; why do people buy things and dislike things.”
Underlying all of these considerations, however, are the regulations mandated by the governing body of the sport. To be more specific: You might remember the outrageous number of records that were shattered in swimming during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, courtesy of the full-body racing suits worn by swimmers. Designed with the help of NASA, these high performance suits were constructed with materials that offered swimmers extra buoyancy and reduced drag. But, as records continued to fall in spades, many began to question the fairness of these suits, some even calling them a form of “technological doping.” Ultimately, USA Swimming outlawed the suits in 2009, followed by a worldwide ban through FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation) in 2010. The ban set the swimsuit manufacturing world back on its heels. “What happened in swimming in 2008 and that took effect in 2009 created a huge stir,” noted Sochacki. “A lot of companies lost a lot of revenue, and there was lots of confusion in the sport.”
With this lesson from the swimming world strongly seared in wetsuit manufacturers’ minds, the current regulations are given careful consideration. By taking these guidelines to heart, and having market research in hand, product design and innovation can finally begin to move forward.
Designing for the Masses—Durability and Price Point
When delicately unfolding (or gingerly tugging) rolls of neoprene up your body, you may not stop to appreciate that your wetsuit likely underwent almost two years of testing and was designed by engineers to fulfill a specific function.
To elaborate: What is an obvious choice for an elite athlete might not make sense for the weekend warrior. Sochacki used the analogy of car tires to illustrate this point. “You have different types of tires for a car if you’re racing,” he said, explaining that what matters most in car racing is speed and flexibility. On the other hand, for the average car, durability is of primary concern: “If you’re selling tires to a general market, you want [them] to last for a long time,” he noted. The same applies in wetsuit design, insofar as a high performance wetsuit is not necessarily the most durable, and thus not the most appropriate for the casual athlete who hopes to maximize his or her investment.
Along these lines, manufacturers must also consider price points when designing new innovations. Although pro-athletes are unlikely to bat an eyelash at shelling out big money on high performance wetsuits, the same is not true for the average athlete. “We cannot make a super expensive product for a beginning athlete,” Sochacki asserted. “You can design something great but, if it’s too expensive, no one will buy it.”
And don’t forget the importance of making a fashion statement: According to Sochacki, most manufacturers have a team devoted just to improving the wetsuit’s look. “We have a team that focuses on making it pretty, making it attractive,” he laughed. “The functionality is one thing, but you have to make sure that what you design is attractive, [that it] looks appealing to the eye. Function is important but how it presents itself is also important.”
Materials and Fit
Wetsuit material may have evolved with industry innovations, but the foundation remains the same: neoprene. “Traditionally, wetsuits have been made out of neoprene rubber, and this is an industry standard, especially for triathlon wetsuit manufacturing,” said Sochacki.
However, not all neoprene is created equal. Wetsuit manufacturers utilize Japanese neoprene because of its “robust” functionality—namely increased buoyancy and flexibility. Furthermore, the neoprene used for scuba divers is much different than that used for triathletes. “For scuba diving, the material is dense; it doesn’t compress,” explained Sochacki. “In a triathlon wetsuit, you want something light and buoyant because you’re on top of the water.”
Manufacturers also experiment with different neoprene densities and materials in an effort to make wetsuits more comfortable and functional, which comes in handy not just in the water, but also, say, when you’re running to your transition area. “We use neoprene on our wetsuit but use composite material lighter than neoprene that is lighter on hips and legs,” elaborated Sochacki. “Companies are looking for alternative materials to create wetsuits that are more buoyant.”
In addition to buoyancy, adjusting the type of fabric used can affect a wetsuit’s fit. “You have the outer layer [of neoprene], and then you have the jersey fabric [on the inside],” Sochacki explained. “When we create a wetsuit, we [use] jersey that is very stretchy; it does not limit the stretch as much as a standard type of fabric. This allows us to have greater flexibility and accommodate many different shapes and sizes.”
Wetsuit sizing typically is determined by height and weight, although fit varies greatly among brands. Sochacki jokingly admitted that he has always found European-manufactured wetsuits difficult to fit into because of his broad shoulders; he has had more luck with American- and Australian-made wetsuits. “This is something for an athlete to consider when they go shopping for a wetsuit, to try on two or three different brands and see what fits them,” he advised.
Women will be pleased to know that wetsuit manufacturers are finally beginning to pay attention to their needs, designing suits that accommodate their typically shorter height and curvier shapes. Rocket Science, for example, uses a thinner neoprene in the bust area for its suits, which allows for greater stretch to accommodate varying breast sizes. In combination with the aforementioned stretchy jersey, women are increasingly finding a more comfortable fit.
The Future of Wetsuit Technology
Since the 2008-2010 racing suit debacle, wetsuit manufacturers have proceeded cautiously, walking the fine line between increasing innovation and abiding by sporting regulations. Sochacki is passionate about continuing to advance wetsuit technology: “There are always purists who say we need to go back to basics, but as a society we want to see sports progress. We want to see more records, faster times, and, at the end of the day, it’s still the athlete inside of this gear; it’s still a human that’s inside, not a machine.”
The International Triathlon Union (ITU) has begun to draft stricter regulations on multi-sport clothing (including wetsuits) as an effort to reduce or eliminate any perceived unfair advantages, and implementation of these changes is anticipated to take place by 2014. Sochacki noted that the ITU has taken a more cautious approach in setting these regulations; input from clothing manufacturers is being taken into consideration, and drafts of the ITU’s new guidelines are available for manufacturer review before they are put into place. ITU’s hope, said Sochacki, is that the same confusion and negative financial consequences that struck manufacturers after FINA’s 2010 racing suit ban will be avoided.
Even with the new ITU regulations on the way, Sochacki predicts a bright future for wetsuit design. “I think you’re going to see materials and fabrics that are more technical, more functional,” he mused.
Sochacki envisions the use of “smart” fabrics for wetsuits—materials that help athletes measure things like muscle compression, sweat, and heart rates. These capabilities are already available in running gear, but pose a challenge in triathlon due to the swimming component. “Because of the water, once the garment gets wet, all of that data becomes incoherent,” he admitted. “There’s going to be a little more of a learning curve as to how we create these garments…[But] I think it’s possible.”
Wetsuit shopping may not be as easy as shopping for the latest fitness gadget or pair of running shoes, but with an ever-evolving design intended to increase functionality and fit—not to mention the advent of new fabric technologies—competing in a wetsuit can only get more exciting.