Can you use a triathlon wetsuit for surfing and vice-versa?


Imagine you have an opportunity to go surfing but you only have a triathlon wetsuit with you. Maybe you left your surfing wetsuit at home, you outgrew your surfing wetsuit, or simply are new to the sport and already own a swimming wetsuit. What are the main differences between triathlon wetsuits and surfing wetsuits? Is it ok to go surfing in your triathlon wetsuit?

It is not recommended to surf with a triathlon wetsuit on a regular basis. Triathlon wetsuits are designed for swimming and lack the warmth of surfing wetsuits. The soft rubber is easily be damaged by surfboards and its coating is quite slippery when paddling.

There are 3 types of wetsuits: surfing wetsuits, triathlon wetsuits, and open water swimming wetsuits. The difference between open water swimming and triathlon wetsuits is minor. It is mostly a question of comfort in the water for a long period of time and the need to have quick removal of the wetsuit or not.

In this article, I will compare triathlon wetsuits and surfing wetsuits. Open water swimming wetsuits will be considered similar to triathlon wetsuits and the description will apply.

Can you wear a triathlon wetsuit for surfing?

It is not ideal to surf with a triathlon wetsuit as it is specifically designed for swimming. There is a high chance that you will damage your triathlon wetsuit or that you will get cold if you go surfing with it. For regular surfing, you should use a surfing wetsuit.

Otherwise, it is totally fine to use your triathlon wetsuit for surfing if it’s on rare occasions.

What are the risks of using a triathlon wetsuit for surfing?

The risks of using a triathlon wetsuit for surfing are:

  • Damaging the wetsuit:
    • the soft rubber rubbing against the surfing board is likely to get cuts or worn-out
    • the leash of the surfing board can also damage the wetsuit where it is attached
  • Not being warm enough:
    • triathlon wetsuits are generally thinner than surfing wetsuits and don’t have a thermal layer to keep you warm
    • depending on where and when you will be surfing, you could feel cold using a triathlon wetsuit for surfing
  • Not getting enough grip on the board when paddling and therefore struggling to paddle.
Me wearing a triathlon wetsuit at the start of a race

Main differences between triathlon and surfing wetsuits

A triathlon wetsuit is quite different from a surfing wetsuit in terms of material, thickness, number of layers, coating intent, removal solution, price… Let’s see in detail these differences.

Material

First, they use different materials. In triathlon, we are looking for maximum flexibility to allow the swimmer to rotate freely his arms. The rubber selected for this type of wetsuit is a neoprene which can stretch a lot. It makes the neoprene very soft and you can easily cut it with just a fingernail. For surfing, flexibility is not very important. So the neoprene selected is generally different: stronger rubber, less prone to tearing, and less stretchy.

Thickness

The thickness is quite different from a triathlon wetsuit and a surfing wetsuit in two aspects:

  • range of thickness
  • distribution of the thickness along the suit.

The thickness of a triathlon wetsuit varies between 1.5mm and 5mm while the thickness of the surfing wetsuit varies between 2mm and 6mm. The rules of triathlon do not allow participants to wear a wetsuit with a thickness over 5mm. For instance, you can find below an extract from USAT (USA Triathlon) rules:

“Wetsuits are swimwear made of material providing thermal insulation. Wetsuits cannot exceed 5mm thickness anywhere. If the wetsuit  is made in two pieces, the combined thickness in the overlapping areas may not exceed the 5 mm thickness limit. Any swimmer wearing a wetsuit with a thickness measured in any part greater than 5 millimeters shall be disqualified.”

Now, let’s look at the thickness distribution between surfing wetsuits and triathlon wetsuits:

Comparison of surfing wetsuits and triathlon wetsuits thickness distribution

For surfing wetsuits, there are standard types of thickness distribution depending on the water temperature. I have listed in the picture above, 4 standard types of surfing wetsuits. In comparison, triathlon wetsuits vary in thickness and thickness distribution from one brand to another.

Surfing wetsuits are very thick on the chest and torso. The trend for triathlon wetsuits shows thinner material around the shoulders and chest. This is to give the best wetsuit elasticity and thus the maximum flexibility to the swimmer’s arms.

For triathlon wetsuits, the legs are generally divided into two different thicknesses: thicker around the thighs and thinner at the bottom of the leg. This is thought to provide extra buoyancy to the swimmer in the right areas. Indeed, too much thickness on the lower part of the leg would make you tip down in the water, and your kick won’t be efficient. But having extra buoyancy around the thigh is very useful as many swimmers tend to have sinking legs. So it will correct your position in the water and it will reduce the drag in the water. This is not the case with surfing wetsuits.

Linings and coatings

Surfing wetsuits tend to include a thermal lining to provide extra warmth to the surfer. The requirement for warmth is different for a surfer and a triathlete as the surfer can wait a long time being static in the water while the triathlete is warming its body by performing a constant effort. Also, the surfer will generally spend way a much longer time in the water with the wetsuit on than the triathlete. Unless you are surfing in summer in warm waters, it is important for you to have a warm wetsuit to protect you against the cold.

Triathlon wetsuits have a special inner lining that gives hydrophobic properties to the wetsuit. This is very helpful to remove the wetsuit very fast, which is an important aspect of triathlon. This layer does not exist on surfing wetsuits.

Surfing wetsuits can have a jersey material as a top layer coating above the neoprene, or some kind of grippy layer to help the surfer paddle on the board. On the contrary, triathlon wetsuits have a completely different kind of top layer coating: they are using a super composite skin (SCS) coating which reduces friction and allows better gliding in the water for the swimmer. Using this type of wetsuit on a surfboard, you will notice that you easily slip away from the board, making it hard to paddle.

Summary

The table below provides a comparison between triathlon wetsuits and surfing wetsuits:

CategoryTriathlon wetsuitsSurfing wetsuits
MaterialYamamoto neoprene
(soft rubber)
Closed-cell neoprene
(hard rubber)
Thickness 1.5mm – 5mm2mm – 6mm
Top layer coating Super Composite Skin (SCS) coating Jersey material
Inner liningHydrolite inner lining
(hydrophobic properties)
Thermal lining
ZippersMany possible types with quick removal in mind
(breakaway zippers, reverse zippers, floating zip panel)
Chest zipper
or no zipper
Average price$100 – $700
Entry level suit: $150 – $250
$75 – $500
Entry level suit: $75 – $175
Comparison between triathlon and surfing wetsuits

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