When it comes to purchasing a wetsuit, one of the first decisions you will need to make is whether to opt for a sleeved or sleeveless wetsuit. Both have their pros and cons and if you ask around for other’s opinions you will likely end up with a variety of responses leaving you just as confused as before you asked. So, let’s keep things simple and help you figure this out.
Firstly, there is a pretty simple question straight off the bat that may make this decision easy for you – Will you be swimming in cold water and/or are you the sort of person who gets cold easily? If the answer is yes, then it is very likely that a full sleeve wetsuit will be the best option for you as with more neoprene covering the body, they are simply warmer. But let’s look at each option more closely.
The Full Sleeve Wetsuit
Once upon a time, the full sleeve wetsuit was considered to be very restrictive and therefore was only ever used by those training in colder conditions. However, these days with the advancements in fabric technology and the flexibility that neoprene offers, the full sleeve suit has become a popular choice.
Warmth – the first and most obvious benefit is having that extra coverage on your arms. Unfortunately, we don’t all live in Noosa so warmth can be a big deciding factor.
Buoyancy – with extra coverage comes extra buoyancy, which can be of benefit for those less experienced swimmers out there and for those who struggle to part with their pull buoy in the pool.
Less drag – one of the reasons a wetsuit is worn is to reduce the amount of drag. As you swim through the water what you wear is often referred to as a “second skin”. Wearing sleeves takes full advantage of this as it makes you as streamlined in the water as possible.
Sleeve features – more common in the high-end wetsuit ranges, but these days the technical features added to the forearm panels are designed to help you move through the water faster as you catch the water more efficiently.
Sun protection – with sleeves, of course, comes sun protection on the shoulders and arms which is a common area that gets burnt when out swimming in the open water.
The fit – getting a wetsuit to fit correctly can be tricky but is very important – especially around the arm area. Consider how it fits around the neckline, that the chest area is not too tight, that the arms are long enough and that you have a good and flexible range of movement in the shoulders.
Stroke rate – having the extra weight around the shoulders and arms can have a tendency to slow a stroke rate down, so if you already have a slow stroke rate be aware of this.
Restrictive – for some, especially beginner triathletes, a full sleeve wetsuit can just feel a little too restrictive even with the correct fit.
The Sleeveless Wetsuit
Although it may seem like with more warmth and buoyancy the full sleeve wetsuit would be the obvious choice but, there is definitely still a place for sleeveless wetsuits and they can simply be a better choice for some people.
Cooler in warmer climates – if you are swimming in warmer temperatures or are the type of person who overheats easily, then sleeveless can be a great option as it offers you most of the buoyancy and speed of a full sleeve suit but without the additional warmth of sleeves.
Easier to take on and off – getting in and out of a wetsuit can be tricky at first. The sleeves are often one of the problem areas here and therefore with no sleeves often comes a faster transition.
Less restrictive – for beginners, sometimes a sleeveless wetsuit can be that stepping stone needed to get into a full sleeve wetsuit as you will feel less restricted and just feel a little more comfortable in an unfamiliar situation. The same goes for those who may have bulkier arms and simply find a wetsuit too restrictive in this area.
Shoulder freedom – with this comes less load which can be ideal for those with shoulder injuries or those who struggle with a slow stroke rate. On the flip side, sometimes people with a strong swimming background will opt for the sleeveless wetsuit as they simply appreciate the more natural feel in the water.
One wetsuit – if you are only planning on purchasing the one wetsuit, then buying a sleeveless can leave you a little stuck if you find yourself in cooler conditions down the track. During my time fitting wetsuits, I often found that those who purchased a sleeveless wetsuit were back the next season to purchase the full sleeve option.
Less warmth and buoyancy – as mentioned earlier on, with no coverage on the arms there is a trade-off in that you are getting a little less warmth and a little less buoyancy. Although this may seem like a marginal amount, it is in swimming, especially for those non-swimmers that we are often after those marginal gains.
The drag – it is still important to make sure that that the wetsuit fits snugly under the arms as this area can easily catch water and act almost like a parachute as you try and move through the water quickly.
If you are a first-time wetsuit buyer consider the above pros and cons and make sure you try a few on before making your final purchase decision. Try on some sleeved and sleeveless suits and see how you feel in each. There are many specialist stores out there that will give you a proper wetsuit fitting and I strongly advise against buying anything you haven’t tried on (rookie error 101). Even better, if you know someone who has a wetsuit they can lend you to try in the water then that is a great option. There are also some stores that will let you hire a wetsuit which gives you the ability to really get the feel for the wetsuit before you commit to the purchase.
Rule of thumb with wetsuits is that generally, the more expensive they are the better quality the neoprene will be with flexibility in all of the right places. So keep that in mind and if you do only have a small budget, really make sure that the shoulder area doesn’t feel too restrictive. If it does, then this might be your reason to opt for the sleeveless wetsuit.
On the other hand, if you can afford a mid to high-end wetsuit or you simply find you have no issues with feeling overly restricted, then my advice would be to go with the sleeved option. Maximise on warmth (if this is a big consideration which for us here in Melbourne it is!), buoyancy and the overall ability to be as streamlined in the water as possible.
Head Coach and Founder of TriChicks
Amy created TriChicks in 2015 and brings over 9 years of coaching and racing experience. She holds a BSc Exercise & Sports Science, a Graduate Diploma in Physical Education/Health and is a Development Triathlon Coach. In 2018, Amy was awarded Club Coach of the Year from Triathlon Victoria. Her mission is to help educate, empower and help women achieve their triathlon goals, and lower the barrier of entry for women to the sport.