A wetsuit is a wetsuit right? Well yes and no. If you are just getting into cold water swimming, and have an old surf wetsuit stashed away it will definitely do the job of helping you get in the water and gain confidence. However if you are going out there to buy a brand new wetsuit, or are looking to take your swims a bit longer whether by time or distance, then its worth knowing the key differences between the two as you make your decision.
The Thickness of the Neoprene
The first difference you will notice is the thickness of the neoprene. Imagine you are a surfer. You battle through the crashing waves to get out back, pop up on your board to sit there, waiting for that perfect set. Your body is going to be exposed to the elements. The wind, cold air. You are going to want a thicker bit of neoprene, especially around your core to keep you warm.
Now imagine you are an open water swimmer. You are going to be more or less constantly moving, mostly submerged. The way a wetsuit works is by using your body to heat up the water that is trapped by the suit itself. You are not going to need as thick neoprene. Therefore you will find that open water swimming wetsuits will normally max out at about 3mm thickness of neoprene.
Designed to help you Swim Easier
Its not just the overall thickness of the neoprene, its about where that thickness is. When you first start swimming in a wetsuit, especially freestyle, you will feel extra burn on your shoulders. Open water swimming wetsuits are designed to minimise this pressure as much as possible. Whereas a surf wetsuit, where you will be doing less "strokes" per hour will not be as comfortable, especially on longer swims. My advice is even when using an open water focused suit, build up your time swimming in it gradually to avoid getting any nasty shoulder strains.
Another important place that you will have a different thickness of neoprene, aimed at helping you swim better, will be the legs. This is so that your legs are given an extra lift due to the extra buoyancy that the thicker neoprene will provide. When swimming Freestyle, the higher your legs are as you swim, the more streamline your position in the water, meaning you can go further for the same effort!
A Wetsuit Designed for Breaststroke?
Although most wetsuits on the market are freestyle focused, we do stock the brilliant Zone 3 Aspect Wetsuit here at The Wild Swim Store. What makes this specific for breastroke is the fact that it has stretchy panels on the inside of your legs, plus less buoyancy in the legs. When swimming breastroke, you will not need your legs to be as bouyant as during freestyle. It's still better suited to freestyle than a surf suit, but better than a conventional open water suit for breastroke.
Protect your Neck
The neckline on a surf suit is traditionally a lot higher than that of a surf focused wetsuit, ensuring you are protected from the elements. On a swimming focused wetsuit they are a lot lower. When swimming you are constantly moving your head to breathe. You really will appreciate that lower neckline. A word of warning, even with the lower neckline, especially in salt water, you can still get a nasty rub. I recommend always (after a very, very bad experience) using something like the Huub Luub to lubricate your neck. It also is worth adding some to both your cuffs and ankles as it makes getting the wetsuit on and off so much easier!
Silky Smooth, but Delicate
The outer skin on an open water focused wetsuit has a gorgeous smooth finish. This will help you slide n glide your way through the water quicker, getting you further on each adventure with less effort. A word of warning though, it does make the suit more delicate than their surfing cousins. If trying it on for size, be careful of long nails and we would recommend using gloves to ensure you do not dent or potentially rip the skin. If you're normal wild swim spot is a river or lake, then be careful of any brambles or stray branches.
So that's it, those are the key differences you will find between an Open Water Wetsuit and a Surf Wetsuit! We hope that helps inform your decision when making your purchase, and until then. Happy Swimming!