What is the speed advantage of a wetsuit?

Everyone knows wetsuits help keep you warm in cold water. Lesser known among the general public (but well-known among triathletes) is that wetsuits also make you swim faster! The buoyant neoprene in a wetsuit floats a swimmer higher in the water, decreasing drag and thus increasing swim speed.

But how much faster is a wetsuit? I’ve heard various rules of thumb: 10% speed increase; 4-6 seconds per 100m; 1 minute per kilometer. I’ve also heard various caveats: it depends on the swimmer’s skill (better swimmers benefit less); it depends on the swimmer’s body-type (naturally floaty people benefit less); it depends on the quality of the wetsuit (you get what you pay for); it depends on the fit of the wetsuit; and so forth.

So the answer is: It depends. Because I’m usually disinclined to let things go at “it depends,” I decided to conduct a field experiment. Reef & Run, which I’ve written about previously, provided the perfect laboratory. Almost every Thursday evening between June 21 and yesterday, August 23, I swam one mile in the ocean at East Beach in Santa Barbara. Two weeks were canceled because of shark sightings, and one week I was sick – leaving a sample of 7 swims.

The swim took place at the same time each Thursday: 6:30pm. The conditions were generally similar: low-mid 60s water temp; winds out of the W or SW, producing moderate surface chop and a W-to-E current (i.e., head current going out, tail current coming back). I would characterize them as “rough water conditions” – the view in the above photo is typical. The course was identical each week – a full mile (1609 meters) measured with GPS, and marked by permanently installed buoys.

Generally, I had done a full workout earlier in the day, plus one lap of the course as warm-up. So, for each of these races I was warmed-up but perhaps a touch fatigued. In any case – pretty close to an ideal setup for my field experiment.

My wetsuit is a cheap-o XTERRA Vortex sleeveless, which frankly doesn’t fit me very well. So – a conservative test of the wetsuit effect. Presumably, I would be even faster in a high-end, well-fitting, full-body wetsuit.

Me in the orange cap. Three-time Olympic water polo player Wolf Wigo at left. The two others in the photo were doing a different race. Photo by Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara News-Press

Of the seven races, I wore a wetsuit for four of them and went “naked” for three of them.

My wetsuit-assisted times were: 19:52*, 20:02, 20:14, and 20:14.

My “naked” times were: 21:36, 21:37, and 21:41.

* For the purpose of this analysis, I’m throwing out the 19:52 wetsuit-assisted time. That was the season opener, and it was different in several respects: gorgeous, flat conditions; bigger, more competitive field (thus more drafting opportunities). I’m not surprised I was substantially faster that week.

That leaves a sample of six times – three wetsuit-assisted and three “naked.” My average wetsuit time was 20:10, with a range of 12 seconds. My average “naked” time was 21:38, with a range of 5 seconds.

So, according to my field experiment, my personal “wetsuit effect” – even with an ill-fitting cheap-o sleeveless – was 1 minute, 28 seconds in an open-water mile. That converts to 5.5 seconds per 100m, or a speed effect of 7.3%.

Any other self-experimenters out there? Please leave your data in the comments!

Advanced Pool Etiquette for Masters Swimmers, Lesson 1: Awareness

The first in a series of posts on etiquette for organized pool swimming. These lessons are considered “advanced” because they focus on nuances of etiquette specific to organized or coached swim workouts, such as Masters. You should already be familiar with basic pool etiquette for lap swimming, which has been well covered by LoneSwimmer, Rob Aquatics, and Art Hutchinson.

As Donal has written, if there’s a “golden rule” of pool etiquette, it’s probably awareness. Be aware of what is going on around you. Who are you sharing a lane with? What are their relative swim speeds? Where are they? Are they swimming back and forth continuously, or are they doing intervals? What strokes are they doing? Is a faster swimmer approaching from behind? Get out of their way. Is someone standing above your lane, preparing to join you? Make room for them. Are you splitting a lane with someone, and a third person is about to join? Get ready to circle-swim.

Awareness is also vitally important in an organized workout. It’s actually easier to be aware in an organized setting, because everyone is (or should be) doing the same thing. By the same token, swimmers in an organized workout are held to a higher standard of awareness, precisely because it’s easier. An etiquette faux pas – cutting someone off, or colliding with them – is less forgivable in an organized workout than in a lap-swim lane.

What does it mean to be aware in an organized swim workout? Sort of like lap swimming, but moreso.

I know exactly how many people I’m sharing a lane with, and where they are in the physical space of the 25-yard or 50-meter lane. I know what my lanemates’ average swim speed is, relative to me. I can tell whether they’re swimming faster or slower than they usually do, within just a few laps. I also know how I’m swimming – am I having a fast day, and off day, or an average day? I’m always watching the pace clock.

Combining all this information, I’m constantly calculating whether any adjustments in the lane order need to be made. Why? Because if I have to pass someone in the middle of a set, or if someone has to pass me, that interferes with our workout and increases the chance of collision. If the lane order is correct, no one should ever have to pass (or be passed) in the middle of a swim. If someone is consistently creeping up on me, at the next rest I’ll offer to let them go ahead. If I’m consistently creeping up on someone, they’ll usually offer to let me go ahead. If they don’t, they’re not being “aware.”

How do I know if someone is creeping up on me? After a turn, I know exactly where I should pass the swimmer behind me (going in the other direction), assuming that person went 10-seconds apart (or 5 seconds in a crowded situation). Familiarize yourself with markings on the bottom of the pool. If I suspect someone is creeping up on me, I can confirm by watching the pace clock at the end of the swim. If they left 10 apart and finished 7 seconds after me, that means they’re creeping.

A common “error of awareness” in a Masters workout: A swimmer doesn’t see another swimmer approaching from behind and intending to pass. Again – this shouldn’t happen if the lane order is correct, but another situation is when leading swimmers “lap” trailing swimmers.

The wall is the best place to let another swimmer pass. If a swimmer is forced to pass in the middle of a lap, someone screwed up, and it’s not the faster swimmer. The best way to “get passed”? Stay on the same side of the lane as you approach the wall; let the passing swimmer move to the other side and execute their turn; switch sides and push off behind them. If instead, you move to other side of the lane before you approach the wall, you will cut off the passing swimmer and create a potential collision.

How do you know when to pause and let another swimmer pass? Be aware of the other swimmer’s speed – or more precisely, the rate at which they’re gaining on you. If they will pass you within the next length, you should pause at the wall and let them pass.

The goal of all this is to avoid collisions or interfering with other people’s workouts. A lane of “aware” swimmers – even a crowded lane – is like a well-oiled machine. You get all the benefits of training with other people (motivation, camaraderie) and none of the downsides.

If you’re new to organized workouts, “awareness” may take some time to develop. But just keep swimming (preferably not in the “fast lane”) and soon enough, you’ll do all this stuff without even thinking about it.

On pool etiquette and experience

In a comment on my recent post on violations of pool etiquette (“Menaces to Swim Society“), reader Luke took issue with my tone and choice of words, saying they’re likely to turn people off from organized swimming. Nobody wants to be a “pool asshole” – or worry that others might think them one without realizing it.

It’s a fair criticism. I was aiming for humor with a tinge of snark; I may have over-done the latter. Reader Bob Needham correctly identified it as “unresolved rage” from recent, real-life experiences.

So allow me to offer some clarification: If you are a beginning swimmer, please don’t feel intimidated from taking the plunge and joining a Masters squad. My List was not aimed at you. It was aimed at those who should know better.

Which raises another question: Who should know better, and who is cut some slack? There’s a very simple test: Are you swimming in the “fast lane,” or close to it? If so, you’re expected to behave accordingly. If you’re a newbie, you’re probably not in this lane. Most likely, you’re sharing a lane with other newbies, or people who are accustomed to swimming with newbies. Relax – it’s all good!

At my pool, the “fast lane” has a base interval of 1:25 per 100 LCM. Almost everyone in this lane swam competitively at the collegiate level. When I swam with Stanford Masters, the “fast lane” was 1:20/100 LCM. In this lane we had the occasional 1984 Olympian.

In collegiate and high-level club swimming, you’re swimming with other people – sharing lane-space with them – for, in many cases, more than 20 hours per week. At this level, you don’t get away with violating pool etiquette. You’re going to get yelled at – by your teammates, and by your coach. So generally, etiquette faux pas just don’t happen in these environments. By the time you’ve made it this far, you’ve pretty well learned your pool etiquette.

These are the people who “know better.”

And really, is it any different in other sports? Especially sports in which you’re sharing limited resources with other participants.

Take surfing etiquette, for instance. At a beginner break (in my area, Campus Point in the summer), you can mess up and generally people will cut you slack. Snake or drop in on someone at the Ranch, and you can expect to get yelled at (or worse). If you want to play with the big boys & girls, then act like one.

Next: Demystifying pool etiquette: A handbook of fundamentals

The landlord’s in town, and the rent is due

A sobering summary of recent shark activity in Santa Barbara County by Peter Howarth, director of the SB Marine Mammal Center (courtesy of Shark Research Committee):

  • 14 April 2012 Shark attacked adult female sea lion off Stearn’s Wharf, Santa Barbara Harbor.  Sea lion rescued by harbor patrol, then it was brought to the dock to Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center (SBMMC) volunteers, where it died from shock and blood loss;
  • 20 July 2012 Male southern sea otter attacked at Guadalupe Dunes. Rescued by ranger and brought halfway to Santa Barbara, where it was picked up by SBMMC volunteers. Transferred to Mike Harris of CA Dept. Fish & Game for necropsy;
  • 15-20 July 2012 Adult female California sea lion attacked, received two bites on pelvic area;
  • 25 July 2012 Sea lion above reported on mooring buoy off East Beach, Santa Barbara. Sea lion left when harbor patrol approached too closely;
  • 25 July 2012 Sea lion attacked by shark off Leadbetter Point, Santa Barbara (Properly called Santa Barbara Point). Reported by Dan Collie, charter boat captain;
  • 27 July 2012 Sea lion attacked during period 20-25 July rescued but had to be euthanized;
  • *10-11 August 2012 Male Pacific harbor seal, 5-6 months old, attacked off Carpinteria sea rookery;
  • 12 August 2012 Above harbor seal reported on beach at rookery but washed away before rescued;
  • 13 August 2012 Harbor seal rescued. Bite on dorsal chest and another on pelvic area. Shattered pelvic bones. Animal died 16 August;
  • 14 August 2012 (0930): Eight-foot shark approached paddle boarder closely off Carpinteria.  Lifted head out of water to look at person;
  • **14 August 2012 (1720): Shark approached within 5 feet of surfer. It was 5-6 feet between dorsal and caudal fin; girth estimated at 3 feet. Estimated shark at 10 – 14 feet total length;
  • 15 August 2012 6-foot great white seen underwater by urchin diver off Santa Barbara light in afternoon (west of Leadbetter Beach about one mile); and 15 August 2012  Another shark reported seen by surfer friend of urchin diver off Leadbetter. No other details.


Menaces to (swim) society: How to be a pool asshole

Do you enjoy enraging your fellow swimmers? Do you want your lanemates to secretly hate you – or possibly even overtly hate you?

If so, I made a list just for you. The Top 10 Petty Annoyances of Organized Pool Swimming. A handy guide to sowing chaos in an organized swim workout. Think of them as descending circles of Hell.

Courtesy of Swimming Memes

If you want to be a pool asshole, here are a few suggestions:

10. Swim right on someone’s feet during warm-up.

9. Cheat during the non-swimming portions of the workout — pulling when you’re supposed to be kicking; full stroke when you’re supposed to be drilling.

8. Pull on the laneline in backstroke.

7. During a distance set, when a faster swimmer in the adjacent lane approaches, suddenly speed up and “race” the faster swimmer, perhaps only for a lap or two.

6. Join a lane with slower swimmers, lead the lane, and then unilaterally change the interval so nobody else gets any rest.

5. Join a lane with faster swimmers and fail to make the interval except by using fins or paddles, or by stopping every few laps.

4. Be unaware of a faster swimmer approaching from behind and, when approaching the wall, swim across the lane and cut off the passing swimmer.

3. Leave 5 seconds apart in a long-course pool, even when there are only 2-3 others sharing the lane.

2. Leave 2-3 seconds early (Grrreeeeegggggg!).

And now, the #1 way to be a pool asshole:

1. Sprint to catch up to the swimmer in front of you. Pass him or her. Then, once you are in front, suddenly slow down.

A movie about marathon swimming: Fundraiser in Laguna Beach

This Thursday from 5:30-7:30pm Pacific time, Laguna Canyon Winery will host a wine tasting / fundraiser for an independent documentary film about marathon swimming. The Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association, on whose board of directors I serve, has been involved in the production of this film in several interesting ways. At the wine tasting, the filmmakers will give a brief presentation, answer questions, and show some preview clips.

If you think marathon swimming is cool, and you live in Southern California, please consider attending. It’s a great opportunity to support both the sport and independent filmmaking – not to mention, taste some great wines and hang out with other swimmers. Entry is $35 and can be purchased at the door.

Laguna Canyon Winery is located at 2133 Laguna Canyon Rd in Laguna Beach. 5:30pm this Thursday – be there!

Virgin Waters: Distances between and around the Channel Islands and the U.S. Mainland

The biggest season in the history of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association officially began yesterday, with a previously “undisclosed” relay crossing from San Clemente Island to the mainland – a distance of 54 miles.

Compared to the most famous Channel Island – Catalina – the remaining seven Channel Islands are still relatively virgin waters for marathon swimmers. Here are the number of successful solo swims, by island:

  • Anacapa to mainland (12.6 miles) – 25 swims by 23 individuals
  • Santa Cruz to mainland (various distances) – 8 swims
  • Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz (6 miles) – 2 swims
  • Santa Barbara to mainland (37.7 miles) – 1 swim
  • Santa Rosa to mainland (27.5 miles) – 1 swim
  • San Miguel to mainland (25.9 miles) – 1 swim
  • Anacapa to Santa Cruz (5.6 miles) – 1 swim

There are 80 possible swims between and around the eight Channel Islands (including Catalina) and the U.S. mainland. Only 11 of those have been conquered by solo swimmers. The following table shows the distances (in statute miles) for each of the 80 swims:


  • Abbreviations: ml = mainland; SM = San Miguel; SR = Santa Rosa; SCru = Santa Cruz; Ana = Anacapa; SN = San Nicolas; SB = Santa Barbara; Cat = Catalina; SCle = San Clemente
  • orange highlight = one or more successful swims
  • from [island] to [same island] = circumnavigation