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Fear leads to the dark side

Like a well-known sci-fi franchise, swimming can easily be divided in two: the dark side, ranks of rubber clad troops in a merciless pursuit of speed vs that small plucky band of skins swimmers preserving the joy of swimming and the traditional way of doing things. A massive simplification and maybe a bit mean to compare the triathlon fuelled numbers of the suit army with a desire for universal conquest; I’ve no proof that Ironman HQ isn’t full of Sith lords, but haven’t spotted anyone too suspicious leaving their local office (about 400m from where I’m writing this).

Figure 1 Dark side or light?

So, to continue with my misquoted question, does fear lead to the dark side. I’m sure this is a factor; messages from a number of sources say wetsuits are safer, skins swimmers need extra protection (or more experience).

Wetsuit policies at events will also play a part in people’s attire of choice; some swim just for the joy of the water, but many particularly new additions to the sport will be looking at a challenge of some kind, a sprint triathlon, a mile open water. Often this will push people towards wetsuit use.

So, what is the reality, what are the pros/ cons of suits/ skins; do they match the simplistic stereotypes.

  1. Insulation. It is true, a wetsuit will give a degree of thermal protection; this will vary based on the thickness of the suit. This can be useful especially when first moving from 28⁰ pools to the 16⁰ to 20⁰C more typical outside during the summer months. However, the protection is limited, genuinely cold water still feels cold, so maybe the equivalent of a few degrees increases in water temperature. In very hot conditions over heating can be an issue but this is much rarer in the UK. Advantage wetsuit (except when very hot)

  2. Speed, again true, a wetsuit will be faster than skins for virtually everyone. Typically, this will be a bigger benefit for slower swimmers and much less for the elite, but this will depend on individual swim styles. This difference could easily be one, two or even more minutes per km. Advantage Wetsuit

  3. Endurance, saving a bit of energy with the reduced kick needed with a suit can be a benefit and that bit of compression around the shoulders/ arms can help prevent fatigue. Advantage Wetsuit

  4. Breathing, entering cooler water can temporarily take your breath away combining this with a tight suit can make things worse. Advantage skins

  5. Protection from Nature. The likely hood of meeting that deadly triffid or a run in with a true man-eater are low, but despite the general greatness of nature it does contain its annoyances. A suit will offer some, but not total protection from bite and stings (less flesh exposed for your local duck fleas, jelly fish etc) and similar protection from weeds (which can be a bit abrasive). Of course, if you are that unlucky one in a billion destined to be eaten by jaws (death toll 21 across the four films, so maybe closer to 2 in a billion) then probably best not to look like an easier to catch version of yummy seal. Being covered by rubber is also very effective at preventing sunburn; obviously not hands/ feet and head where strange tan lines/ sun burn patterns can still occur if you’re not careful. As the name suggests swimming skins leave lots of skin facing the sun so additional protection is required. Advantage Wetsuit

  6. Abrasion. Skin damage due to the rubbing of a wetsuit can be a big problem when swimming, particularly longer distances. This is particularly common around the neck. Without some form of lubrication swimming for an hour can be more than enough to give some nasty looking friction burns. However, this isn’t purely a wetsuit issue; rubbing can be a skins problem too. For me, in my suit I only worry about my neck, but in skins I find armpits can be a danger area. Salt water makes all rubbing much, much worse. Advantage Skins

  7. Cost. Skins is cheaper than a wetsuit, simple. A wetsuit is likely to cost between 100 and 500. Going top end won’t be necessary unless you are truly looking for every fraction of a second (I have missed out on second place by under one second in a 10k). I think most people would struggle to get close to the lower end of that range on a costume/ trunks/ jammers etc. Advantage skins

  8. Hassle. Putting on/ taking off wetsuits can be a bit of a faff, particularly will added gloves socks hood etc. Usually not a problem, but in winter swimming losing a few seconds undressing can make a big difference. Damp wetsuits are also bulkier to take home and can then need to be rinsed and dried before reuse. Advantage Skins

  9. Out of the water. This is really weather dependent, if you need to walk/ hang around on land before/ after your swim, in hot weather you can roast in your black rubber but when cooler, windy of damp that extra protection goes a long way. No clear advantage.

  10. Simplicity. For minimal kit and closeness to nature, go skins. Advantage skins
Figure 2 Do the dark side hang out here?

I, like many started my open water journey in a wetsuit. The triathlon led trends weren’t a major factor for me, at least until they correct the distances in a sprint triathlon to make it Swim 20km, cycle 5km run 750m (just imagine the Iron version of this). However, the first event I entered was a wetsuit spot in the 2015 bridge to bridge, so wetsuit was the way I went.

During these first few months (May/ June) the water was warm, 18-20, but it takes some getting used to when you only know the much warmer pools. Luckily, it wasn’t so cold I couldn’t swim and after a month or so, swimming outside in my suit was going well and I was fast. As the races started, OK at short distance, 4th in my first 10k and 29th out of 397 in the bridge to bridge. Over the next few years good results continued and of the 30 longer swims (10k+) I competed in a suit that 29th was the lowest position, in fact the next worse was 14th. Not the fastest, but with the exception of a few shorter events I got used to being in that small group at the front.

With the elusive victory finally secured last year it was time for a new challenge, but what, the eventual answer was go longer and that meant shifting focus to the still skins dominated arena of marathon swimming with its channel rules, history and politics. Constant switching between suits and skins during 2017 hadn’t been without issues so 2018 would be all skins to maximise the chance of success in Lock Lomond. All perfectly logical, nothing else to see hear.

But is that really the full story?

In the water it had always been time to be competitive, I represented the dark side in my 400 race suit, I didn’t want to win I had to win. Obviously, my definition of winning depend on the size of the event and other swimmers, but, at a minimum it was top 10%, often looking for a podium, losing a single place after the first km was a sign of weakness; lack of fitness. Just finishing brought no joy, not finishing wasn’t even a possibility.

So, what happens when things aren’t going as well, as mentioned in my previous article 2015 and 2016 went perfectly from a swimming perspective, improvements all round, great times, results but with that comes pressure to maintain those standards. Running into 2017 out of water issues were having an effect, training was harder and didn’t always go well. However, the races were, with a couple of exceptions fine. My times were down but if anything, the results were better.

Can I explain that, not completely, were that year’s swimmers that bit slower, were average weather conditions a little worse, course distances, never exact, a little longer. However, one factor was that I raced differently, pure speed was less of an option, so race for position, pick your target draft and kick for home. You can get away with a little less sustained speed, but you need enough to be in the right pack.

On to this winter, and while other things may have been improving, swimming wasn’t one of them. In the pool things just didn’t work, one session was just about OK but the next would crash and burn. Into the spring it was a weird combination of fatigue (need to swim less) and lack of fitness, need to do more. Could I maintain my rank in the dark army, the simple answer would surely have been no. Cold acclimatisation, fine, distance fine, speed no.

A year in skins was the route I planned before the speed reduction really kicked in, but, maybe I’m a bit relieved too. I have my excuse, skins is slower, undeniably a true statement.

Of course, the real question is not, is swimming skins slower, it’s how much slower?

I always thought I had my answer, 1 min/km, largely based on the 2016 suits vs skins event at the Henley mile. Starting this year, a couple of early events were clearly under distance, but it soon became clear that my times were at least 2 min/km below the time I would have expected when competing in my suit the previous year; enough to drop you well down the pack. So, 1 min/km due to the lack of a suit and another due to poor performance this year; I’m not sure I still hold that view.

I did a few skins events last year and comparing those times to this year the differences were smaller maybe 30 seconds/km, maybe the suit made a bigger difference, especially over events much longer than the mile. In 2016 I did tend to start swims in my suit slow then gradually build up speed whereas in skins I could start full speed, over a mile maybe this artificially reduced the size of the difference. Maybe the difference was more like 1:30 due to the suit and 30s due to me.

The next question is, what do these differences really mean, 30s per km or 3s per 100m is less than 1s per length so something that can be achieved with time in the pool, the right advice, sweat and tears; but not something you can pick up instantly. However, the effect of these differences is huge.

My last event was the Thames Marathon (aka Bridge to Bridge), last year in my suit I was 8th out of 519 but this year without I was 118th. That’s despite using all the tricks at my disposal, run the on land transitions, draft a fast swimmer in the long second section so I could doze whilst making up places, use otherwise wasted time being held by a boat to take a gel from my tow float then run straight through feed station 2 dropping the swimmer I’d drafted to chase down and pass the next group. I was making up places most of the race, but the truth is over the first 2km I was closer to the back of my wave, they were faster than me (when fresh) and it’s been that way most of the time this year.

What if I had worn my suit?, improvements of 1min/km to 1.5min/km would put me in the range of 43rd to 50th; Moving from behind the bulk of the fast wave swimmers to within that group, but still well down. That extra 30s of lost performance is crucial, the differences between 43rd and 18th a nice result especially given the increased numbers this year.

Overall, I’m glad I’m with the light side this year, I have an excuse to take the pressure off, 118th is OK, I could still race the swimmers around me, go for the sprint finish. Finishing in the 40s in the suit would have been so much worse. It’s still a bit of a stretch to say that finishing is enough, that will only be true of Lomond, but a bit more space to enjoy race day without the result getting in the way is what is needed at the moment.

After getting used to life at the front, being in or even behind the pack can be a tough transition. Things would be better if all events noted down who swam skins and who was in a wetsuit, not knowing makes it that much harder to tell how well you are doing. However even if this is always known it’s still something to get used to, to accept.

Will other people’s suits vs skins experiences be the same as mine, some may be, but many will be very different. All I can say is, try both, the dark and the light, see which fits the swims you enjoy, your goals; remember you can always change your mind later, emperor-icide is an unnecessary step (and made up word), most of the time.

In future years will I battle for the dark or light? I don’t know, both have their challenges, their rewards; let’s see how Lomond goes first. Or maybe instead of a fifth years competing every week during the warmer months I’ll find that special someone, or she’ll find me and I won’t have the same desire to go for the win at all.

Tune in next week to read an article documenting Andrew's Loch Lomond experience.  

AS YOU'RE HERE: The HOWSC website is maintained and run by HOWSC members and relies on voluntary contribtutions.  Do you have something you'd like to share?  Maybe reflections on a recent swim, tales of adventures in far flung places, an account of your watery accomplishments? Photographs, videos, poetry, prose, art and more will all be gratefully received and published on the website for all to admire.  Contact Mark Reed to discuss or submit your contribution.  We look forward to hearing from you.
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