Back in 2014 I raced the ÖTILLÖ World Championship race in Stockholm and that feels like a very long time ago now when you consider how the sport of swimrun, and the equipment available to racers, has evolved during that time.
When I did that race, my frIend Eliot Challifour and I wore a couple of mid-range triathlon wetsuits that we had hacked about with a large pair of scissors to make them easier to run in and that was pretty much that. We did spot a few teams wearing specialist suits with the zippers on the front to allow some ventilation on the long run sections but these were few and far between and most of the field seemed to be doing something similar to us.
Fast forward just 2 years to 2016 and when Eliot and I again toed the line, this time at the ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly event and we had both splashed out on some swimrun-specific suits. And, looking around, so had at least half of the field.
This year I’ve done 2 swimruns (ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly again and the Swimrun USA ÖTILLÖ merit race in Casco Bay Island, Maine) and I’d say that the vast majority of all of the racers were decked out in a Swimrun-specific suit along with a host of other specialist accessories that have come into the sport as it continues to grow and evolve. Every year more and more wetsuit brands have entered the Swimrun market and with the popularity of the sport set to grow and grow I don’t see this trend slowing down anytime soon.
The very first mover in the swimrun wetsuit game was Italian brand HEAD - an ÖTILLÖ race sponsor since 2012 and I was delighted to get a chance to try out their top of the line ‘Race’ wetsuit for my races this year.
Their suits have numerous victories and World Championship titles to their name and I was curious to see what, if any, advantages using a high end piece of kit would do for my comfort and performance in a sport that places some pretty extreme demands on your kit and clothing.
The key differences that set most swimrun wetsuits apart from a normal triathlon ones are…
- A front chest zipper (with or without a normal rear zipper as well) to allow easier venting and the ability to ‘cab down’ on the longer runs.
- Pockets to accommodate energy gels and the mandatory kit (first aid kit / maps / compass etc) that is required for most events.
- Thinner, more flexible neoprene around the hip area to make the suit more forgiving to run in
- ‘Detail’ features such as loops for the attachment of towing lines or other equipment, whistles built into the zip tags etc.
The Head Race suit comes as a full length wetsuit (i.e. long arms and legs), with most athletes opting to cut the legs off above the knee. Some athletes will also trim the arm sleeve up above the elbow for races everywhere but the coldest conditions.
It’s made from the same hydrophobic, flexible and buoyant neoprene as any high end triathlon wetsuit, so the differences are mainly in cut, fit and panel/zip placement rather than any significant differences in materials.
Taking a pair of scissors to a brand new £400 wetsuit is a very unnatural feeling so it’s great that the folks at Head have made a simple instructional video to follow so you don’t make a very regrettable mistake when doing this for the first time!
When it came to the time to cut my suit down I followed the instructions, got it just about right (DIY has never been a really strong point of mine..) and decided that as the races I was doing were in relatively cold water (~14/15C in the Scillies and only a little warmer in Casco Bay) that I’d keep the sleeves almost full length to reduce the chances of going down with full hypothermia in the longer swim sections!
Before I cut the suit down I did do some early season swim training and even a swim race (the first leg of a 1/2 Iron distance triathlon relay) in the suit to try to gauge how much slower it would be than my usual swimming suit.
I guessed that with both a front and back zip and slightly thinner neoprene on most of the legs, it would be compromising some pure speed in the water compared with a suit purely made for that job.
I was however very pleasantly surprised when I swam just as quick as I would have expected to in the triathlon relay swim, exiting the water in the top three despite the course being multi-lap, up and down a river with quite a lot of flow and having to thread through lapped swimmers after the first circuit!
I followed this up with a couple of pool based sessions and was again swimming reps as quick as I ever have in my triathlon suit. This gave me a lot of confidence about the in-water ability of the Head Race suit for sure.
The only minor annoyance was living with comments like “look that bloke’s got his wetsuit on back to front” when people saw me pulling a zipper up my chest rather than my back before getting in the water!
As committed as I am to the idea of training for Swimrun, I decided I would draw the line at going out run training in my new wetsuit to test out that element of it’s performance. I thought I might even get arrested for such behaviour in a public place, so I limited any run training in the suit to times when I went out and did a quick Swimrun session (like this for example) and used these opportunities to figure out where I needed to trim the suit down a bit more (backs of the knees and at the wrists) to reduce chafing and allow me to feel 100% comfortable in it.
After a few of these sessions the main thing I noticed was how much better and looser my hamstrings felt. That was probably because there was now much less resistance around my hips and because it was now much easier to vent and take the top down on longer runs, allowing me to maintain a sensible core body temperature.
Once I’d got 4 or 5 of these sessions under my belt and tried out all of my other race day kit (notably a pull buoy mounted on my leg via an elastic strap, buoyancy calf sleeves and my Inov8 X-Talon 212 running shoes) I felt as ready I was ever going to be to use it all in a race.
Racing in the Head Race wetsuit
At the Scilly Isles race the weather was perfect for swimrunning. Mid 20s air temperature, almost zero wind and chilly but clear water.
Because of the relatively high air temperatures, I think everyone racing found some of the longer run sections quite tough from a thermoregulation point of view and I have to say it was a life saver being able to undo both the front and back zippers on the Head suit at times to stop myself from boiling over.
I found it relatively easy to get gels out of the velcro secured internal chest pockets on the move and never lost any of my stash during the race, even when both zips were fully open and we were running flat out.
In the water the suit was comfortable and I suffered essentially no chafing all day long (except the usual neck line chafe I get in any suit, no matter how much lube I seem to apply!). That’s pretty amazing for a 5.5 hour race, I had finished with all sorts of rubs and sores after the 2014 ÖTILLÖ World Champs.
I did get pretty damn cold in the final 2km swim in the Scillies - I was getting tired and could not work as hard as I’d have liked - so I’m not sure I can blame the suit for that - but otherwise I can’t think of any negatives in the water all day long.
At Casco Bay the conditions were remarkably similar to the Scillies. Mid 20s air and 15-16C water and, as before, I found that the suit performed really well. Despite all of the scrabbling around on rocks getting in and out of the water (including a few slips, trips and falls) it seems to have survived the two races in good condition. It might benefit from having a few small nicks and tears gluing up before I use it again, just to ensure they don’t get any worse, but that’s about all.
I have to say I was very impressed with the Head Swimrun Race suit. I have leant it to a couple of friends who have raced in it too and they have also had great experiences.
The suit is far from looking too tired yet even after it’s 4 competitive outings, so durability seems good and I certainly don’t think that any of us who have used it could complain that the suit held them back.
It has been a HUGE step up from just using an old triathlon wetsuit and if I’m ever tempted to go back and suffer the 8+ hours of the ÖTILLÖ World Championship race again in the future (highly unlikely!) I would not look twice at going back to a non-specific suit, the performance advantage is just too great.
In addition to the Race suit Head make a range of Swimrun suits these days, with varying degrees of buoyancy, durability, warmth and of course price points catered for. They are well worth a look at if you are thinking of jumping into an a swimrun race anytime soon.