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Wetsuit Use During Open Water Swimming. Does It “Suit” Everybody? A Narrative Review

in International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance
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Purpose: Although wearing a wetsuit while swimming, when permitted, is primarily for safety reasons (ie, to protect against hypothermia), changes in buoyancy, biomechanics, and exercise performance have been reported. This narrative review covers the benefits of different wetsuit models on performance in swimming and triathlon. Methods: A computer search of online databases was conducted to locate relevant published research until March 2021. After the screening process, 17 studies were selected for analysis. Results: Most of the selected studies involved pool swimmers or triathletes completing short or middle distances in a pool while using a full or a long sleeveless wetsuit. Swimming with wetsuit elicited significant improvements in performance (maximum 11%), mainly by decreasing drag and energy cost, by increasing buoyancy, and by affecting technique. Different rates of change in each factor were found according to swimming ability and wetsuit model. In addition, wearing a wetsuit was often rated as uncomfortable by athletes. Conclusions: Although improvement in swimming performance by wearing a wetsuit has been reported in the literature, the amplitude of the improvement remains questionable. The enhancement in swimming performance is attributable merely to improvements in propulsion proficiency and buoyancy, as well as a reduction in drag. The extent to which athletes are familiar with the use of a wetsuit, their swimming ability, and the wetsuit model may play important roles in this improvement. More studies simulating competition and comparing elite versus nonelite athletes are needed.

Quagliarotti and Piacentini are with the Dept of Movement, Human and Health Sciences, University of Rome Foro Italico, Rome, Italy. Cortesi and Gatta are with the Dept for Life Quality Studies, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy. Bonifazi is with the Dept of Medical, Surgical and Neuro Sciences, University of Siena, Siena, Italy. Zamparo is with the Dept of Neurosciences, Biomedicine and Movement Sciences, University of Verona, Verona, Italy. Baldassarre is with the Italian Swimming Federation, Rome, Italy. Vleck is with the CIPER, Faculdade de Motricidade Humana, University of Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal. Piacentini is also with the Dept of Human Physiology and Sports Medicine, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium.

Piacentini (mariafrancesca.piacentini@uniroma4.it) is corresponding author.

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