In some ocean races in South Africa, its rules that governed wetsuit usage dictated that wetsuit swimmers receive a 1-minute time penalty for every 1 km swam.

Other open water swims where wetsuit swimmers and non-wetsuit swimmers compete in the same division have different time differentials (e.g., 60-90 seconds per 1.6 km swam).

But there is no precise differential that makes a race between wetsuit swimmers and non-wetsuit swimmers fair for the following reasons:

• Wetsuits give different advantages to swimmers of different speeds. That is, a wetsuit will generally assist slower swimmers relatively more than faster swimmers.
• Wetsuits of different configurations and different thicknesses give different advantages to swimmers.
• Different advantages are gained depending on the water surface conditions and water temperatures. That is, the rougher and colder it is, the greater the differential generally is.

In summary, if a race director wants to encourage wetsuit use (e.g., because the water is cold, because many newcomers are being encouraged, or because the event is geared towards triathletes), then a smaller differential is better (e.g., 30-60 seconds per 1.6 km).

In contrast, if a race director wants to encourage non-wetsuit use (e.g., because the water is warm, because many competitive masters swimmers are expected, or because a purist philosophy is desired), then a greater differential is advised (e.g., 2-3 minutes per 1.6 km).

But there is no right answer because the variables are too great. The most practical way to determine a reasonable differential in the first year is to ask 3-5 swimmers to swim the exact course twice – first with a wetsuit on and then without a wetsuit. In the first year, take the average differential as the race standard. If these athletes are considered average and a mix of male and female. this may provide decent data.

In subsequent years, the differential can be based on the actual average times between the wetsuit and non-wetsuit swimmers.

Of course, many events now separate the awards between wetsuit and non-wetsuit swimmers which is the most fair means to award the different groups of swimmers while encouraging purists, newcomers and triathletes to participate.

Photos show the Distance Swim Challenge in Santa Monica, California where wetsuit (using neoprene) and non-wetsuit (using bioprene) swimmers are both encouraged.

Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source