TriDot Podcast .180
A Triathlete’s Guide to Wetsuits
Intro: This is the TriDot podcast. TriDot uses your training data and genetic profile, combined with predictive analytics and artificial intelligence to optimize your training, giving you better results in less time with fewer injuries. Our podcast is here to educate, inspire, and entertain. We’ll talk all things triathlon with expert coaches and special guests. Join the conversation and let’s improve together.
Andrew Harley: Welcome to the TriDot podcast! This episode, we’ll be taking a deep dive on the wonderful world of the neoprene miracle workers that we call wetsuits. Those beautiful, Shamu the Whale-looking super suits that help us cruise through the triathlon waters. We’re in good hands for this episode, our first guest joining us for this chat is Jan Sibbersen, the founder and CEO of Sailfish. Jan began his career with an award-filled ten‑year stint on the German National Swim Team. Once he turned his attention to professional triathlon, he was first out of the water at the Kona World Championships four times. He set a world record Ironman swim split, an epic 42:17 at Ironman Germany in Frankfurt. He launched Sailfish in 2007, creating premium triathlon and open water swim products for age‑groupers and elites alike. Then, as a professional businessman and amateur triathlete, Jan went back to Kona and set the Kona swim course record, which he still holds to this day. So needless to say, there is no one I would rather talk with about wetsuits than Jan Sibbersen. Jan, welcome to the show!
Jan Sibbersen: Thanks so much, Andrew! Really appreciate to be on your world-famous show, and I’m looking forward to chatting with you!
Andrew: Also here is TriDot Coach Joanna Nami. Joanna is better known as Coach JoJo, and has been coaching athletes with TriDot since 2012. She is a cofounder of Hissy Fit Racing, a member of the Betty Design Elite Squad, and keeps adding Ironman finishes to her accomplished triathlon résumé, I think she’s almost up to twenty full-distance Ironman finishes now. Coach Jo now serves as the Director for TriDot Pool School. Coach Jo, welcome back to the show, just coming in fresh off of a Chicago edition of TriDot Pool School, aren’t you?
Joanna Nami: Yes Andrew, thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here with Jan. I look forward to this!
Andrew: I’m Andrew the Average Triathlete, Voice of the People and Captain of the Middle of the Pack. As always, we’ll roll through our warmup question, settle in for our main set conversation, and then wind things down with our cooldown.
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Warm up theme: Time to warm up! Let’s get moving.
Andrew: With a wetsuit-focused episode, I thought to myself, “Why not go all‑in on neoprene and do a wetsuit-focused warmup question as well?” So Jan, Jo, to get us started today, to get us all properly warmed up for this wetsuit conversation, if you lost a bet with another triathlete, and you had to wear a full-on triathlon wetsuit to a non‑triathlon-related public appearance, where would you wear your wetsuit and why? Coach Jo, ladies first!
Joanna: I’m going to let Jan go first, because now I’ve got to think about it for a minute.
Andrew: Jan Sibbersen, it’s your first time on the podcast, what do you think here? We’re throwing you in!
Jan: First time on the podcast, and I get to make a fool out of myself right away for the first question? Fantastic, fantastic.
Andrew: This is how we get going.
Jan: I do have historical data on this. Here we go.
Andrew: Oh! Sounds like a story.
Jan: Not that I lost a bet, but you know that Germans are into techno, so for the techno-freaks amongst the listeners, there used to be a very famous techno club at the Frankfurt International Airport called Dorian Gray. It was the craziest club in Germany before Berghain in Berlin, and you had to wear something really crazy in order to get in. So I think it was in the mid‑90’s, and I had just done my first triathlon, and a good friend invited me to go there, and we both decided to show up in our triathlon wetsuits, and we got in.
Andrew: And they let you in!
Jan: They let us in, yeah! But I guess for a normal setting, let’s say for the fun of it, if it’s somewhere suit and tie, I’d show up in a wetsuit and put a tie around, it should be all right.
Andrew: All right, yeah, I can see it. And you’re the guy who could pull it off, like it would make sense for you to roll up to something like a triathlon awards show or wearing a wetsuit instead of a suit. Love that answer, and love that story! Thank you for sharing! Coach Jo, did you have some time to think about this now? What are we thinking here?
Joanna: Yes of course, well, I was thinking about Jan as he talked about that. I’m pretty sure that the Kardashians are wearing something that looks like a neoprene wetsuit at this point, so it’s probably totally on current fashion point. But I’d like to probably mortify my kids at some point. I have been known to get out of the lake, wear that wetsuit all the way home, and with no shame getting out in the driveway in that wetsuit, walking in the house and my kids are like, “Why can’t my mom just be a little bit normal?” So I’d probably show up at the high school in that wetsuit, just one good embarrassing moment for them, and they’d probably never get over me stepping out at the school with the wetsuit on.
Andrew: That’s awesome. Love that! That would be amazing, I think you should do it. Even without losing a bet, you should just do that for the story. I thought about this, it’s a pretty simple answer for me. I would wear my wetsuit to the grocery store. Whenever you go to a grocery store, they’re always just freezing in there anyway, and I can’t think of anything warmer to wear than my neoprene wetsuit. So if I had to wear one in public anyway, why not go to the grocery store and be nice and warm and cozy as my wife and I grocery shop? We like to go grocery shopping early on Sunday morning, so I’m not usually super awake yet anyway. I’m not a morning person, so I will accompany her to the grocery store, and we knock out our shopping together. But I think if I wore my wetsuit there, I’d be warm and comfortable, and I wouldn’t really be awake enough to know what’s happening. I certainly wouldn’t be awake enough to be embarrassed about the fact that I’m in a wetsuit and people are staring, so even if I got some funny looks, I don’t think I would even realize it. That would be my pick here.
We’re going to throw this question out to our audience. Make sure you’re a member of the I AM TriDot Facebook group. We have thousands of athletes talking swim, bike, and run every single day. Every Monday when the new show comes out, I post the warmup question to you. So give this one some thought: if you lost a bet, or just for fun like Jan, and you had to wear a wetsuit out in public for a non‑triathlon public appearance, where would you wear your wetsuit, and why? I can’t wait to hear what you have to say!
Main set theme: On to the main set. Going in 3…2…1…
Andrew: We are thrilled to have Jan from Sailfish on the show today, and equally thrilled to have Sailfish as the swim partner of TriDot Training. You’ll hear more about this from Jan on the episode today, but the Sailfish mission is to create premium triathlon and open-water swim products. Sailfish offers swim skins, tri suits, and swim accessories, but the core of the Sailfish product line are their award-winning wetsuits. Known for their outstanding flexibility, balanced buoyancy, and distinguished gliding properties in the water, Sailfish wetsuits are truly made to make you faster, and that certainly has been the case for me. I’ve swum in many different brands of wetsuits over the year, and my Sailfish is the very first one that I put on, got into the water, and clocked swim splits I had no business hitting on my own. For me it was love at first stroke. With several models and price points, there for sure will be a Sailfish wetsuit that is right for you, so head to sailfish.com to check out all the neoprene goodness, and use code SFCTRIDOT20 at checkout for 20% off your new wetsuit.
A quality triathlon wetsuit is an important investment for an aspiring triathlete to make. If it’s well made and it fits right, a wetsuit can be an enormous boost to your open-water swimming experience. Here to tell us how they are made, how to pick one, how to swim in one, and how to take care of one, are Jan and Coach Jo. Now Jan, before you were making wetsuits, you were swimming in them very, very quickly as a pro triathlete. And before you were a pro triathlete, you were a swimmer on the German National Swim Team. What was that experience like, with so many successful years representing your country at such a high level in the pool?
Jan: For anybody in any sport, I think if you represent your country, it’s kind of like the highest thing you can achieve as an athlete, maybe aside from the Olympic Games. It makes you extremely proud to represent your country. It takes you to a lot of places, it widens your horizon, it brings you in touch with a lot of interesting people. You’re getting exposed to the best training methods and analytics that are out there. For me, that was all in the 90’s, and I really believe that swimming kind of opened the world for me. Going to the U.S. later on, studying and working in the U.S., all this would have not happened if I hadn’t had that swim career. So looking back, it was really the foundation I would say, not only for my sports career, but also for my overall career.
Andrew: After the swim career, you referenced coming to the United States to study for a little bit. You graduated from Harvard University, and worked in investment banking for a few years. Jan, I noticed in your career timeline, you didn’t stay in that corporate world for very long before leaving and trying your hand as a professional triathlete. What sparked your interest in triathlon, and how did you transition from swimming, to the business world, to pro triathlon? How did that go for you?
Jan: Well, to cut a long story short, I actually did some triathlons during my swimming career. Because back in the day the swim season usually ran until you had your international meets maybe July/August, and then it would be done. Then you’d have three weeks off, and then you’d start again. In those off weeks or so, I had a friend who was a triathlete, and was training sometimes in the pool, and I said, “Look, take me to one of these Olympic-distance races.” So that’s when I first got exposed to the sport. It was great fun, I was first out of the water, then they caught me on the bike or on the run, but still I had a lot of fun in these first Olympic-distance races. You mentioned it, I graduated from Harvard, went on to Wall Street, and it was a super high intense environment. Most people back in the days, there wasn’t really the startup scene yet, so you would either go into consulting, investment banking, or government, one of the three, and I decided for lack of better knowledge to go into investment banking. It was super interesting, I learned a lot for business. I studied economics, so I think that was a little bit of a broader horizon that you get there, and then in investment banking it was really more focused on companies and sectors and industries, etc. So I found that super interesting, but I honestly didn’t like the work hours. It’s not a secret that sometimes there are 60, 70, 80‑plus work weeks and I was like, “I don’t want to spend my life like that.” I had signed up for an Ironman 70.3 in St. Croix, and it was basically an excuse to get a vacation, while I was still working on Wall Street.
Andrew: Yeah, good man! Nice!
Jan: I needed an excuse and I told my boss, “I’m doing this half-Ironman,” and she says, “Yeah, do it!” But I didn’t tell her that it was in the Caribbean, only on the second memo, but by then she had already approved the vacation. So I qualified for Kona, then I was infected by the triathlon virus, so then sort of gradually, but then at the end abrupt, I left the investment baking world and said, “Look, I’m going to do two years of racing pro, and then I’m going to go back to business school, and then probably end up at the corporate world again.” And as we all know, life happens when you make plans and it all came differently. So here we are.
Andrew: Sure, here we are. You did go back into the business world, just as an entrepreneur, because in 2007 you started Sailfish, launching a brand that is now, in my opinion, one of the top brands in our sport worldwide. With your world-class swim background, Jan, and your business savvy, to me you were just the perfect man to launch a wetsuit and swim accessory brand. It’s a no‑brainer now looking back, it’s like, “Yeah, of course Jan would start a successful swim brand, look at the knowledge and experience he has!” But looking back, starting that journey, any entrepreneurial journey takes guts, it takes some spirit. You don’t know for sure how it’s going to pan out. So I know when you first had the idea of, “What if I launched my own brand? What if I started my own company? What if I started designing wetsuits?” I’m sure that was a moment that obviously changed your life, because here you are now. When did that idea first occur to you really? What was that journey like, with those initial steps launching Sailfish?
Jan: Very good question. I started this professional triathlete career, and I noticed this was great fun. You travel around the world, you get to meet all these amazing athletes racing all over the place. But it was a bit too single-focused, or a little one‑sided. I always liked the balance between, let’s say back in school, the education or academic world and the sports world. I wanted to have a little bit more of a balance in my life. I actually started selling wetsuits in Germany or in Europe for a different brand. It wasn’t my brand, I just swam in the brand and started selling those suits, and people were like, “Okay, this guy’s swimming fast, let’s buy the suits that he sells.” I was by no means planning on becoming an entrepreneur, not at all. I had no idea that was going to be the road, but it didn’t feel like work, it was just fun selling the stuff on the side, and it worked well. So a couple years into it, I looked at the bigger scheme of things, and I was like, “Okay, looking at endurance sports overall, people have more time, they’re getting into the sport, Ironman is becoming more popular, triathlon is becoming more popular. This might be a good opportunity.” I knew how to run the numbers, and did the business model, had a look at how to finance all this, and I was like, “Yeah, this looks like a good opportunity. You’re not going to get super wealthy from it, but you’ve got to put a value to a good, balanced lifestyle.”
Jan: It looked very appealing to me, and I thought I could also develop the suits a little bit better than they were at that time, and bring them to the next level. So I started developing, and finally I needed a name, and came up with Sailfish, which it happens the fish actually does exist in the real world. It’s the fastest fish in the world at 111 kilometers an hour, I think maybe 60, 70, 80 miles an hour, something like that.
Andrew: Joanna and I are not good at that math.
Jan: Yeah, let’s not do the math. Anyway, it’s the fastest fish in the world so I’m like, “Okay, this is it.” Luckily, nothing was registered yet under that brand name, so I registered the brand worldwide, and off we went in 2007 with two employees and myself, and here we are 16 years later.
Andrew: When I wear my Sailfish wetsuit I am not the fastest fish in the world, that’s for sure, but I certainly am faster in the wetsuit than I am without it. Jan, I want to touch on this before we start getting into the wetsuit talk, it’s one of the highlights of your career, for sure. On YouTube there is a phenomenal video piece on the Sailfish Triathlon YouTube channel, documenting your attempt to break the Kona swim course record. We know obviously – spoiler alert – you did it, you set the record. In 2003, as a pro, you came six seconds short. A 2.4‑mile swim, and you were six seconds short of setting the record. In 2018, 15 Konas later, you came back with the sole intent of finishing the job, knocking down those six seconds, setting the course record. Take us back to that goal. Why was that such a target for you, and what do you remember from that record-setting swim?
Jan: Well, that was most certainly the biggest day in my sports career. It was unfinished business, like you already said. As a pro I was setting swim records left, right, and center, and I had the record in Frankfurt and pretty much all the swim courses, which was nice. But then I missed it in Kona four times, and once I came super, super close and it was really frustrating, I can tell you. I looked at it and said, “Look, if there’s any chance, it is now in my early 40’s, because by late 40’s it’s definitely not possible to compete at that level anymore.” So yeah, I put everything on one card and said to myself, “Of course you need to qualify, but then once you’ve qualified, definitely fully, fully train for the swim part. You have to finish the race for the record to count.” So that was another story. In 2017 I also qualified, but I only had six weeks between the qualification race and Kona, so that was too short. For 2018, I qualified already in November of 2017, so that was the game-changer, that I pretty much had a year to really plan, prepare, and train for this. By the time June, July came around, I focused like 90% of my training on swimming. I pretty much ran once a week for 10K, and I think I rode my bike twice a month. Really, that was it.
Andrew: Just enough!
Jan: Just enough to make it to the finish line. What do I remember of the race? I remember actually everything very, very well, because I had played through it beforehand in my head so many times on how to do it, what to watch out for. I had the experience of racing the race five times before. I knew the swim, and of course I need to mention that I got super lucky because it was a perfect day in the water in 2018. There was no current, there was hardly any waves, there was a bit of cloud cover and it kept it cooler than usual. And it was the last year with a mass start, that also helped to really break away from the pack and not having to swim through any of the groups. That makes it a lot harder nowadays.
Andrew: Yeah, good point.
Jan: But yeah, I kind of divided the swim part into four sections of pretty much one kilometer each. First section was super easy, hardly any effort, just gliding and enjoying myself. Then gradually the pain comes, and I think the last 800 meters or so, including the section where you swim parallel to the pier, the water is choppy and there’s boats left, right, and center, those were probably the ten hardest minutes, not of my life, but lactate was coming out of my ears, and I could barely get up the stair. There’s like ten stairs until you hit the timing mat, and I kind of grabbed myself up like a seal. I knew it right away because there was a timing clock standing there, and I saw it and was like, “Fuck! It worked!”
Andrew: You did it! You got it!
Jan: Then I took a two or three-minute break. I had to throw up actually in the change tent, because I was so exhausted, then I slowly but surely got on my bike and enjoyed the rest of the day.
Andrew: A well-deserved throw-up there at the end of all that. I was watching the coverage that year on Ironman’s live stream, and I remember you were a story that they were telling, they were keeping track of you. I remember you surging up the stairs, trying to officially set that record. Every second counted, and then throughout the rest of the day, to your point, you had to finish the race for the record to count. So throughout the day they would show quick little clips of you. “Yep, there’s Jan on the bike, there’s Jan running. Yep, he’s gonna make it, he’s gonna do it!” Yeah, that was the first time I’d heard of you, and here we are podcasting together. So very, very cool that you still have that. It can be very difficult, to your point, for somebody to break that record now, with the age‑group rolling starts, so you might have that forever, my friend. You might have it forever. Until Joanna Nami tries to take it down.
Joanna: That’s so parallel, Jan, because I only missed the course record by about 28 minutes. So I’m going back this year, and I think I’ve got it this year!
Jan: Sure, good luck! If you need some training tips, let’s talk after the show!
Andrew: Jan, when you set that record, it was in the very pleasant waters of Kailua Bay in Kona. You were in a Sailfish swim skin that day, not a wetsuit, but you certainly know plenty about knocking down swims covered in neoprene. I’m super curious to know, Jan, what goes into designing a wetsuit? From day one, starting on the designs for the suit, to the final day where it arrives on an athlete’s doorstep ready for the water. What are the steps that you go through to produce a Sailfish wetsuit?
Jan: There’s a lot of moving parts into developing, producing, and finally delivering a wetsuit to the doorstep of an athlete. Usually you look at your entire line of wetsuits that we’re offering and you’re like, “Okay, we need something for the swimmer who wants a little bit more buoyancy. Then we need something for the more budget-conscious athlete. Then we need something for a triathlete swimmer with a history of pool swimming, who’s a really good swimmer and maybe needs less buoyancy. Then let’s also honestly try to make one suit that is the top of the top, the best of the best.” So that’s the sort of strategic thinking that you make, how is your entire wetsuit line going to look like. Then you look at the suit at an individual level. There’s the neoprene thickness that you can think about, the coating on the outside, and the super-important inner liner. What kind of inner liner am I using, how stretchy is it going to be? Is it going to be nylon, is it going to be more of a polyester, those sort of questions. Then think of features that help you in the act of swimming. What kind of technical features do we want to add at a certain price level? And last but not least, graphic design also matters. You all want to look hot in the suit, right?
Andrew: Yeah, you gotta look good!
Jan: Exactly. Then fit is obviously in my opinion one of the most crucial things in developing and producing a wetsuit, so we always take great attention to achieve a great ergonomic fit, so that people feel comfortable. I think that’s really the most important factor. Then you put all these ideas together. We have a small development team for the wetsuits, then we interact with our produces, and then it goes back and forth. We get samples, I swim every single sample myself and test it, I also give the samples to swimmers who are not as good, so that I get also feedback from the beginners.
Andrew: Like me of course. I’m happy to be your average token wetsuit tester, sure.
Jan: Yeah, then you work your way up to the final product, and you make it nice, and leave a nice note in it when you send it to the customer, and hope you make a lot of people happy and faster and more comfortable swimmers when they’re out there. So that’s it in a nutshell, and I would say the entire process takes probably, if you start from scratch, a year to get it right. If you just do a face-lift of a suit, you can probably get it done in half a year’s time. But if you start from scratch, which you should every once in a while, let’s say every second or third product cycle, then it takes a bit longer.
Andrew: From year to year, how much are you updating the wetsuit line, making modifications trying to improve it? Do you let one particular model go on for a few seasons before you update it? Or how often are you giving those kind of improvements and facelifts?
Jan: On average, our product cycle is two years. You also have to look at are there new materials? If there’s something brand-new coming out from a jersey producer or maybe a new zipper, you get the idea. If there’s an innovation, obviously you look at it immediately and try to build it in. But in general, it makes sense to have a two‑year product cycle to at least upgrade, or every four years to come out with something brand new.
Andrew: I remember there was a podcast episode we did very early on in our podcasting journey as a company. We had one of the wind tunnel engineers from Specialized Bikes on the show. It was a great conversation, we learned a lot about aerodynamics. One of the things he talked about is how at Specialized, they tested I think it was 22, 23 different fabrics on the sleeves of their TT jerseys to see which ones tested at what yaw angles, etc. Are there different rubbers that you’re testing? Are there different neoprene brands, producers, whatever that you test out? Or is it just about the thickness, and just as long as it’s a certain thickness it’s going to be good?
Jan: I think it’s a pretty commonly known fact that the predominant neoprene producer is Yamamoto from Japan. There are a couple others as well that we’re using, but I’d say the industry as a whole is probably using 80% Yamamoto rubber on the outside. I would say for speed purposes, when it comes to the coating I think they definitely have their game on, they produce the best outer surface. However, when it comes to the inner material – so you have kind of a sandwich construction, so on the outside you have the rubber, on the inside you have the inner liner – the big differences are in the inner liner, because that really defines the flexibility and the comfort of a suit. You can always talk about Yamamoto, it’s a great-quality seal for the outside of the suit. But for the inside of the suit, this in my opinion is where the big differences between the brands come in – whether you use that top liner all the way through the suit or only at certain places, where do you use more flexible material, where do you use less flexible material? Because at the end of the day, the flexibility of the suit is not determined by the neoprene on the outside, it is determined by the inner liner that is used. That’s a very important point to know about performance of a suit.
Andrew: I did not know that! Very fascinating, very interesting! Jan, many athletes when you talk to them, when you hear the chatter heading into race weekend, race day, I know many athletes will actually seek out a wetsuit-legal race because they like the help a wetsuit provides in getting them through that long swim. Some others, probably your better, more confident swimmers, prefer to race without one because they have their technique down, they have their confidence down, and they like being free with their arms. Either way, what does a wetsuit do for us as a swimmer? What does it change about the swim experience in the water?
Jan: The first reason we’re wearing wetsuits is cold protection, that’s why they were invented, so that we would be able to swim in colder or cool waters and not freeze to death, basically. I think building on that other factors such as comfort, flexibility, buoyancy, speed, etc. But I would probably mention comfort first, and that’s also the advice I give to everybody out there in the market for a wetsuit: you need to feel comfortable. It doesn’t help to have the most expensive wetsuit in the world if you don’t feel comfortable in it. I think that’s most important. Now of course how do you know that when you buy a wetsuit over the internet? It’s not that easy. I think it really comes down to buying from a brand that has experience, that has been in the market for a long time, and probably also not the super-cheap stuff, because it tends to be produced out of lesser-quality materials. If you’re serious about the sport and you don’t just want to be in the sport for a year and check out one or two races, I think it definitely pays off to look for quality in a wetsuit. So that’s my first advice, look for comfort and look for a well-known brand that has some experience. Then you have to ask yourself, “Am I a good swimmer? Am I a bad swimmer? Do I think I need a little bit more buoyancy for the legs? Do I need to look out for a suit that is a bit more buoyant?” All the things I said earlier. If I’m an athlete with a swimming background, I might not need as much buoyancy. I want to feel closer to the water and have a more natural swim position, so it’s probably a little bit of a thinner suit. If I’m somebody who’s aspiring for Kona or nowadays Nice as well, then look out for the top end envelope for speed. All the top wetsuit brands have wetsuits for that target group.
Andrew: you’re getting into the different models that are out there and the different reasons you can choose each model, but even within that, I see brands will market the different features that a wetsuit can have. Sometimes it’s different zippers that either zip up or zip down, sometimes it’s different thicknesses of the rubber in different places. Sometimes they’re advertising things like catch panels on the forearm, air cells throughout the body, certain glide coatings, and all sorts of fun rubbery tech. What of these features matter in a wetsuit, and what actually makes a difference for us in the water as a swimmer?
Jan: Since you mention the catch panels in the forearm, those are sort of half-legal at that moment. I’m sure it looks like they’ll be banned sooner than later, so we’re not doing any of those anymore. I think what is really important, if you know that your legs sink like a stone – that’s one of the most common mistakes or technique errors I see – then look for buoyancy in the legs or the lower torso to give you a bit of lift. I think what’s also important is hip rotation, because it’s just the most efficient way of swimming in the long run or for longer distances, so the hip needs to be flexible in a horizontal way. Obviously, most important, you want to have very, very good flexibility around the shoulder arm area to move your arms freely, and have as little resistance as possible in that area. Those are three features I would look for, and usually the material, if it’s super flexible, it needs to be 1.5 millimeters, that’s something I would look for.
Andrew: Okay, we’re a little deeper into the episode than normal without Coach Jo saying a whole lot, so I’m going to start putting Coach Jo to work here. Jan, you made an appearance at our Ambassador Camp earlier in the year, so a lot of our TriDot Ambassadors got to meet you, we got to talk with you a couple times. I wanted our general audience to get some context for your story and who you are as a swimmer, as a person. We never partner with a brand lightly here at TriDot, so we have formed a friendship with Sailfish, and are doing some work with Sailfish, and swimming in Sailfish wetsuits ourselves, and having a great experience getting to you know you and your team. But I wanted our audience to hear your story.
So Jo, you’ve kind of gotten to sit there and just listen for a little bit, but now I’m going to put you to work a little bit here over the next 20 minutes. I put you on this episode as our TriDot coach here, because I know you go every single Friday to the lake and open water swim with your crew there in the Houston area. I know you work quite a bit with your athletes on their open-water swimming, to get them confident and ready for race day, you do some really creative, unique things there in the lake. So when you’re talking with your athletes their wetsuit purchase – whether it’s their first wetsuit or their next wetsuit – what do you say to them, as a coach with your open-water experience, on what they need to be looking for and what they need?
Joanna: I think there’s a big missed opportunity when it comes to open water and wetsuits that are specific to each athlete. It is a third of our race. Like Jan, course record first out of the water, I was just listening to Jan talk about the process and the years of work that go into designing these wetsuits and testing these wetsuits and making sure they’re the best product for their consumers. I deal with athletes who are like, “Guess what Coach Jo, I ordered my wetsuit, it’s coming in three days before the race!” And I’m flabbergasted.
Andrew: Pesky triathletes!
Joanna: I’ve heard it for years, and it fascinates me. I’ll always throw it back at them as, “Okay that’s good, did you order a bike too? Is that coming in three days before the race? Or did you order new running shoes that you’ve never worn before three days before the race?” It fascinates me. I’m always instructing them tha,t here we are nine months before an Ironman, or six months before a half-Ironman and I’ll say, “We need to have wetsuit, we need to test that wetsuit, you need to be comfortable in that wetsuit. It needs to feel super natural for you” I liked when Jan said that they strive for comfort, because the one thing we all know is that open water is probably one of the scariest components for most triathletes. Most of us are not lifetime swimmers – me and Jan of course, but not Andrew. We’re very comfortable in the water, versus this is a very foreign environment for most swimmers. Then on top of that, we put them in a super constrictive wetsuit that they’ve never worn or practiced in. So a lot of advice that I give to them is that we’re going to be in that wetsuit quite a bit before we race. It’s going to feel like it’s just part of them. Whether I have to get them in it in the pool when it’s too cold, or if they’re going to be at the lake every Friday, that’s just going to become one with them. I also encourage them to take advantage of the customer service, like at Sailfish, or talk to someone from the companies like, “This is me: I’m not a natural swimmer, I feel like my legs and hips drop, I feel like I don’t get enough rotation. What do you think would be the best model for me?” That’s such a missed opportunity, because I think a high percentage of triathletes are probably swimming in a wetsuit that wasn’t the best for them. So they should take advantage of that, reach out, do some research, and make sure they’re in a wetsuit that works for them and is super comfortable for their race.
Andrew: Jo, I’m glad you mentioned the fact that for a lot of triathletes, that first time you put that wetsuit on, it can feel very constricting, because they ARE constricting. Jo, how do you coach your athletes in terms of being comfortable and confident going into that experience?
Joanna: It’s exposure. I explain this, as far as open-water swimming in general. We spend 99% of our time in a pool, and that’s very different. I say it’s the same as being on a trainer inside, and then for the first time I’m going to put you outside on the road. It is a completely different environment. Same as to the wetsuit. I was going to tell you a tidbit there, I laugh with my girls athletes I coach – I guess it can be guys too – “We can’t sit through a dinner in a tight pair of jeans, we’re so uncomfortable, but then I’m going to put you in a super-constrictive wetsuit and a cap and in a foreign environment, and you gotta swim 2.4 miles.” If you think about the reality of this, that you can’t even sit through dinner in a tight pair of jeans, how are you going to make it through an Ironman in a wetsuit? You have to have exposure. We may try a couple different models of wetsuit out before we get the right one. And I always tell them, “I know you don’t want to go to the lake, but you have to go to the lake. It has got to become your norm.” The benefits and value of training in open water are just ten‑fold. Just getting out there as much as possible in the wetsuit you’re going to be racing in is essential.
Andrew: Jo, on the standard TriDot training plan for most athletes, unless they’ve changed their volume or their pattern, they probably have two swims per week. For me it’s Monday and Friday, for some people it might be different days. How often are you looking for your athletes to get themselves in open water?
Joanna: Well, we’re very lucky. You can tell from my accent that we’re in Houston, Texas, we have a lake about five minutes from our house. They know I’m pretty strict on it as far as if I have a swimmer with a very, very tough work schedule or family life, I am just hoping and praying they get into the water once a week, one out of those two swims. For those that have more flexibility in schedule, I do have them do their two full swim workouts, and then we do an open-water swim every weekend. I find it’s a good recovery. We usually come off of a tough brick or a long run on the weekend, so getting out in open water is a lot of freedom. I want them to feel some calmness after those big workouts, and being outside, it’s a peace of mind. I always find after we’ve trained an athlete for a number of years, they start to love that open water experience, and they start to become comfortable in their wetsuit, and it’s not as constricting or foreign to them anymore.
Andrew: Something that I know is a huge help for an athlete is making sure their wetsuit is put on properly and making sure that everything is in just the right places, and you line up the arms and the shoulders and the neoprene, everything just right. Jan, what tips have you guys found at Sailfish over the years for athletes in terms of making sure they’re putting on their wetsuit and getting it situated just right on the body before entering the water?
Jan: It’s one of the most important things, to get your wetsuit on in the right way. You can have the best wetsuit in the world, but if you put it on the wrong way and it’s sitting halfway between your knees, or we’ve all seen where they have the zipper in the front, it doesn’t help you very much. So if you’re new to the sport and you’ve never done this before, and you’re at a training or even at a race, there are people who are very experienced in this. So ask for help, or ask, “Hey, does this look right?” Because it’s always better if somebody else looks at it. What we always tell people is, before the race, if there’s a possibility you can go into the water, flood your wetsuit a bit with water at the collar, let some water run in through the suit. Because number one, it will make your suit fit better or more perfect to your body, and number two, the warming effect of a wetsuit actually comes in with the water in the suit. It’s not the neoprene itself that keeps you warm in the water, it’s actually the water that is between the wetsuit and your body. Your body heat will heat up that water, that’s what actually keeps you warm, and the insulation happens through the neoprene. So it’s very beneficial, especially if the water is cold, to go in before the race or before the training and just fill up the suit with water, let it run through. You’ll have that first little shock, but when you come out again it’ll feel much, much better. I think that’s the best piece of advice I can give.
Andrew: I know Coach Jeff Raines here at TriDot, he said on the podcast many times that if you’re in a race where you can’t get in the water beforehand – depending on the venue or how the swim start is situated, sometimes you can’t – he’s a big proponent of just taking a water bottle and letting some water into the suit with a water bottle to accomplish at least somewhat of the same thing. That’s another side of that too, working for TriDot and going to many races over the last few years, I’ve watched a lot of athletes navigate T1. Some are able to get their wetsuit off smooth and quickly, some of them get a little stuck and lose some valuable time and sometimes some valuable energy. At Ironman Coeur D’Alene a few years back, John Mayfield and I were watching this poor athlete, and it took her probably five minutes to get the leg opening over her foot. She sat down and gave herself a mental break, she was so frustrated. You lose time, and you lose mental and physical energy. So Jan, Jo, what tips do you give your athletes for getting your wetsuit off quickly when it matters on race day? Jan?
Jan: I think that the faster you take it off after you came out of the water, the easier it goes. As long as there is water inside the suit, it usually flushes off easier. Now, I can honestly say it depends also to some degree on the quality of the suit. If the suit is flexible in that area, especially in the legs, it will come easier over your feet. Obviously, when you get out of the water you can’t take it off right away, because you can only pull it down to your waist until you reach your T1, so that sometimes makes it difficult. Yeah, I think trying to take it off then as quickly as possible is probably the best piece of advice. Sometimes sitting down is actually better than standing and trampling on top of it.
Andrew: Yeah, it certainly can be, and to your point Jan, every since I switched to my Sailfish Ultimate IPS3, that sucker has gone on and come off super easy every time I’ve used it. I’ve done one race in it, CLASH Daytona, and it came off super easy for me. To your point, by the time you get to your bike you hopefully have your wetsuit worked down to your hips. So I’ll rip one leg out really easily, and then stand on the suit with that leg as I jerk my leg out of it. That’s always worked really well for me, particularly in your suit. Jo, what do you coach your athletes here for how to get that wetsuit off quickly in T1?
Joanna: This was an interesting experience in Arizona that we had in November, because the water was 57°, and a lot of men and women did not want to use the wetsuit strippers because of how cold it was to get to the changing tents. But I’m a big advocate of using those strippers, but the thing about it is, it’s just like mounting or dismounting a bike, you practice that. “Did you practice getting your wetsuit down? Did you practice somebody pulling it off? What are the steps you’re going to do coming out of the water?” We’re all discombobulated coming out of the water, and we’re all standing around like, “What do I do with myself?” So I have them practice. Leave that swim cap on to stay warmer, pull your goggles up so you can see, now let’s get that wetsuit down to your hips. Let’s get that down fast, so that when you come across the strippers, you immediately get down. Lay down, let them pull that off. Let them do their job. I did race during the pandemic though, when we didn’t have the wetsuit strippers, and that was something I really did practice. Going into Cozumel thinking, “I’m going to come out of the water, and I’ve got to get this off.” Or in any race that I did, “How am I going to get this wetsuit off myself?” Andrew, I liked how you said you use the one‑foot technique, where it’s like pulling off a pair of jeans. For some of us that are super-tall, getting it even down to your foot takes a bit, but it’s all in practice. And as Jan was saying, keeping that water in there, it does come off a lot easier. I always have my athletes write out about ten things, so they don’t forget. I’m like, “What are some things that you probably have not practiced?” Usually one of those is, “How am I going to get that wetsuit off?”
Andrew: It’s funny you say that. I’m a little guy, and I’ve got little legs. So when I wear jeans, all my jeans are either slim cut or skinny jeans, because if I wear a regular cut or boot cut jean, it swallows me. I look ridiculous. So getting off my wetsuit for me probably isn’t that much different from getting off my jeans. Great point there, and probably where I refined that technique over the years. But only once or twice have I had an issue getting off a wetsuit. Once it was in an Olympic-distance race, and once it was just in training. It’s when, if I take my left leg out first – if I don’t do the timing chip leg first, and I save the timing chip leg for second – once or twice I’ve gotten the neoprene stuck on the timing chip, and then you’ve got to work it over the timing chip. So do be aware of that. I have always found it easier to take the timing chip leg off first. Jan, you’re pointing to your watch, go ahead and make that point.
Jan: Yeah, same thing with a watch, especially with these big watches nowadays. If you wear them over your suit, obviously you can’t get the arm off at all, and wearing them under your suit sometimes has the potential to damage the suit. So that’s a bit tricky. Most of the suits you can actually cut them a little bit a couple of centimeters, because they are taped on the inside and the seams won’t open. That’s what I would always do when I was still racing, I would cut it by a couple of inches or so, and it would come off much, much easier.
Andrew: Okay, do you recommend athletes do that for maybe both arms, both legs? Or just that arm where the Garmin is going to be, cut a couple centimeters off to make sure you have some buffer room there?
Jan: Just the arm where you’re wearing your watch. That’s enough.
Andrew: Okay, really good tip there. So a wetsuit is a very big investment for sure, and it’s a good investment for a triathlete to make, especially when you like your wetsuit as much as I like my Sailfish Ultimate IPS 3. Jan, I want this suit to last me as long as possible. What are the best practices for taking care of our wetsuits?
Jan: There is not that much that you need to do. I think it’s really more about the things you should not do. Basically, it’s sun and UV radiation exposure that will kill a suit faster than anything else. We say that on average, a suit is within a performance window. If you buy it new, it’s at 100%, so until it gets to like 75%, that’s probably a good performance window for a suit, within the first four or five years. That’s kind of the average lifetime for regular use. Now what is regular use? I’d say maybe 15 to 20 swims a year, something like that, and sun exposure accordingly. Now, we have customers that, especially in Europe, if you live on the Mediterranean, you swim every other day or so, so it’s not uncommon to go through a suit within one season, just because of the exposure to the sun, salt, etc. But number one, you shouldn’t swim in the pool too often, because the chlorine attacks the glue, and it disintegrates the glue over time. Number two is really about just washing it off with cold water afterwards, and when you dry it, dry it inside out, and don’t dry it in the sun. I think those are the two most important things to watch out for.
Andrew: Great, all super helpful. I just want to close today, I mentioned a little bit ago, at TriDot we genuinely love our friendship with Sailfish. Before starting to work with your team, many of our staff coaches, myself and Jo included, started testing out Sailfish wetsuits just to see what we thought of the product. Jan, I like that when you had us trying your product, you sent me your nicest wetsuit first of all, so I got to test that out, and I think you knew that I needed the most help of everybody on our team. But it was cool hearing from TriDot Coach Jeff Raines, and professional athlete and TriDot Coach Elizabeth James, both of which are much better swimmers than I. Jeff Raines in particular used to coach at an aquatics center, so he was telling me he has swum in over 15 makes, models, brands of wetsuits. All of my coaches came back to me saying, “I love this wetsuit, this is a great wetsuit.” I had the nicest model, some of them had the more budget model, some had models in between. But everybody, regardless of what model wetsuit they had, was like, “This is a great wetsuit. I love this wetsuit.” We genuinely love Sailfish, we love the products, we’re all moving over to using more and more of them. So before we call it a day, since you’ve been so unselfish with your knowledge, your story, your experience, I want to give you just a second to be selfish, and just plug the brand, plug Sailfish, and just let us know what makes the Sailfish wetsuits so special?
Jan: First of all, thanks for the kind words, I really appreciate it. Yeah, those who know us or know me, being in the business for 20 years, we’re not the loudest out there, and we don’t scream left, right, and center. We really work hard on developing and producing what we believe the best product we can make at a certain price point. So what is so special? I think we all cook with water, and I think it is really the inner values of the suit that make the difference, as I’ve alluded to earlier. Most people, most brands are using Yamamoto as the outer rubber, but I think the technology and the inside materials that we use, the experience that we have, nearly 20 years in the business, I think we produce very well-rounded suits, with a lot of attention to detail. I think we really look out for comfort and great fit, of course speed as well, but we do know that first and foremost it is a very different environment that we’re in in the water. Not everybody feels comfortable there, so we must provide that level of comfort. So that’s what we strive for and look for every day, and I think we have done a fine job in Europe for the past 15 or 16 years. Now we’re in the U.S. as well, and I’m hoping to convince a few of you out there to have a look into our brand.
Cool down theme: Great set everyone! Let’s cool down.
Vanessa Ronksley: It’s cooldown time! I’m Vanessa, your Average Triathlete with Elite-Level Enthusiasm! I have a treat in store for you today, because we have Brady Hoover in the house. He has too many certifications to name, so we’ll just say he holds rock-star status across many disciplines, from strength training all the way to running. Speaking of running, he is blazing fast, y’all. Not only is he a seven-time Boston Marathon qualifier and six times finisher, he holds a 2:48 marathon PB and a 16:34 5K PB. He claims that he has slowed down a little bit, because he has two insanely energetic little kids, like I wonder where they get their energy from? But I’m pretty sure that his current Zone 2 is my Zone 6, so we’ll just continue to say that he is fast. Brady is a personal trainer for most of the hours of his week, and a triathlon coach for the remainder. He has been a triathlon coach since 2016, and with TriDot since 2019. He mainly coaches intermediate to top age‑groupers, who often finish on the podium I might add, and he has helped many athletes qualify and race in the Boston Marathon. He is a firm believer that strength training is the key to success, and he is going to share some wisdom in that area with us today. But first, something that most people don’t know about Brady is that he is a licensed skydiver, and has recorded over 72 jumps. Welcome to the show, Brady! Are you a thrill-seeker by chance?
Brady Hoover: A little bit, people would say I have a need for speed. Everything in my younger days had been fast, whether it’s from skydiving, to when I turned 18 purchasing my first sport bike. One might say I’m addicted to adrenaline, which is why I sold my bike to spend more money to get a triathlon bike, because I’m addicted to this sport.
Vanessa: That makes complete sense. That’s amazing. So your tip for us today is something that you’re very passionate about, and that is strength training. A lot of athletes are so focused on getting all of their swim, bike, run sessions in, they often neglect their strength training. Tell us why we should not skip these strength sessions?
Brady: Great question. Okay, so strength training is the key to longevity in this sport. Our joints just take a beating. Strength training is key to stabilizing the knee joints, stabilizing the hip. If you can’t stabilize, you’re going to get hurt, especially for those of us that are doing those longer-distance races where we just take on a lot of pounding. Strength training is also key to boosting performance and preventing your injuries, and it also helps address muscle imbalances that our sport creates. Don’t neglect your upper body or core, just because you’re spending most of your time cycling or running. While we may run with our legs, our upper bodies play an important role too. As you tire, the first thing to deteriorate is your form. A strong upper body helps you maintain good form and good posture and correct swing. Many triathlon-related injuries are classified as overuse injuries from ramping up volume or intensity too quickly. Often the root cause is some sort of muscle imbalance or stabilization issue: weak glutes, weak quads, weak hamstrings, weak core. Examples of that are IT band syndrome, patellar syndrome, even plantar fasciitis. You think you’d say, “How could something like that, plantar fasciitis, be related to my core?” Well, if your core’s not strong, it’s going to change the way your body rotates through the air, and the way you strike the ground, and that can cause bad running form. And it’s a domino effect, it travels. The first thing to impact is your foot, and it can cause the way your foot’s traveling in the air, and lead to an issue. Often the root cause is not ramping up volume to quickly, it’s some sort of imbalance. So strength training will help strengthen the quads, the hamstrings, the glutes, the core. If those muscles are strong, they will help absorb the impact, and relieve some stress off of those joints. So the purpose of strength training is to strengthen the muscles that stabilize our joints. Take IT band syndrome for instance. Often the root cause is, someone will say, “Oh, you’ve ramped up run volume too quickly, became quad-dominant.” Okay, what does that mean? That means that your hamstrings, and primarily likely your glutes, are weak, so when you’re landing on that pavement, especially when you’re running, your pelvis can’t stabilize. There’s a lot of stress in the joints that travels down into the knees. So if your muscles can’t stabilize the joints, you’re going to wind up with an injury.
Vanessa: Can you give us three strength exercises that are the most important for all triathletes to do?
Brady: The split squat, sitting up on the floor and doing split squats, single-leg deadlift, and some sort of core anti-rotation. That would be setting up in that split-squat stance on the floor. We call it the half-kneel, and you can do this with a cable or a resistance band. What you do is get down on the floor, you’ve got your left foot out front, the anchor points to your right. You’ve got your left foot out front, that knee’s bent, that heel’s on the ground. You’ve got your back foot behind you, you want to curl those back right toes, because that’s going to allow you engage and stabilize with both your glutes. So that front left foot, you’re pressing into that heel, you’re firing up that left glute, helping your lower body stay stable. Your toes curl behind you with that right foot, that’s going to allow you to squeeze that right glute, now you’re stable. You take that resistance band and bring it in front of your belly button, you’re going to feel the stress of that resistance band wanting to rotate you back to its anchor point. You want to resist that, that’s why we call it anti-rotation, and what you want to do is you want to start it at the gut, and you want to punch it out directly in front, right between your belly button and sternum, and you want to hold it there for a second. You’re going to feel that resistance wanting to take you back to that anchor point, and you’re using your rear core. Watch your shoulders, because they’re going to want to hike and get involved in this. You want to keep those shoulders down and relaxed, and you want to use your glutes and your core to stabilize you. Trust me, you’ll feel it.
Vanessa: Yeah, you know now that you say that I’m like, “Oh, my physiotherapist has recommended this exercise to me before.”
Outro: Thanks for joining us. Make sure to subscribe and share the TriDot podcast with your triathlon crew. For more great tri content and community, connect with us on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Ready to optimize your training? Head to TriDot.com and start your free trial today! TriDot – the obvious and automatic choice for triathlon training.