I’ve been a competitive masters swimmer (on and off) for the past 10 years and got into open water about seven years ago. I’m far from being the best in my age group, but do like to push myself and am keen to explore ways to maximise performance. Having committed to the ASA Masters Open Water Nationals in Sheffield this year, where I knew the competition would be stiff and most athletes would be wearing a performance suit of some description, I wanted to understand whether a performance suit would make a small but noticeable difference, or whether there would be, pun intended, clear water between regular racing jammers and a full suit. I tested the Arena R-Evo+ and Finis Vapor.
I appreciate this isn’t the most important consideration, but both suits came in a nice box, and more importantly both provided a really nice drawstring bag for permanent storage.
Both suits looked and felt like a quality product. Build quality is excellent and they have a really nice technical feel, if that makes sense. The one noticeable difference that I spotted was that the seams on the Vapor were much thicker. The R-Evo+ was more subtle and allowed the suit to flex more easily. The impression I got with the Vapor was that the seams were designed to provide some form of second skeleton.
Putting the suits on
If you are racing and plan to wear one of these suits, I suggest you allow 15-20 minutes to ease into them. Without a zip at the back (zips are not allowed under FINA open water rules), you need to be a skilled contortionist! You start by slowly inching the suit up your legs. Once you’ve done this, things become a little easier (for a while!). The real challenge is getting your arms in and the straps over your shoulders.
One key difference between the suits I should highlight is that I found the Finis much easier to squeeze my upper body into. And because of the thick seams I mentioned earlier, I found it less of an ordeal to untwist the shoulder straps (which will get twisted). Generally, I found that the Finis provided a better upper body fit, but the Arena suit, while being more snug, provided the better overall fit.
Word of warning if you are thinking of buying one of these suits: make sure you apply Body Glide liberally under where the straps sit and under the arms. I forgot this when I wore the Arena for the first time and had scars for two weeks as a consequence. Don’t let that happen to you.
Once in the water, how did the suits compare? The first thing you notice is the buoyancy. While the suits may not create buoyancy directly, my legs were definitely more parallel to the surface. I imagine that this is due to the improved hydrodynamics and compression technology which mean you are more streamlined through the water.
The next thing you notice is the speed. It may well be a psychological effect, but you do feel fast. Really fast!
You also become aware of freedom of movement. I much prefer swimming in open water without a wetsuit, principally because of this. A wetsuit may be much faster, but it comes at a price.
In that respect, if you want speed and freedom of movement, then get yourself one of these open water suits – you won’t be disappointed.
So far everything has been subjective. What about the statistics? First we need a reasonably standard test and a benchmark. I’m not going to make any great claims as to the accuracy of what I describe below as a scientific method, so please interpret as you see fit.
In terms of a standard test, I decided to aim for a 1500m, comprised of 2 x 750m laps. I did the test at Shepperton Open Water, a lake where I have swum this exact same swim (as a fitness/performance test) literally dozens of times. These are averages of fast times: skins (non-wetsuit) 21:23; wetsuit 19:26.
How did the performance suits do?
Arena R-Evo+: 20:36 (10:20 / 10:16)
Finis Vapor: 20:53 (10:35 / 10:18)
While the Finis seemed slightly slower, I think that can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, I don’t think I had properly warmed up (slightly slower first lap). Secondly, the weather was much worse. There was quite a wind, sighting was harder and I may well have swum slightly more than 750m on the first lap.
There is only 2 seconds between the suits for lap two. That says everything to me.
I would have liked to have identified a clear winner, but alas this didn’t happen. Both suits delivered on offering performance gains. I can’t decide which suit is best, but I will continue to enjoy some more testing!
£229 (Arena) $399.99 (Finis)