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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Neoprene Rules Enacted By FINA, Bypassing Bioprene

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Petar Stoychev is the epitome of how truly flexible and amazingly adaptable open water swimmers are.

Not only did Stoychev win the 2011 FINA World Championships in Shanghai, China in incredibly warm and miserably humid conditions (over 31°C or 88°F+), but he is also one of today's pre-race favorites at the Ice Swimming Aqua Sphere World Championships in Burghausen, Germany where the surface water temperature is nearly 0°C and the water below is no more than 3.7°C (38°F) in air temperatures that have dipped below 0°C (32°F).

How an individual can acclimate to such miserably warm conditions during China's summer as well as mind-boggling cold conditions in Germany's winter is an example of how malleable open water swimmers are and can be.

Such duality in being able handle both such extremes on the temperature scale (both air and water) is a testament to Stoychev's physical and mental talents and a result of his commitment to training. While he is among history's most successful open water swimmers, other athletes have demonstrated this ability to adapt their training and talents to the water conditions, from Christof Wandratsch to Rostislav Vitek.

So as open water swimmers come together this week to celebrate fast ice swimming along the German-Austrian border, the administrators at FINA went in the completely opposite direction.

FINA enacted new rules about its allowable competition swimwear on January 1st. The FINA Bureau in move towards increased safety under cold-water conditions completely changed its rules on swimwear - opening its door wide open to the use of wetsuits and neoprene in its competitions.

FINA's new rules state the following:

BL 8.4 For open water swimming competitions with water temperature from 20°C [68°F], swimsuits for both men and women shall not cover the neck, nor extend past the shoulder, nor extend below the ankle. Subject to these specific shape specifications, swimsuits for open water swimming competitions shall further comply with all other requirements applicable to swimsuits for pool swimming competition.

BL 8.5 From January 1, 2017, for open water swimming competitions in water with temperature below 20°C, men and women may use either swimsuits (BL 8.4) or wetsuits. When the water temperature is below 18°C, the use of wetsuits is compulsory. For the purpose of these rules, wetsuits are swimsuits made of material providing thermal insulation. Wetsuits for both men and women shall completely cover torso, back, shoulders and knees. They shall not extend beyond the neck, wrists and ankles.

The new rules were instituted due to concerns that the FINA Bureau has regarding conducting events in low temperatures (defined at 20°C or below). "FINA...will take all necessary measures to ensure the maximum possible levels of security and safety for all athletes in [its] races," stated FINA.

So for all FINA open water swimming events (Olympic 10K Marathon Swim, FINA 10K Marathon Swimming World Cup, FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix, FINA Junior Open Water Swimming Championships), the new rules will apply (including the FINA's existing rule that the lowest possible water temperature allowable in FINA races is 16°C or 60.8°F).

The elite echelon of open water swimmers are undoubtedly shopping for the most buoyant and flexible wetsuits in order to be competitive in sub-20°C temperatures.

"On one hand, the new FINA rules allow for competitive swimmers in warm-weather countries to feel comfortable in competing in sub-20°C temperatures," says Steven Munatones.

"For those athletes from tropical countries (i.e., Torrid Zone that covers nearly 40% of the Earth's surface), there is a distinct disadvantage because their ability and opportunities to train in sub-20°C temperatures ranges from non-existent to extremely limited. Even those individuals in the southern reaches of the North Temperate Zone or the northern reaches of the South Temperate Zone have limited opportunities to experience and acclimate in water below 20°C. So, from this perspective, use of wetsuits opens up swims to these athletes. That is a good decision that is undoubtedly welcomed by those athletes and their coaches."

On the other hand, FINA's decision on wetsuits is a misplaced decision for several reasons.

1. Traditions in competitive open water swimming and solo swims over the past century and previous millennia have dictated that minimal swimwear without the protection of neoprene is used.

2. Nearly 100% of the professional marathon swimmers already wear tech suits in FINA races - and in most competitions where they participate - that almost completely cover their body with the exceptions of their arms.

These tech suits offer a significant level of skin protection and even a level of warmth that is not available if the swimmers swam in traditional porous swimsuits. These tech suits provide sufficient protection against the cold for professional athletes who train and acclimate specifically for different conditions (both warm and cold).

3. Swimmers can also wear ear plugs and swim caps for additional level of cold water protection in the open water competitions.

4. Just as athletes in colder climates must acclimate to warm-water conditions, athletes have the opportunity (least we say obligation) to acclimate themselves to the chosen venue.

5. Open water swimmers are not triathletes. Open water swimmers - unlike triathletes whose majority of racing is done on a bicycle and with running shoes - are entirely focused on handling the various conditions of open water venues. While 20ºC is considered cold by triathletes, but 20ºC is - and should not be - considered outside the capabilities of committed world-class open water swimmers.

6. FINA's currently allowable water temperature ranges are 16ºC - 31ºC. Professional marathon swimmers have been competing in cold water competitions for generations in all kinds of conditions. Why should FINA change now? Does FINA's decision imply that the previously held FINA races held in water under 20ºC were dangerous and risky?

7. The addition of wetsuits changes the nature of open water swimming in profound ways, especially in salt water. The buoyancy coefficient changes dramatically. For those with a lesser ability to kick well and efficiently use their legs, the additional buoyancy changes their body position in the water. Arm strength becomes more important and body mass index becomes less a factor to one's competitive success.

8. Athletes and coaches are now searching for the most optimal fabric to enhance buoyancy and flexibility around the shoulders. Open water swimming will become more technical in that forward-looking coaches and athletes will start experimenting with wetsuits thickness, panel construction, and material compounds. Like cyclists with their bicycles, attention will shift towards equipment benefits.

9. Professional marathon swimmers compete for money, have sponsorships, and are supported by their teams and/or national governing bodies and benefit from the guidance of full-time coaches, experienced trainers and sports scientists. Their team of supporters can easily educate the athletes on how best to acclimate and how to swim fast in water temperatures below 20ºC.

Based on the wetsuit decision by the FINA Bureau, swimmers, coaches and national teams are considering a number of factors:

* can a tech suit be defined as a wetsuit?

* if a tech suit is not included in FINA's definition of a wetsuit, what is the definition of a wetsuit? What percentage of neoprene or thickness is acceptable?

* is the best and fastest tech suit is faster or slower than a wetsuit?

* are compression panels acceptable?

* what kind of changes in the swimming technique are optimal? Because the body will be riding higher in the water, swimmers may kick differently and may swim at a different arm rotation pace due to the increased buoyancy. Will further changes make sense if swims are in freshwater in a lake versus a saltwater competition in the ocean?

* confirm with FINA if wetsuits can be customized [note: FINA has previously determined that tech suits cannot be customized for each swimmer, but a similar ruling has not yet been made for open water swimming]

* can the neoprene thickness can be thicker in the torso and legs and less thick around the shoulders [for optimal range of mobility]? Will compression panels in key locations [upper legs and upper arms] and less constriction around the chest area be allowed?

The can of worms that FINA just opened by approving and encouraging use of wetsuits in its competitions has just begun...

Upper photo shows Olympic 10K marathon swimming gold medalist Maarten van der Weijden in a TYR tech suit at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Middle photo shows Team Russia at the FINA World Swimming Championships. Lower photo shows Olympic champion Ian Thorpe in an early version of a tech suit.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association


  1. Replies
    1. Item 2 is inaccurate . Professional marathon swimmers do solo swims and races not under control of FINA. In fact there are more swimmers in the outside FINA category than in The Tech suit and wetsuit are banned and if used the swim they have done is not recognised

  2. In Items #2-9, we are referring to participation of professional marathon swimmers in FINA races. Of course, professional marathon swimmers also participate in solo swims and races not under the control of FINA. But, in fact, in most of those races, they also use the same suits that they use in FINA races. Only when professional marathon swimmers attempt channel swims in places like the English Channel do they conform to English Channel rules that are different from FINA rules and most non-channel swims. If we look at photos of professional marathon swimmers at the start of non-FINA open water races, outside of the English Channel and a handful of other channel swims, then they are wearing their usual FINA-acceptable swimsuits. But, participation of professional marathon swimmers in these other channel swims remains quite rare. We cannot recall a top professional marathon swimmer currently on the pro circuit attempting a crossing of the North Channel, Molokai Channel, Strait of Gibraltar, Catalina Channel, Palk Strait, Tsugaru Channel, Cook Strait, Rottnest Channel, Maui Channel, or even swims like 20 Bridges (formerly MIMS) or Lake Zurich in many years, although there may have been a few exceptions.

  3. So what you are saying people who go in FINA world events or FINA sanctioned events don't do other events in the world marathon swimming because they need the help of performance enhancing swimsuits to be successful ,is this correct?

  4. No, that is a ridiculous statement and inaccurate assumption. Athletes who go to FINA events CLEARLY and REGULARLY participate in other events all around the world, some are races and a few try the English Channel. Petar Stoychev, who won 11 FINA Grand Prix titles in his illustrious career, just won the Ice Swimming Aqua Sphere World Championships. He is just one example of how versatile many FINA swimmer are; this is the same as other experienced amateur swimmers. The best athletes usually do not need the help of performance enhancing swimsuits - and neither do experienced athletes or those who acclimate for extreme temperatures or conditions. The athletes do not determine what kind of swimwear they (are allowed to) use; this is the decision of FINA and other governing bodies. That is my point. Please do not make wrong assumptions based on your own individual opinions or perspectives.

  5. Oh dear we must talk face to face on this subject. Lets try the IMSHOF Congress on April 23 in London. Swimsuits are sure to be on the agenda
    Summery. So called pro swimmers as you call them do go in solo or race events but very few from FINA events. There are a total of a few hundred swimmers in FINA races since the beginning in 2000 out of many thousands in the rest of the marathon swimming world, a small proportion. You mention Peta Storchev who did the English channel and even then he used jammers as did Trent Grimsey, both times are not sanctioned by the CSA. In fact Chad Hunderby USA has the fastest time across the EC as the other two mentioned were assisted with swimsuits . And by the way Ice swimming events you talk about are by any look not marathons. The facts are that most of the world don't want to know about Hi Tech suits in our sport and wetsuits was the dizzy limit

  6. Dear Anonymous, you bring up numerous points in your latest post. Firstly, we will not attend the IMSHOF Congress. But since you have changed the topic, let's talk about the IMSHOF. The IMSHOF has already decided that use of techsuits, including jammers, are not allowed for consideration by any individual nominated for the IMSHOF. This effectively and unilaterally eliminates all pro swimmers (as we call them) from consideration into the IMSHOF. It is a curious decision because there are several individuals who have used non-conforming techsuits - including Angela Maurer, Petar Stoychev and several others - who are already in the IMSHOF. Additionally, the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation - under which Stoychev, Wandratsch, Grimsey, and others, allows for jammers. So, yes, Hundeby swam in a traditional swim brief, but he also swam in 1994 when techsuits were not available. Hundeby is a great swimmer, but we would doubt that even Hundeby would competed in a swim brief if his competitors were coming in techsuits during his era. In fact, Hundeby remains the only person from the 20th century in the Top 10 fastest English Channel crossings of all time. Also, of course, ice swimming are not marathons. We never implied or said that swims conducted under 5°C are longer than 10 km (or whatever your standard is for marathon swimming). Lastly, even a cursory look at the large number of channel swimmers in the Catalina Channel and the English Channel will prove that many swimmers in contemporary times use jammers and other types of non-conforming CSA swimsuits while crossing channels around the world. This use of jammers is widely done by not only pro swimmers, but also many of those in the Marathon Swimmers Federation. Therefore, your statement that "most of the world don't want to know about Hi Tech suits in our sport" in inaccurate from my perspective. In fact, simply judging from the widespread use of jammers and other techsuits in many open water swims and channel swims around the world is one indication that most of the contemporary swimmers in the world not only know about techsuits, but they also use them (if non-confirming CSA and IMSHOF swimsuits are defined as swimsuits that compress the muscles and goes past the groin).

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Dear Anonymous, we personally do not know what the dizzy limit is. We think there is plenty of room for improvement in the construction and materials used in wetsuits and techsuits. Much, much room. Based on the new fabrics that are coming out of the laboratories of the neoprene manufacturers, we think the speed and buoyancy of techsuits and wetsuits will continue to evolve and enable much faster swimming, whether in chlorinated, freshwater or saltwater venues. We have seen some of the latest designs and fabrics are incredibly buoyant with only a few square centimeters of surface area and can be placed in strategic parts of the swimsuit (e.g., legs or lower back) that can improve body position (and, as a result, speed especially on a longer race/swim). Since these hyper-buoyant materials only need a few centimeters to add tremendous buoyancy, they can be sewn into (or placed under) any part of the swimwear.


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