Saturday, July 14, 2012

Gear Review: blueseventy Helix Wetsuit

Wetsuits are one of the larger gear investments a budding triathlete can make; behind a bike and/or race wheels (if, of course, you fall into USAT's median income range of approximately $108,000), it is likely a wetsuit will be your most expensive piece of gear.

With that kind of money on the line, then, it stands to be prudent when it comes to selection. Much like when it comes to proper triathlon bikes and running shoes, fit comes first. Then you can start worrying about the features of a particular suit versus another. This means that if you are part of the crowd screaming, "I can only wear a sleeveless," it is more likely that you either have an abnormally shaped torso (there are indeed certain people who just can't fit into a sleeved suit), or you have never had a sleeved suit that fit you properly.

But, what if you enjoy the feel of the water against your arms, or simply prefer a thinner feel to the sleeves of the suit? Most wetsuit companies really build up the forearms of their suits to create catch panels, with the theory that they will help move more water.

Enter the blueseventy Helix.

blueseventy Helix Men's 2012 Wetsuit. (image courtesy of blueseventy).
The Tech Babble
Wetsuits, at their core, have been using the same kind of material for decades: neoprene. Regardless of brand or fit, you'll be buying a suit made of this material, much like how in running shoes, you'll for the most part be buying an ethylene vinyl acetate product.

Neoprene, due to its smoothness, helps reduce drag in the water. However, because there are air molecules trapped in the rubber (much like how air molecules trapped in the midsole of a running shoe provide the cushioning), the air helps to provide lift, and therefore buoyancy.

Of course, having a whole bunch of rubber surrounding your skin in the water also helps keep you warm. Too warm, in some instances. This is why there are temperature cut-offs for wetsuits: because you run the risk of severe overheating if the water temperature is high to begin with. The suit will only make it warmer! For Rev3 events, the water temperature cut-off for awards is 78 degrees; nobody is permitted to wear a wetsuit when the water is warmer than 84 degrees. For those planning on racing say, Rev3 Maine or Rev3 Cedar Point with me: I think we have nothing to worry about. We'll be wearing wetsuits.

There is also a limit to the thickness of the wetsuit: 5 millimeters at its maximum. This is, again, to limit overheating due to the suit being too thick, and also too much buoyancy help from a wetsuit. As it is, wearing a suit with 5 millimeter thickness is impossibly buoyant; you basically need only scull with your pinkies in order to stay afloat.

That is not to say, though, that all suits with 5 millimeter thickness in them are made the same. Nor should all of the suit necessarily be made to this thickness; sure, we want the buoyancy, but we also need to be able to move in the suit! If you can't move your arms well enough to take an effective swim stroke, then you haven't made any sort of improvement by putting on a wetsuit.

Furthermore, although buoyancy can help out any swimmer, there are different types of buoyancy needed for different people. If you are like most triathletes who come from a cycling or running background, the mass will be in your legs, and you have a difficult time raising the hips to avoid the dreaded "swimming uphill" position: pushing water down with your torso, legs behind you sinking towards the bottom. However, if you have more of a swimming background, your body positioning tends to be better; you want the suit to give you some of the sleekness and buoyancy, but to some degree get out of the way.

blueseventy, named for the fact that water (blue) covers seventy percent of the Earth's surface, recognized this as well. There are two product ranges that blueseventy manufactures: the neutral buoyancy line, and the positive buoyancy line. The neutral buoyancy products are thicker in the torso and core, whereas the positive buoyancy suits focus more on buoyancy through the core, hips, and legs, much like swimming with a permanent pull buoy.

The Helix slats in as the top-of-the-line neutral buoyancy suit. It tiers the maximum thickness of the suit as 5-5-4, with the first section through the torso, the middle section as the core and hips, and the final section throughout the legs. So, the legs are a touch thinner than the top two sections. This isn't to say that they will sink when in the water; instead, blueseventy's research suggests that because the legs are constantly in motion (read: work on your kick, buster, because you're supposed to be kicking in a triathlon swim...), this thickness provides the best balance of buoyancy and freedom of motion.

The core and hips are also constructed slightly differently from the torso. The suit features what are called Aerodome panels in the midsection. Remember above how we talked about the rubber having air molecules trapped in the matrix? Well, increase the volume of those air molecules, and you have Aerodome: same thickness, more buoyancy. This is to help promote that downhill swimming position.

But what of the arms and shoulders, the part of the suit that makes people cringe? This is where blueseventy takes a completely different course as compared to other suit manufacturers. Most suits will feature a butterfly panel, opening up the shoulders and arms, before building to large "catch panels" in the forearm, designed to help move more water during the swim stroke. The problem? These catch panels also create drag in the water, particularly if you have a longer glide before initiating the pull. Also, if you don't get the suit just right in the shoulder, it will feel as if it is pulling down on the arm.

blueseventy's solution? Let's go all minimal up top! The suit has some of the butterfly in the shoulder and back, with 2 millimeter thickness there. But then there are 1.5 and 1 millimeter panels all throughout the arms. And they're not even neoprene; it's fabric! The result: supreme freedom of motion. But it also can help out from a form standpoint; it will allow you to take that swim stroke you've been honing in the pool and bring it directly into the open-water; no form modifications necessary. This can help reduce injury-risk, but also increase awareness of what is working and what's not working; it's easy to make modifications in technique when the suit is so flexible.

The Helix was designed with triathlete's in mind, as there are some answers to common problems that we tend to face. Take, for instance, the run into the water for beach starts, or the run from the water to transition. The Helix has a thinner panel behind the knee to allow you to be able to run easily with the suit on. Also, the zipper works in reverse: when putting the suit on, it zips from the neck down. To remove, pull the cord up. This makes sure that if somebody gets a hold on that pull cord during the course of the swim, it's not pulling the zipper down off your suit and letting a whole bunch of water in.

The Swim: How's It Work
This suit is FAST. As in, holy crap.

As we reviewed before, I swam in the Orca Sonar last season, and another Orca suit for part of the year this year. You would think that, being 6'3" and 158 lb., I would fit well into a suit that is pretty narrow.

And you'd be wrong: the Orca line is designed with folks who fit onto the Felt's and Cervelo's of the bicycle world in mind: long torso, shorter to average length legs. I am, of course, built the opposite way: super long legs, next to no torso. To give you an idea, when doing the Rev3 Maine bike course preview with Jen Small, her response to attempting to draft off of me while on board Wallace the Blue: "You're all legs! No draft comes off of you!"

So, in other words: the Orca line was a poor match. It resulted in some shoulder impingement, simply because I could never get the suit's torso to really match up. Orca also was a little narrower in the shoulders and chest overall. In sum: I should've gone with something different.

This is the suit.

First off, the rubber in this suit simply works. To test it out for yourself, just go for a standard beach start, run in, dive in (please, in a familiar area where you know where you won't hit your head...), and just take off.

You are GONE.

Seriously, this thing just up to speed wants to stay up at speed. And you feel that speed, too. If this is the first time you've worn a wetsuit, the phrase "this is cheating" will probably come to mind. And that's OK. It's not cheating. But it is speedy!

As you start moving into your swim stroke, you'll notice how easy it is to keep your hips high in the water. One thing that I noticed was that this suit really likes to have your head "buried," so to speak: relax your neck to allow your chin to point towards your chest. It really gets you into that downhill swimming position. The two panels on the sides of the front chest will also prevent you from jacknifing at the midsection while you turn to breather, giving you a much more effective position and forcing you into proper torso rotation.

Your legs will float behind you, but again due to some of the torso panels you will have less of the fishtail action that is incredibly common in poorer swimmers (often due to core strength issues). It's really attempting to streamline you and move you towards the direction that you want to be moving in.

And then the arms: what a difference! You really get a good idea as to where you are in the swim stroke, and also knowledge of how small changes in turnover rate and forearm placement will impact your speed in the water. It's incredible how flexible and easy it is to move in this suit. For those who have shorter torsos and have had issues with sleeved suits in the past, stop looking. Go try on a Helix.

For the rest of us, this suit will really make some improvements for you. It is a blazing fast suit that, considering the attention to small details, really pays off in the end. I couldn't be happier to have found this suit out. It makes me a better swimmer.

And when you're paying for a wetsuit, isn't that what we're looking for?

Retail: $649.99
Rental at Rev3 Events Available for $75


Maggie said...

Great review! I definitely agree with a lot of your points about the helix's effect on body positioning. I used to dread wetsuit swims bc my old one toyed with my form but I feel like my helix only reinforces it. Great overview!

Joel said...

Great reviews - both this one and for the isoT's. Lots of good technical mumbo-jumbo, but also perspective from a real athlete, too.

Wetsuits are a huge investment - and too often folks don't try on multiple brands...they go w/ whatever is in their local store or what is a good deal online - and don't realize that they might not be optimizing their capabilities. GREAT read!

Unknown said...

Great review. I rented a Helix at Rev3 Quassy and fell in love. No "scooping" of water in the chest or wrists, complete feel of the water, and wonderful body position is just forced on you. I cannot wait for mine to arrive so I can get some serious open water time in it. The freedom of movement in the shoulders and hips is going to help me bigtime. I always had to transition from "pool swimming" to "open water swimming" and they were pretty different. No more!