How Can I Find the Right Swimsuit Fit?

By Elaine K. Howley

As a swimmer, your most important piece of gear is your swimsuit.

But it isn’t always easy to find a style or fit that works for you. The internet abounds with information about shopping for swimsuits to flatter your body type, but for competitive swimmers or those who simply want a garment that fits well, doesn’t fall apart after three swims, and doesn’t chafe, preference toward vanity goes to the bottom of the list. I personally don’t care how it looks, I just need it to work. Bonus points for a fun print.

Case in point, I spent about a year and a half as a sponsored athlete with a women’s athleisure company and part of my deal was fit- and wear-testing swimsuits for them. Every time a new prototype showed up, I was excited to open the package. And every time I peered inside the box, I was disappointed to find it had yet another shelf bra sewn in. As a life-long swimmer, I’ve never preferred suits with internal bust support, and these bras pinched and chafed. So, I cut them out every time.

When I shared that feedback with the design team, they were gob-smacked. “Don’t you want to lift and separate?” one young designer asked me without a trace of irony.

“Absolutely not,” I said. “My aim is to smoosh and control. I need to get the girls out of my way so I can focus on reaching my destination.”

Not everyone shares that sentiment, but this article is not about flattering you or your shape. Instead, I’m going to address finding a suit style that works for you in the pool and open water for training and lower-stakes competition. Tech suits—the expensive, sausage-casing racing suits—are not figured in.

The Basic Cuts

There are thousands of styles and cuts for fashion swimsuits out there, but for competitive or training swimsuits, there are just a few basic options.

For women, one-piece suits are a common choice among Masters swimmers and, although some have closed backs like water polo suits or fitness offerings that look a bit like a wrestling singlet, most have some variation of straps that go up over the shoulder and connect into an open or keyhole back.

The details of what that back looks like is where most of the variation in women’s one-piece swimsuits resides at the moment. Some boast skinny straps that seem barely thick enough to survive a single swim while others feature fat straps straight out of a 1970s Speedo advertisement. On some suits, the straps are crossed while others offer several parallel straps in any number of arrangements that can make for interesting tan lines. Some feature tie-back straps that seem impossibly skimpy but somehow still work for a range of women.

Each style has its own implications for how the suit will fit and how comfortable it will be depending on your bust size, your shape, the type of swimming you do, and what you feel best wearing.

For some women, a two-piece suit or training bikini is the preferred cut. These are popular among some swimmers who frequent waterways where jellyfish or sea lice are common as the lack of fabric across the belly means that stinger cells can’t get trapped and do even more damage to tender flesh. These suits sometimes feature a triangle top style that ties in the back like an old-school bikini, but more often the top is shaped like a sports bra and the bottom fits like underwear—briefs or bikinis.

For men, there’s less variation in the standard swimsuit men wear for workouts and meets. The three most basic styles you’ll see on pool decks around the country are jammers, square trunks, and briefs.

The most modest of these are jammers, which look like bike shorts and cover everything between a couple inches above the knee and the natural waist. Shorter box trunks don’t cover the thighs, but they offer more modest coverage than the skimpiest brief swimsuit, which covers just the basics.

Fabrics and Features

Polyester, nylon, Lycra, and a range of newer materials with similar properties are the most common fabrics you’ll find when shopping for a training swimsuit.

Generally speaking, suits made of polyester or a polyester blend tend to last longer in chlorine than other fabrics. These chlorine-resistant materials can help keep your suit looking like new and performing well for hundreds of hours.

These polyester blends, however, aren’t as stretchy and soft as more traditional nylon and Lycra blends and that can be problematic for those swimming ultra-long distances as chafing can become a challenge. This is especially true in salt water. If you’re swimming long distances in the ocean, you might prefer a softer fabric with Lycra in it.

Some suits are fully lined, others aren’t. Generally speaking, lined suits are heavier and won’t become see-through when wet. Unlined suits may become somewhat see-through when wet.

Sizing and Measurement

Swimsuit sizing charts vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Most commonly, women’s competition suits are labeled as whole numbers ranging from about 24 (a size 0 or XXS) to 42 or 44, which would correspond to a size XL or XXL or 16 or 18 dress size, more or less, depending on how the company makes its products. Confused yet? You’re not alone.

For men’s swimsuits, the sizes run more like pants, using the waist circumference as size. Commonly, men’s suits run from about size 22 to about size 40, but again, this is dependent on the manufacturer’s designs and approach to sizing and how they think about who their customers are.

Suit manufacturers usually offer you a sizing chart from which you can compare your measurements to those used to make the garment. Take careful measurements and do your best to match yourself on their charts. Sometimes, it helps to contact the company and see if they’ll walk you through their sizing—someone on staff probably swims and can level with you about how their suits fit, particularly in comparison to other brands. Once you have an idea of what size might work, it’s time to go shopping.

Where to Start

The array of brands and individual suits on the market can be overwhelming when you’re looking for your best swimsuit. You may want to begin by speaking with another swimmer you know who has a similar body type or who’s doing the same kind of swimming you are and ask what works for them.

Taking good measurements can also help you hone in on the right size for you. In my experience, however, the size charts offered by most of the bigger swimsuit manufacturers don’t always make sense in terms of how their products fit. And, as with any garment fitting, there’s little standardization in sizing across manufacturers. A 34 in one company’s size range might fit like another’s size 38 depending on the cut and style.

In many cases, it comes down to simply trying several suits on and seeing what feels comfortable. If you have access to a brick-and-mortar retailer where you can physically go and try on swimsuits in person, that’s often your best course of action when starting out.

Barring that, buying a few suits from an online retailer that has a liberal return policy, such as SwimOutlet.com, can help you try a bunch of options and send back what doesn’t work.

But before buying any swimwear online, read the fine print; in some places, swimwear can’t be returned for hygienic reasons and some sales are marked as final, so make sure you know what your options are before plunking down your hard-earned cash for something you’re not certain will work.

An additional challenge surfaces when you get the suit wet. Some suits might feel like they fit perfectly when dry, but as soon as you get in the pool, they stretch out and don’t stay put. It’s impossible to know which suits will do this and which won’t, which is why some swimmers prefer to size down to ensure a snug fit.

Once you find something that works, you’re good to go. When you have something that lasts through hundreds of hours in the water and feels great, buy several of those suits in different colors and prints and always keep an eye out for sales. Unfortunately, companies sometimes decide to discontinue a product, and if you’re out of your favorite suit, you might be back at square one.

About the Author

Elaine K. Howley is an award-winning freelance writer and editor specializing in sports, health, and history topics. Her work has appeared in numerous print and online publications including AARP.orgAtlas ObscuraespnW, and U.S. News & World Report. A lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming, she has contributed to SWIMMER magazine since 2009 and USMS.org since 2012. For more information, visit elainekhowley.com