The Guide to Swimwear for Active Women
Balancing Fit, Function, and Style
Choosing the perfect bathing suit for the water activities you love is no small feat. Getting the balance just right between function and comfort is something brands have been trying to do for, well, ever, and the good news is, there are now many who are getting it right. So what makes up the perfect bathing suit? Is it the pattern? The shape of the bottom? How well the top stays on?
We put this year’s new suits to the test on a recent trip to Costa Rica, where we surfed, swam, sunned, hiked, and paddled. We were looking for suits that stayed put, stayed comfortable, and, of course, looked great.
Where to Start
Think first about the kinds of activities you’ll be doing in your new suit. Are you mostly hanging out on the beach, maybe throwing around a Frisbee? Or are you trying to get barrelled in the surf? You also have to consider how much coverage and protection you’re looking for, what style you’re most comfortable and confident in, and how much support you need.
Nothing beats the freedom of a classic bikini. For long days in and around the water, you won’t find anything that comes close to being as comfortable. When you can mix and match tops and bottoms to suit your needs (particularly if you are buying different sizes in tops and bottoms) and your personal style, it’s easy to build just the right combination. Although the sheer variety of styles available might make it hard to choose!
Where do we begin? There are so, so many variations of bathing suit tops, some of which will stay in place better than others. (Who hasn’t had a moment that’s proven this to be true?) We found a few different types of bikini tops that work super well in active settings, while still maintaining flattering looks and functional comfort.
For getting active, you’re always going to be better off with racerback, cross-back, or the new multi-strap styles, all of which will stay in place if you’re caught in the spin cycle and offer great freedom of movement. Classic bra-style tops are great, too, as long as the straps aren’t super skinny and non-adjustable. This season’s high-necked styles are fantastic in terms of providing stay-put coverage; while you might end up a strange tan line if you wear it all the time, this style can also be nice if you’re trying to give your skin in the oft-burnt chest area a little break from UV exposure. Plus, they’re great for showing off those toned shoulders you worked so hard to get at the gym.
In terms of closure, pull-on styles with smooth backs are super comfortable but, if you need greater adjustability, there’s nothing wrong with ties … just double check them before heading into the surf! Clasps can be great, too … until they suddenly decide to unclasp. If you’re expecting serious wave action, they perhaps should be avoided.
If you’re going to be getting active in or out of the water, it’s also probably best to avoid tops with tiny triangles (there’s just less room for error!) or bandeau tops (even if they have add-on straps, they can be unreliable). If you’re going to be lying on a surfboard paddling out, avoid tops with underwire, metal embellishments, beading, or lots of ruffles and such that can bunch, dig, and chafe. And finally, while halter tops that tie behind the neck may be fine in most circumstances, you probably won’t be happy with that fabric placement if you’re paddling into the surf and lying on your board, or if you’re large-busted and your neck is doing the heavy lifting (so to speak).
Bottoms can be as small as you want them to be, as long as they’re comfortable and give you the amount of coverage you want. Some women will dive into a beach volleyball game wearing cheeky Brazilian-style bottoms, and aren’t concerned terribly if they ride up a little. Others would find the prospect of wedgies and/or sunburned cheeks extremely unappealing.
Your choices basically boil down to how much coverage you want in the rear, and how high you want the waist to go. Bottoms come in every possible combination from cheeky high-waisted retro styles to those that are pretty low cut but offer full coverage in the rear … and everything in-between.
For active pursuits, though, classic mild-coverage bikini bottoms are a great choice, offering an effortless sporty look and superior comfort. Some bottoms even have drawstrings, which means that no matter the activity, they’re not going anywhere. As with all bikini bottoms, fit is key–they should be taut across the hips and tight on the bottom, so you don’t get that saggy diaper look.
Great news: you don’t have to wear a Speedo (sorry, Speedo) that looks like it’s from your junior high swim team anymore! There are tons of great one-pieces out there these days that are just as functional, but quite a bit more stylish. And many aren’t any less skimpy as a bikini, since they can end up being very high cut and cheeky.
Keep in mind, though, that while you can probably count on a one-piece to stay put in heavy surf, some of the same rules apply to them that are valid for bikini tops. Anything too strappy, or low-cut, or with a halter-style tie may not work out too well, for the same reasons.
A cross between a traditional rashguard top and a one-piece, the new style of long-sleeve one-piece suits are perfect for paddling, surfing, and whatever else type of playing you love to do out there. If you’re going to be out there on the water a lot, and would rather not apply sunscreen every 30 minutes, you’ve got to have one of these.
No active woman’s swim wardrobe is complete without a rashguard. It’ll not only protect you from sunburn (especially when you’re out on the water for a while), but it’ll also protect your torso, arms, and sides from chafing, key not only for surfing but for kayaking, paddling, or even just lazy tubing down a river (trust us). Some rash guards will be cut a bit longer, allowing for even more protection and a little added coverage. To top it off (pun intended), you can always rock a skimpier top on the beach and then throw on a rashguard before heading out into the surf or for a paddle without worries of a wardrobe malfunction! Fit should be snug to avoid rash-inducing chafing.
Want a little extra coverage? Something to protect your nice bathing suit bottom from abrasion? Look no further than a pair of board shorts. They do have the potential to induce chafing if worn for salt-water activities, so make sure the fit is just right. But they’re light and quick-drying, so they transition effortlessly from water to land and back again. So you can go from surf to sand to lunch without so much as a second thought.
Polyester and nylon (aka polyamide) are what you’ll usually find in bathing suits. Polyester is made up of strong, soft fibers, which makes it breathable, stretchy, and highly resistant to shrinkage. Polyester also tends to be UV-, chlorine-, and abrasion-resistant, making it your most durable option.
Nylon, on the other hand, is softer, smoother, and offers a more comfortable fit. While not quite as long-lasting as polyester, nylon also won’t pill easily. Bathing suits will almost always incorporate some amount of added stretch, be it from Lycra (the branded name) or generic spandex or elastane. This added stretch allows for freedom of movement and a bit of extra comfort. You don’t want a suit that is more than 20% one of those materials, though, because they’ll over-stretch and pill.
Neoprene suits are also a good option if you’re spending a lot of time on your surfboard. These suits usually feature a thinner, stretchier version of neoprene than you’ll find in most wetsuits, so they aren’t going to be nearly as warm. However, it’s just as durable, so you can expose it to serious abrasion and it won’t be worse for wear. Plus, it holds its shape incredibly well.
Love Your Suits
When you find a great suit that works for your body and the activities you love, you’ll want to take good care of it. At minimum, always rinse your suit well after you wear it and hang it up to dry, but avoid the sun whenever possible. If washing is required, hand wash with mild soap … nothing abrasive. And please, please, don’t put your new suit in the dryer! That perfect fit will go from lovely to “yikes” in no time. And don’t be afraid to spend a little more on a suit that really, well, suits you. You’ll get more out of it than you think.