When you tune into the 2018 Winter Olympics next month, you’ll see plenty of painstakingly picked pieces of clothing. In some cases, the outfits do more than just make competitors look snazzy: They can actually help them go faster.
You’ll notice such high-tech duds during speedskating events, where athletes zip around ice rinks. It takes a lot of coordination to pick up speed while balancing on a blade — especially in short-track events, where skaters race all at once in a pack that is prone to painful pileups — so every sliver-of-a-second counts. But how can a suit speed you up?
Wave your hand around. You might feel some air blowing past you, but you probably don’t feel that it’s slowing you down. Imagine doing the same thing in a pool. You would feel resistance from the water. That’s called drag. Air drags on you less than water, but drag it does.
Unfortunately for speedskaters, the human body isn’t especially aerodynamic (AIR-oh-di-NAM-ick), which means we’re not good at moving through air without encountering drag. Even strands of hair can catch air and slow us down — that’s why swimmers often shave their bodies. It makes them better at slipping through water.
A skater’s suit covers the body so that lumpy, bumpy skin isn’t getting dragged through the air. Smooth surfaces such as nylon and spandex make the body sleeker, which makes it more aerodynamic.
Many countries — including the United States — take that idea even further.
When designers at Under Armour crafted the U.S. suits for 2014, they spent more than two years testing more than 100 kinds of fabric in about 250 combinations. Using different materials meant designers had to be strategic about sewing them together, lest any bulging seams increase a skater’s drag. They also wanted to minimize friction, or the force of two surfaces rubbing against each other. That way, skaters lost less speed as their thighs moved past each other and when their arms rubbed against their bodies.
Designers at Under Armour also added tiny bumps to their speedskating suits. That sounds like it would increase drag, but those ridges keep skaters speedy for the same reason that golf balls whiz through the sky: The air above each dimple forms a little whirlpool, spinning quickly. That makes the surface move through the air as if on ball bearings, which adds a tiny lick of speed.
Despite all that work, Under Armour’s 2014 speedskating suits didn’t get much praise. In fact, the designs received some of the blame when U.S. skaters performed poorly. Most experts say the outfits weren’t responsible for those lagging times, but athletes were so worried about it that the team switched to old suits for the rest of their events.
That just goes to show how important comfort and confidence are to performance. Norway’s team recently announced that its members would be wearing blue suits because they skated faster in them than red ones. Unless they’re bluffing, the only explanation for that improvement is that they simply feel faster in blue — which could make them skate faster.
So when you watch your favorite winter event, take a moment to appreciate the gold medalist’s fashion choices. They’re probably the result of years of research.