The speed skating suit has always been the technical marvel of the Winter Olympics. With high-tech fabrics and unusual construction, it’s designed to eke out every bit of athletic optimization. In a sport where a thousandth of a second can determine who gets a medal and who doesn’t, athletes rely on technology to give them an edge. “We’re trying to get the body to be more aerodynamic than it is in its natural state,” says Clay Dean, chief innovation officer at Under Armour, the company behind the suit the US speed skating team will wear in PyeongChang this February.
Speed skaters wage a battle with physics every time they race. As their muscular bodies cut through the air at more than 30 mph, they leave a trail of drag in their wake. The key to winning (against physics and humans alike) is to reduce the amount of air resistance a body produces. Part of it is stance—to minimize their body’s effect, skaters fold themselves over, keeping their backs flat like a table top—and part of it is suit.
“All we can do is prove through science, through construction, and through material that we’ve given them the best possible tools to do their job.” — Clay Dean, chief innovation officer at Under Armour
Under Armour’s new suit is an overhaul to the Mach 39, the controversial uniform that many blamed for the US team’s poor performance in Sochi. In 2014, not a single US speed skater medaled, despite the high prospects going into the Olympics. Under Armour was a natural scapegoat.
In the lead up to the game, the company heralded the Mach 39 as the fastest suit ever designed. The bodysuits were made from a dimpled polyurethane material designed to divert air drag; designers placed a large, latticed vent in the back of the suit to let the athletes bodies breathe. Athletes claimed that the vent allowed too much air to enter the suit, creating a vacuum behind them that slowed their speed. Under Armour and US Speedskating say the technology wasn’t to blame, citing an internal report conducted after the Sochi Olympics.1
This year’s suit has no vent. Instead, it’s stitched together from three fabrics like a couture gown. One of those fabrics, a white nylon spandex mix called H1, runs down the suit’s arms and legs in patches. The fabric’s jacquard weave creates an almost imperceptible roughness in the surface. “I would describe it as a very fine grit sandpaper,” says Chris Yu, director of integrated technologies at Specialized, the company responsible for the hundreds of hours of wind tunnel testing the suit underwent.
The texture creates pockets in the surface that make the suit more breathable. It also makes the suit more aerodynamic. Yu explains that anything punching a hole in the air will leave a wake or vacuum behind it. Speed skaters need to make that hole as small as possible. Cylindrical objects like arms and legs are particularly troublesome since wind tends to wrap around them, creating vacuum that can slow skaters’ speed. Anywhere you see the H1 fabric is a trouble spot for wind resistance. Under Armour and Specialized claim the small dimples on the surface of the suit disrupt the airflow ever so slightly, causing the air to re-energize and reattach to the limbs so the vacuum is reduced. “Call it the golf ball dimple effect, if you will,” Yu says.
Golf balls have dimples across the entirety of their surface because there’s no way to account for how the ball will fly through the air. Skaters, on the other hand, move in controlled and predictable ways, making only left turns as they sprint around the track. This predictability allowed the designers to position the H1 material in precise locations on the suit. “You can’t add roughness willy nilly,” Yu says. “If you add too much you’ll introduce more drag; add too little and you’re not re-energizing the air quite enough.”
The rest of the suit is made from a stretchy polyurethane fabric that’s designed to lay flush against the skaters skin, even when they’re folded over. Dean says Under Armour decided to sew the suit with an asymmetrical seam that runs from the lower left leg to the right shoulder, which reduces bunching and allows the skaters more freedom of movement during their left turns. It’s a small but significant detail that the design team decided to incorporate after analyzing the particular movements skaters make on the ice—the low stance, swinging arms, and right leg that constantly crosses over the left. They then spent more than two years testing the aerodynamics of the suit inside Specialized’s wind tunnel, ensuring that the suit met performance standards in every position skaters adopt during a race.
In the lead-up to Sochi, Under Armour kept the Mach 39 so tightly under wraps that the athletes didn’t get to test the new design in competition. This time, the athletes have been wearing the suits in practice and competition since last winter, while seamstress nip and tuck the material to tailor-fit it to each skater. It’s a long-term design process, but Dean says it’s worth it to make a suit he eagerly claims is faster, better, and more advanced than what they made for Sochi. “We believe they do give us an advantage,” he says. “It’s a faster skating suit than what we had before.”
It’s an enthusiasm that Dean tempers when he recalls the backlash from the 2014 Olympics. If Under Armour has learned anything in the last few years, it’s that a bit of managing expectations can go a long way. And that a suit, even the fastest in the world, is only a small piece of why athletes find themselves on the podium. “There’s no guarantees in competition,” Dean adds. “All we can do is prove through science, through construction, and through material that we’ve given them the best possible tools to do their job.”
1Update appended, 01/23/18, 8:05 am EDT This story has been updated to include Under Armour and US Speedskating’s comments.
Thanks to high-performance athletic gear, all Olympians are kind of like cyborgs.
Check out this year’s US Olympic Team’s opening ceremony uniform, including a jacket that warms itself like an electric blanket.
How Olympic gymnasts use physics to pull off those crazy twists and tumbles.
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