Why do Triathletes Wear Sleeves?
In the early days of triathlon, competitors often pulled on a swimsuit and called that good for the whole day, resulting in about a decade of athletes crossing the finish line in little more than a speedo and sneakers. The ladies kept it classier with a one piece suit, and soon the men followed with singlet running tops, but for years the look was simple: wear what you wore in the swim, and add something on the run if you feel like it.
That approach changed as more athletes looked to aerodynamics as a key to improve their times. Triathlon and cycling alike adopted aerobars in the early 1990s, as athletes realized that getting lower resulted in faster times. Soon positions were aggressive, but you often saw floppy and baggy jerseys in the cycling world. Trips to the wind tunnel suggested that “flappy is not fast,” and cyclists began to keep it tight. Triathlon by the late 1990s had moved to a near universal costume that consisted of triathlon shorts (the speedo-only look, thankfully, had gone away in the mid-1990s) and a “tri-top,” which was a snug tank that dried quickly. As cyclists tinkered more and more with their gear, some enterprising triathletes wondered if they could benefit with the same exploration. In the early 2010s, the “triathlon speedsuit” appeared, emulating cycling speedsuits, which featured tight and aerodynamic fabric, a one-piece construction, and longer sleeves extending to the elbow.
So what’s the deal with sleeves? Any casual search about sleeved vs. sleeveless suits in triathlon inevitably unearths the ubiquitous “skin is slow” comment, which is a convenient half-truth. It’s not that skin is slow, it’s that fabric can be faster, with some caveats. The apparel industry has gone through something of a revolution in the last half-century, as different kinds of technical fabrics have appeared like so many mushrooms on a fall day. Those fabrics can cool the body, warm the body, dry out faster, and—most pertinent to our discussion today—speed airflow around the athlete. Using patterns, dimples, and cunning channels, air moves around these technical fabrics with less drag than over skin (especially if you’re not shaving your arms—wait, what?). Less drag equals less effort to overcome wind resistance, and that means you go faster during the bike leg.
How much faster? Well, some estimates put the time savings at close to three seconds per kilometer. In an Ironman, that’s 540 seconds or nine minutes! Who wouldn’t want nine minutes? Stuff me into that suit!
It’s not that simple, however. When you look at professional cyclists preparing for a time trial, there isn’t a wrinkle in sight. Their kits are very, very tight, and their soigneurs smooth the suit the same way a tailor presses a dress. Dig a little deeper on those Internet searches about skin being slow, and someone finally brings up the point that “wrinkles are worse.” Most of you reading this are triathletes, so we can anticipate where your thoughts are headed next: if cyclists have to get their suits perfect before riding, how could we possibly flatten ours the same way, since we need to swim first, and we’ll usually be taking off a swim skin or wetsuit in T1. Isn’t this a recipe for disaster?
“It all comes down to fit,” says David Tilbury-Davis, an elite triathlon coach who has worked with Lionel Sanders and Cody Beals, among other professionals and elite age groupers. “The suit needs to be tight to have any kind of aerodynamic effect, and then the athlete has to consider whether that tightness is going to affect his or her swim.” Essentially, if your triathlon speedsuit is going to do any good, it needs to be tight enough that your breathing is somewhat restricted. “Put that restriction underneath a wetsuit or swimskin,” Davis says, “and that athlete may have a difficult day in the water.” Davis suggests the following approach if you’re going to wear sleeves in your next triathlon:
- Wear the suit in your training, in a variety of configurations (under a swimskin, under a wetsuit, zipped up, unzipped), to get used to how the suit moves, particularly while swimming.
- During the race, keep the suit up over your shoulders under your wetsuit or swimskin, but unzip the front to facilitate better breathing. Some triathlon speedsuits zip like a jersey, with the bottom of the jersey flopping open (like a set of double doors opening, rather than the traditional “V” of a zipper). These suits make the swim easier, as your chest can fully expand.
- If you can’t swim with the suit up over your shoulders (breathing issues, or the suit constricts your swimming motion), you can stuff the top of the suit down into the legs of your wetsuit or swimskin. Now your calculation is whether or not you can get the suit pulled up over your wet torso on the run from the swim to the bike. If it’s a long transition, this is probably possible, but if it’s a short transition, maybe think about using a traditional tri top instead, since the delay in putting on the suit will even out with the aerodynamic time gains on the bike.
- Once you are on the bike, take a few minutes and smooth the suit as much as possible. As strange as this may seem, remember that wrinkles are worse than skin in terms of speed. “You see some really good athletes, high-level professionals, and their kits are all bunched up in their pecs and armpits—those speedsuits are actually slowing those athletes down,” says Davis.
So, as with everything in this sport, sleeves can be faster, as long as you optimize your use of them: train in your sleeves, unzip during the swim, learn to live with a tight suit, and smooth out the fabric before getting down to business on the bike leg. Do those things, and you may find yourself with some free minutes at your next triathlon. Ignore those recommendations, and your high-performance suit may be no better than that tech tee you’re wearing right now.