What’s in a tri suit, really? Just a layer of lycra to keep you decent and match your bike (or not)? For a lot of people, the price tag is their only consideration. It makes me roll my eyes to see the guy who has spent thousands on a pair of expensive race wheels and a super-expensive TT bike with electronic shifting, while rolling along in a sopping wet, loose and flapping lycra tri suit because they couldn’t see the benefit in investing in a better one.
For those just starting out in the sport the entry level gear available today is fine to get you started in the sport, but it is worth understanding the very real speed benefits which can be obtained by choosing the right suit for your body, abilities and style of racing. It is also worth noting that, as with many equipment upgrades, slower athletes tend to realise much greater improvements against the clock with better tri clothing than faster athletes, due to the fact that they are on course for longer and they usually have greater technique inefficiencies to ‘conceal’. Here are some things to think about.
Body position and core support
When trying on new tri suits for size, err on the side of tighter rather than loose. Apart from the fact that all tri clothing will stretch over time, the best tri suits will be designed with strategically-located compression around the core and hips. In the swim, this ‘holds you in’ and supports the engagement of your core, which increases hip drive and reduces fatigue over the course of the swim. This is particularly the case with the ‘speedsuits’ used by many people in non-wetsuit races, such as the new Zone3 Swim Skin – these suits use very stiff fabrics which compress the whole swimmer providing maximal drive and minimal surface area (speedsuits are taken off in T1).
Better quality fabrics (ie. not bog-standard cheap spandex) will hold their shape better and provide this benefit for longer.
Drag and buoyancy
Contrary to popular belief, the most aero/hydrodynamic fabrics are not those which are super smooth, but those which are slightly rough. A smooth fabric allows air or water to attach to it at a molecular level, which creates a ‘tugging’ at the fabric which creates turbulent (rough) flow around the surface, increasing drag. Well designed, textured fabrics actually ‘induce’ a very thin, controlled layer of turbulent flow immediately over the surface, which acts as a super-slick surface for the bulk of the air/water flow to move over smoothly (laminar flow). High-end suits like the Zone3 Aeroforce 220, Aeroforce Nano and Zone3 Swim Skin use fabrics which feel ‘papery’ to the touch, making the most of this principle.
While it’s against the rules in most races for tri suits to contain rubberised or buoyant materials, there are some clever tricks for ‘indirectly’ creating buoyancy with hydrophobic (water-repellent) coatings such as PTFE (‘Teflon’). As well as assisting in the production of a boundary layer, these coatings significantly reduce the ability of the fabric to absorb water, resulting in the attachment of air bubbles under the swimmer which assist with buoyancy. Check out the underwater shots in this video to see the results.
The right tri suit or swim skin can net you in the vicinity of 2-4 seconds per 100m over a cheaper suit, depending on your body shape, stroke mechanics, natural buoyancy and speed. Free speed!
Drying after the swim
After emerging from the water, donning your helmet and heading off on the bike, I’m sure you’ve all experienced my pet-hate. Your tri suit is wet and it clings to your body and legs like plastic film, restricting your range of motion and increasing the effort you need to expend to turn the pedals. If you’re wearing a low quality, poorly fitted suit, it may even still be wet from the swim when you arrive in T2!
The hydrophobic properties of good quality suits create a wicking action, which moves moisture away from your skin and allows it to evaporate. This reduces the cling-wrap effect and allows you to move more freely and naturally. I’ve worn many different tri suits over the years, but none of them comes close to the Zone3 Aeroforce 220 in terms of drying speed and comfort on the bike.
Aerodynamics on the bike isn’t just about aerobars and expensive wheels. These days, more and more speed is being found from improvements in the aerodynamics of tri clothing. In addition to the boundary layer principle described above, minimising seams and loose fabric make a measurable difference. Flapping race numbers are another drag contributor, so if the rules allow it is best to put your race number belt on in T2 rather than wearing it on the bike.
Those who are unconvinced about the value of aerodynamic improvements should read this. At 40km/h, over 80% of the power you put out is spent overcoming drag. Saving even a handful of watts can save you many minutes.
Comfort on the saddle
The pad/chamois in a tri suit is a challenging part to get right. It can’t be as thick as a full-on cycling chamois due to the added bulk on the run, but it does need to provide adequate support and separation from the saddle. Different brands are using everything from a thick-floaty-pull-buoy pad, to a thin strip of polyester fleece, to no chamois at all, which suggests that it’s all about personal preference. Personally, I love the chamois in my Zone3 Lava tri shorts – it’s a medium-thickness Italian tri chamois, which is comfortable even when I’m being bounced around on the mountain bike. It is instantly forgotten on the run.
Support and compression
As with swimming, a well-designed tri suit with compression in the right areas will support your core and running efficiency, reduce muscle damage and delay fatigue – important for that sprint finish! Women may need to consider the level of support for the ‘girls’ too.
Ease of ‘nature breaks’
Let’s face it – nature calls. If you’re doing a long course race, you may not be able to ignore it until the end of the race. Good two piece tri clothing allows for a quick escape when you reach that porta-potty.
Weight and water absorption
I’ll bet you’ve never thought about how much your tri suit weighs before. The additional weight of the fabric alone may not be much, the additional moisture all that extra fabric holds can quite easily add up to several hundred grams, especially in cool or humid weather. My large Zone3 Aeroforce weighs (on my kitchen scales) an incredibly light 120g – compare that to my spandex Australian team uniform from the 2010 ITU Worlds, which weighs 204g – 70% heavier. I haven’t done a ‘dunk in a bucket’ test (it’s hard to do this in a scientific way), but I expect the difference in saturated-weight to be somewhere between 2-400g. Time to get out your own kitchen scales!
We’ve all experienced chaffing or irritation during a triathlon. The main culprits are body shape, suit fit, temperature and moisture. While a suit can’t change your body shape and the fit will always be an individual thing, a suit which wicks moisture away from the skin and dries quickly will give you the best chance of staying comfortable throughout your race.
Some people prefer front zips, others prefer rear zips. For me, it depends on the race – for me an ITU-style one piece suit is more comfortable for short course road triathlons, but I prefer a two piece with a front zip for long course and cross triathlon. If you go for a rear zip, attach an elastic cord to the end of the zip cord to ensure you can reach it when it comes time to open up, and go for a reverse, breakaway-style zip (like on the Zone3 Aeroforce 220) which is easier to undo. Also make sure you tuck the cord into your wetsuit properly so it doesn’t get caught in the wetsuit zip (I may have learnt this the hard way…), and leave it zipped up on the bike – it’s more aero. If you go for a front zip, be conscious of the local rules regarding bare torsos – some localities will penalise you for having your zip too low (sounds crazy but it happens)!
In a short race you shouldn’t need to carry any gear on your person, but in a long course race you will need pockets. Avoid large, billowy pockets – these create a tonne of drag and encourage you to carry too much stuff. Smaller pockets located on the back of your top and on the legs of your shorts are much more practical. Also make sure the top elastic seals the pocket well and won’t allow anything to fall out. A great option is a zippered pocket at the back of the shorts. The Zone3 Lava tri shorts have such a pocket, which is an awesome place to stash a couple of gels. For Ironman or other very long races, consider a nutrition belt or a race belt with loops for holding your gels – Zone3 makes a good one.
At Lake Wanaka Half in January I suffered badly from the cold on the bike after a 14 degree swim, mainly because the cheap spandex tri suit I was wearing (from a former sponsor) would not dry in the single-digit temperatures. I could see the impact on my power meter, and watts = speed. Hydrophobic, moisture wicking fabrics help maintain optimal body temperature in both hot and cold conditions. In hot conditions, it facilitates evaporation which removes heat from the body. In cold conditions, it pulls cold moisture away from the body, reducing the amount of energy required to stay warm.
Okay, so this one’s a bit of a grey area, but there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest if you are comfortable and have confidence in your equipment you’re more likely to perform to your potential. Modern science is discovering a heap of things about how our brain works, and how harnessing the power of our minds can help us transcend what we previously thought our personal physiology was capable of. Never underestimate the confidence that comes from knowing you’re using the best equipment available for the task.
Aside from that, decades of rigorous studies have proven beyond any doubt that red is the fastest colour. It works for Ferrari, it works for Zone3, and it definitely works for me! 😉
This is a thorough rundown of some of the ways your tri suit can help (or hinder) your pursuit of the finish line. An important final note is on price. While as a general rule you can expect a better quality product as you spend more money, it’s not always true that you get what you pay for. There are some companies out there making truly awful gear and charge a motza for it on the back of a flashy marketing campaign and some high-profile athletes. Your best defence is to get educated – knowing what you’re buying is the best way to ensure you get what you need at the best price.