Engineering The Ideal Olympian: Superfast Fitted Ski Suit

Gearing up to take the gold

Suiting Up

Researchers used fabric textured like shark-skin to better manipulate airflow and minimize drag.Travis Rathbone

Ski suits need to keep athletes warm, but they need to do so without slowing them down. "A few hundredths of a second can be a big deal in ski racing, so every advantage you can get is very meaningful," says Olympian Ted Ligety. Historically, European teams have had the fastest suits, so the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association sought to level the playing field this February. Researchers in its high-performance laboratory analyzed various fabrics with an electron microscope, selecting one that's textured like sharkskin to better manipulate airflow and minimize drag.

The new suits are also designed specifically for the course at Sochi. Researchers methodically analyzed speed and GPS data from training runs there and used the information to guide the placement of zippers and seams to minimize drag. They then performed more than 100 wind-tunnel tests, which verified that the new suit reduces drag 17 percent more than the previous one did. Because Sochi sits near sea level, Ligety thinks the suits will be especially valuable. “The air is heavier, thicker, and more humid,” he says, “so drag will be more of an issue.”

King of the Mountain

Ted Ligety wore a prototype of the new Olympic ski suit at last year’s World Championships. Designed to fit a skier’s body in the crouched racing position, the suit reduces drag by preventing excess fabric from vibrating as speeds exceed 60 mph.Christophe Pallot/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Popular Science.