I talked to Under Armour for nearly two hours for this story. Not once did I hear more than two words about the speed skating “skin suits” the U.S. speed skating team will wear next month at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Yes, the Under Armour that makes its money by selling clothing didn’t talk to me about the clothing.
And, yes, Under Armour is supplying the U.S. suits again, just as in the 2014 Sochi Olympics—where, rather famously, the athletes raced in unfamiliar suits, and some heat came back to Under Armour.
But after multiple conversations with Under Armour and with Team USA, it’s clear that the Baltimore-based giant went far beyond supplying clothing for the 2018 Olympic Games. Under Armour has also devoted 56 employees—and thousands of hours in research, development, training, nutrition advice, sleep, meditation, and movement science—to guarantee this year’s American speed skating squad is as prepared as humanly possible. (Also read our primer on the U.S. speed skating team's interval workout and "pre-hab" workout routine.)
That begs the question: why go to such lengths?
For one thing, Under Armour signed up for an eight-year commitment to the team. That affords the company a unique opportunity to coach and study elite athletes for its own research, which in turn improves more mainstream jocks’ long-term sports science knowledge that, we presume, Under Armour will be able to monetize in the future.
Another reason: patriotism. Without well-trained athletes ready to tackle the grueling 14 speed skating events ranging from 500 to 10,000 meters, fancy Under Armour clothing bearing the stars and stripes won’t win medals.
As the company found, there was more behind the speed skating team’s disappointing turnout in Sochi than uncomfortable suits. And because Under Armour was prepared to re-invest in the suits, the company was prepared to invest in every other aspect of the team’s preparation.
Take, for instance, the simple matter of sleep.
At Sochi, a lot of the premier events were at night. (That will also be the case at PyeongChang.) But leading up to Sochi, the team didn’t train their bodies and adjust their clocks to that biological schedule. That was a formula for failure, says Shane Domer, the sports science director for U.S. Speed Skating.
“When you compete really late at night, and that’s totally foreign to your body, your diet, and your sleep schedule, it doesn’t work whether you’re a pro or an amateur athlete,” he says. This year, the team is already eating breakfast at a leisurely 11 a.m., lunch around 4 or 5 p.m., working out from about 7–10 p.m., and not getting to bed until about 1 a.m.—because that’s how they’ll compete at the games.
“At Sochi we lived and learned,” says Joey Mantia, a world champion long-track speed skater. Mantia admits that the new PyeongChang schedule was an adjustment, but then again: “That’s why we’re doing it, so it will become normal.” The team will even bring blackout blinds, humidifiers, and other special gear to South Korea to be sure they can get the rest they need for proper recovery.
Speaking of which, another initiative has been to focus on injury prevention and muscle imbalances—which, again, got little attention leading toward Sochi.
“The typical way you approach training pros is to crush the body at certain times, then let them recover,” says Paul Winsper, Under Armour’s vice president of athlete performance. But failing to analyze how athletes respond to workloads is the best way to get them injured, says Winsper, who's worked with stars like David Beckham and Premier League soccer squads.
Instead, working with Domer, the speed skating team has focused on heart rate variability (a key metric of cardiovascular recovery) and a tool called Omegawave, which measures the central nervous system’s response to stress. By sending a few electrical impulses through the body, Omegawave quantifies rest, stress, mood, and response to nutrition, as well as muscular and mental preparedness. Armed with this information, Winsper explains, coaches don’t just say, “Do what you did last time,” blindly believing the skaters will respond positively. Now, they know what to expect.
To that, Domer has added yet another system: fusionetics, which measures functional movement.
“Don’t forget: Speed skaters are like Nascar stock cars—they only go around the track in one direction,” says Domer. Consequently, their bodies become imbalanced. That leads to stress across their backs—it doesn’t help that they have to skate bent-over to cheat wind resistance—as well as tight hips and IT bands. “Put them in the gym like that doing overhead squats, and if they also have poor ankle flexion, you’re setting them up for injury,” says Winsper. By testing the skaters’ responses to recent workouts, and monitoring for any loss of mobility, the coaches have managed to help injured skaters recover and get back on the ice 60% faster.
That’s also why the team spends so much time on functional movement, rather than weight work, Winsper says. Think about it: The skaters’ on-ice training sessions might last upwards of two hours. They hardly need more quad work. But these athletes, like a lot of us, do need constant work on their cores. That’s why Under Armour includes a regular cycle of suspension-trainer work focused on cycling joints through high-stress movements, neglected muscle groups (like hips, lats, and traps), and on the entire thoracic spine. And when they do use weights, “we’re teaching functional sequences, like the Turkish getup,” Winsper says.
Skaters are movement athletes. “Rather than put weights in their hands and have them do a squat,” Winsper says, they need to move around more. And, he argues, the same goes for any athlete who doesn’t want to only be good at lifting weights. Another focus of the overhaul: diet. “It can’t just be calories,” says Domer. Mantia adds: “If you’re eating poorly, you can really feel it.”
At past competitions, nutrition options were often limited to fast food. To figure out how his body responded best, Mantia used the MyFitnessPal app to track all of his food—for an entire year. And he weighed it all, too.
“I did the full test,” he said. “I did no dairy. I did caveman. Eventually what I learned was that the quality of food matters most, and the timing is huge. You need to replenish your glycogen stores right after a workout. It makes a huge difference in soreness.” Plus, if the team members can’t control their diets, they might wind up gaining weight. “Add just 2lbs, and around these corners your legs are going to feel it,” Domer adds. Luckily, in South Korea, the team will have its own dining hall.
They’ll also have their own tai chi coach. Why tai chi? “Because we wanted them to try movements where they were a little bit uncomfortable,” Domer explains. “Then we worked on techniques to get their minds back to a relaxed state.” These events come down to hundredths of a second. “We wanted to leave no stone unturned, so if our athletes can find ways to deal with discomfort, they can relax. And if they relax, they conserve energy.”
Skating, Mantia says, “is really about being smooth”—like trying to line up 30 golf balls and to hit every one the same, with the same form, over and over. “To do that, the tai chi helps. I’m trying for 98%. Try for 100%, and you’re grunting, you’re not smooth. So I need calm and consistency to do everything just right.”
That’s a good analogy for Under Armour’s effort with U.S. Speed Skating: doing absolutely everything right. Now, with all of that work and preparation, the hope is it will finally pay off on the ice.