Mighty Tights for Athletes
The Good: Tights that not only keep you dry but reduce soreness
The Bad: They're ridiculously expensive
The Bottom Line: For serious athletes, they deliver performance and style
As a sports fanatic, I've seen several TV ads touting snug-fitting exercise wear. There's always some buff sports star speeding across the TV screen, biceps nearly busting through his skintight shirt. Athletes everywhere wear this stuff: swimmers, runners, cyclists, even golfer extraordinaire Tiger Woods.
I've always wondered: What do tights really accomplish? Under Armour (UA), the U.S. pioneer in snug-fitting athletic clothes, made hay by giving us performance wear that wicks away sweat like NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson sheds tacklers. No more sopping wet T-shirts. But Under Armour, and now a host of other tight-fit manufacturers, claims the sleek garments improve athletic performance. Slip on a pair of form-fitting tights and you'll run faster, lift more weight, and if not quite leap tall buildings, at least feel less soreness after an intense workout.
Since I have my own dreams about dunking a basketball and skiing with the reckless abandon of those freestyle dudes in Warren Miller flicks, I decided to pick up a pair of Skins in Boulder, Colo., the U.S. headquarters of the Sydney (Australia)-based company. The Skins fit extra snugly around key parts of the body—the calves and forearms, for example—which Skins executives say increases the flow of blood and pumps it full of the vital oxygen that muscles need to function and rebuild. So with my gear in tow, I took a shuttle to Breckenridge Ski Resort high in the Rockies and put these tights to the test.
Keeping You Warm and Dry
The test wouldn't be easy. I hadn't skied all season, nor had I trained for Breckenridge's steep slopes. Worse, it was a brutally cold single-digit-temperature day this February. Add in a very real wind-chill factor and I was preparing to shake in my boots.
Like most tight-fitting gear, Skins are designed to offer three main benefits. First, they're supposed to keep you dry during a workout, absorbing every ounce of sweat. They also take a special approach to muscle compression that officials claim cuts muscle fatigue and boosts performance like nothing else. And Skins are supposed to help keep you warm. The pair I had was dubbed Skins Snow. All Skins are made of nylon microfiber mixed with Spandex. But the snow version has fewer seams running down the legs to allow for greater comfort in ski boots. Also the inside of the garment that touches your skin is a little fuzzier to give the illusion of more warmth.
Frankly, it was the fleece sweatshirt, snow parka, and face mask I wore that kept me warm. If the Skins had any effect, I didn't notice. Although I had on four layers, I still felt like I was skiing in a freezer. Even Skins' Americas chief, Patricia Babka, mumbled before I headed up the mountain that wearing a pair of Skins might help a tad, but it isn't going to block the fierce Rockies cold. If you want underwear for frigid conditions, a basic pair of thermals is a better choice, or the cold gear from Under Armour or Nike (NKE), which have more insulation.
Fresh Legs at the End of the Day
So what about performance enhancement? Despite wearing Skins, I didn't handle the moguls on Breckenridge's black diamond runs any better than normal. I still had frequent slide-outs and shaky form. But I must say this: I hardly felt any soreness that evening or the next morning. That was a stark contrast from seasons past when I awoke with aching quads and calves after my first day on the slopes.
Even as I was making my last speedy turns at the end of the day, my legs felt nearly fresh, with none of the burning that normally comes with muscle fatigue. Maybe it was the oatmeal I had that morning, maybe the new K2 demo skis I was using, or some form of self-induced hypnosis, but my body felt good even after several long runs from the top of the mountain.
Skins Chief Executive Jaimie Fuller swears this magical effect is due to what he calls "the 11 herbs and spices" the company uses to manufacture Skins. Its version of body-clinging activewear compresses muscles most at the calves since they are far from the heart and are where two-thirds of the body's blood flows. Skins cites several research studies from a collection of mostly Australian medical and exercise professionals to back up claims that the gear increases blood flow by more than 30%, thereby flushing toxins from muscle groups. "We're genuinely a scientific company, whereas the other guys are all about marketing the brand that's on their shirt," Fuller says in his Australian lilt.
A Smooth Flight
I'm not sure Skins is a scientific outfit, but somehow the product seems to work. Some of this might be because of the materials used, how they are woven together, chemically treated, and then closely matched with the athlete's size. No simple small, medium, large, and extra large sizing here. Consumers have to use a detailed chart to match their height and weight to settle on the right-size Skins.
I was so remarkably free of soreness that I chose to take the Skins brass's advice and wear the tights to sleep and then on the plane ride back to Chicago. (For this I put on the "sport" version, not the snow tights.) The improved circulation caused by the tights keeps pain-inducing toxins out of the muscles. It's not a new theory. For years, doctors have prescribed compression socks to people with a condition called deep vein thrombosis. The tight socks help push pooling blood through the veins back to the heart, and have been popular among airplane travelers whose stationary position could lead to such pooling.
My blood doesn't clot up on planes, so I can't attest to how well Skins prevent blood pooling. All I can say is that aside from the expected discomfort of wearing what amounts to panty hose for two days, I felt great.
The issue with Skins is that they are not cheap. They cost $105 for the top and another $105 for the bottom. By contrast, Under Armour gear costs $40 to $80 per piece. Why the difference? Skins officials say their garments are packed with more technology. But more to the point, they are targeting elite athletes—competitive marathon runners, Ironman triathletes, and hotshot skiers—not everyman types. Skins are available at the company's Web site, but you can't buy them at big-box sports retailers. Instead, they're stocked in specialty shops. And as one Boulder retailer told me, they're running out fast.