Do clothes make the athlete?

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 29, 2012 - 2:34 PM

Wearing fancy athletic duds actually can enhance your performance, but it's not going to work miracles.

High-performance gear can reduce wind drag, but chances are only elite cyclists would be concerned about the time savings.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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It's the-chicken-or-the-egg question that has perplexed weekend athletes since the invention of the high-top tennis shoe: Do fancy outfits worn by super-serious athletes make them better athletes, or are they wearing fancy outfits because they're better athletes?

A little of both, experts say.

Take the brightly colored unitards that elite bicyclists wear, often while traveling in a peloton -- biking jargon for a pack of riders that resembles a cross between Hells Angels and a convention of NASCAR drivers. Yes, the outfits distinguish their gung-ho attitude from the guy laboring along on his 30-year-old 10-speed while wearing a faded Grateful Dead T-shirt and baggy shorts, but there's more to it than that.

"We don't wear them just to look cool," said Mike Theiler, manager of the Grand Performance bike shop in St. Paul. "In fact, not everybody looks cool in them."

That's because the suits are skin-tight, and, let's face it, that's not the most flattering look for some. But the fact that they're so tight also is a factor in reducing wind drag. "Baggy shorts can slow you down," Theiler said.

Therein lies the answer to chicken/egg quandary. Only an elite cyclist would be concerned with the extra mile or two per hour that can be milked from an aerodynamic outfit. So, yes, he wears it because he's better, and he wears it to make him better.

Besides, loose-fitting shorts aren't always the most attractive fashion statement on a bike, either, Theiler added. "If you're riding into the wind, it can blow your baggy shorts up, and pretty soon it looks like you're wearing a Speedo," he warned.

The high-tech bike gear crowd is mostly a self-defining market, said Joe Olson, a member of the Hiawatha Bicycling Club. About 95 percent of adult riders don't have any interest in racing or riding in fast packs, he estimated. As for the serious pack riders, they define themselves by their high-performance bikes with prices that start at $1,600 and go up fast.

Runners always seem to be fascinated with the latest paraphernalia, said Paul Horan, owner of Gear Running Store in Edina. Some of the interest is fashion-oriented, he conceded, but the bulk of it is driven by technological advances.

"We've come a long way from the days of the cotton T-shirts," he said. "The latest thing is body-cooling fabrics that actually can cool you off when you start to sweat in the heat."

The weight of the clothing -- or, more precisely, the lack of weight -- also is a major factor, especially for top-notch competitors.

"When I started running in the '70s, it was all about layers," he said. "In the winter, you'd be wearing so many layers that you looked like the Michelin Man. Now we've got jackets that are so high-tech that you can go out in the dead of winter with just the jacket over a T-shirt."

There's an old saw that applies to these elitist sports outfits: "The clothes make the man." These days, it seems, everything has to be scientific, so even though the theory is the same, it's accompanied by highfalutin nomenclature: It's now called "enclothed cognition." It's the theory that if you look better, you feel better, and if you feel better, you perform better.

"I think a lot of it is a confidence factor," agreed Anne Burke, manager of Michael Lynne's Tennis Shop in St. Louis Park. "The more you believe in yourself, the better you're going to play. So if you feel good, you're going to play good."

Because better athletes tend to gravitate toward high-end gear, showing up in fancy tennis duds can give a player a psychological edge over an opponent -- although that can dissipate in a hurry once you actually start playing.

"We have customers who say, 'At least when I walk on the court, I'm going to look the part,'" she said with a laugh.

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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