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Dr. J. on Running

Attire and Performance

Watch What You Wear

Published January 24, 2000 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

A recent study suggested a direct link between running attire and race performance. A group of university researchers compared the finishing place of runners in relation to their shirts and shorts, and reached some eye-opening findings.

It has been rumored for a long time that the outfit of a runner has a direct bearing on performance. The role of running shoes and racing flats in shaving valuable seconds off a race is well established. Similarly, the size of our clothing plays a small, yet significant role in affecting wind drag and aerodynamics.

Physiologically, there is evidence that exerting pressure on the neck while taking one's pulse may trigger an autonomous reaction of increasing heart rate and blood flow to the brain. Similarly, many sprinters believe that wearing tight knee-length bike shorts increases blood flow to the quadriceps and improves race performance.

A few definitions are in order before detailing the findings of the study. When comparing shirts, the sample focused on sleeveless singlets, short-sleeve T-shirts, midriff short cuts, and one-piece body suits. Among shorts, the study looked at soccer shorts, V-split shorts, knee-length bike shorts, slightly shorter compression shorts, and bikini-style bun-huggers.

The researchers observed 18 heats of races at various sprint distances from 50 meters to 400 meters. The runners included scholastic, collegiate and elite competitors. In each race, they noted the distribution of shirts and shorts, and computed an estimate of the probability that a certain outfit would win the race. Then they compared the predicted outcomes to the actual results.

To eliminate statistical bias, the researchers took into consideration the impact of college-issued standard uniforms, where the athletes had no choice of attire. The study looked specifically at the effect of attire on performance, as well as the effect of predicted performance on outfit selection.

With over one hundred runners competing in the eighteen heats under study, the researchers found no correlation between the size and shape of the shirt and the outcome of the race. With the majority of runners competing in sleeveless outfits, the size of the sleeve and the fit of the shirt seemed to have no correlation with the finishing place.

The results were dramatically different when it came to the correlation between shorts and performance. In all eighteen races in question, the winner wore bikini-style bun-huggers, although fewer than half the competitors wore such items. With such an obvious observation, the researchers set out to calculate the probability of such an occurrence.

For example, in a heat where half the runners wore bun-huggers and the other half wore soccer shorts, the probability of either party winning the race is fifty percent. The probability of runners with similar attire winning two races in a row becomes one in four, and that probability drops to one in eight after three races, all the way to one in 262,144 after 18 races.

The likelihood of pure chance accounting for these findings decreases further when considering the relatively small number of athletes that chose to wear bun-huggers. Over the 18 races in the study, the distribution was 2.2 bun-huggers, 1.6 shorts, 2.4 compression shorts and 0.8 bike shorts. This computes to a one in a million chance of bun-huggers winning all 18 races.

Having established a strong correlation between bun-huggers and victory, the researchers explored the possible causality in their findings. In other words, do fast runners prefer to wear bun-huggers, or does wearing them improve a runner's performance?

In the absence of any scientific evidence that the shape of the shorts affects a runner's speed, the researchers resorted to qualitative analysis. By surveying a random sample of 28 athletes, they concluded that all the athletes believed that their choice of outfit improved their competitiveness. In what may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, an increasing number of hard-training success-driven runners have opted for what they perceive as the winning look.

Kamal Jabbour has no plans to compete in bun-huggers any time soon. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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