By Elaine Garvican
Watch a selection of pro-triathlon races, of a variety of distances and more often than not, you’ll see the first athlete out of the water wears a Huub wetsuit. Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, Caroline Steffen, Harry Wiltshire, Emma-Kate Lidbury, Eneko Llanos and Richard Murray to name just a few – all frequently high-placing athletes who choose to swim in Huub. The company’s name comes from an old Germanic word meaning “Bright Mind” and its wetsuits have become synonymous with scientifically-tested advances and a product that consistently outperforms its competitors. I caught up with company founder Dean Jackson to find out whether this was simply triathlon hype or a well-grounded reputation.
What makes Huub and the wetsuits you produce different?
When we set out to do this, we knew we were going to have to buck the trend and satisfy 85% of the market, which is composed of athletes who don’t come from a swimming background. It’s always astounded me that most brands are actually only catering for the minority. At Huub, we understand that the majority of triathletes aren’t great swimmers. It’s a bit like if you gave every triathlete Bradley Wiggins’ TT bike – not only would they not be able to hold the position, it would probably be too twitchy and they wouldn’t be able to handle it, because it’s just not right for them. We create a wetsuit that gives more buoyancy where the athlete needs it, rather than assuming the athlete needs it across their whole body plane. We also offer 2 different degrees of buoyancy. We recognise that only about 15% of triathletes are from a swimming background and know exactly what they’re doing in the water, either because they’ve been brought up that way, or because they’ve been coached very well. So we took a gamble to deliver to athletes a wetsuit that works for them as individuals.
That philosophy reminds me of the SwimSmooth style of looking to how an individual is swimming, rather than trying to make everyone conform to a pre-set type. How did your partnership with SwimSmooth come about?
One thing you should always do when you’re in business is to look to the experts and learn from them – what have they learned, what mistakes did they make, how can they help. It all came about from a visit to a trailer park on the south east coast – Paul Newsome was getting ready to swim the Channel and there’s this famous trailer park that the Channel swimmers all stay in. I went there and met Paul and Shelley Taylor-Smith, who is the world’s greatest ever open water swimmer. It was a really bleak day and we all went to Costa and I was sat there with my pen and paper saying “Right guys, how do I make the perfect wetsuit?” One of the first things Paul said to me was “Please do something for the leg sinkers” whereas Shelley went “I don’t need no bloody buoyancy!” So I said “Okay, Shelley, tell me about it” and she said “I put a wetsuit on and my bum’s in the air and my feet are in the air and I can’t swim properly, can you please do a wetsuit that doesn’t have all that buoyancy cos [women] float well enough as it is!” It was a fantastic round-table discussion that really showed how wetsuits could be applicable to different body styles and swim types. There’s no greater source of swimming knowledge than SwimSmooth. They’ve done so much to define the type of swimmer, even to the point they’ve matched character traits with swim styles. I knew I needed to align with an authority in triathlon and Paul is just that, having come from a triathlon background where he raced for GB. They’ve become a strong part of the company – without their input, we wouldn’t have the suits we have today.
So, bearing in mind that everyone requires something slightly different from their suits, what should we think about when buying a wetsuit – does more expensive always equal better?
No, not necessarily. This is something that I battle with. People walk into a shop and say “I want that one, because it’s the most expensive”. In the past, when wetsuits all had the same buoyancy, it may have been true, because the top of the range ones were the most flexible – that’s where the difference was. But now we know that different buoyancy strategies do different things for different people. When I pieced together the Archimedes, it had to look exactly the same in the 4:4 and the 3:5 versions because the athlete wants to wear the top suit and look like they’re wearing the top suit. I’ve seen this with other companies; everybody feels they have to have the top end suit, even if it’s totally wrong for them and they’d have been better off in a different model. When you go to buy a wetsuit, you need to have a discussion with the member of staff. Make sure they know what they’re talking about, that they’re not just going to put anything on you they happen to have in your size and that they understand that different wetsuits come in different fits and different dimensions; a medium size Orca is going to fit differently to a 2XU which is going to fit differently to a Huub. They should ask your height and weight – we now ask about chest and waist size too because two people the same height and weight can have very different physiques. They should ask about your swim style, what races you’re doing, is your coach always trying to get you to get your hips high and push your chest down, do you use a pull buoy and are you faster with it? Whether you are male or female should be giving them some direction. Then the final question should be what budget are you working to? Mid-price suits are often the best value, because they contain either filtered-down technology from the top of the range model or they’re so well up-spec’ed from the entry level suits, in order to justify the extra money, that you really end up with the best bang for your buck.
How you do you tell if a wetsuit doesn’t fit? What are the signs of a bad fit that we should be looking out for when we buy one?
It’s like wearing a slightly overlarge pair of shoes. You can look at someone who’s wearing a pair of shoes that are too big and you can tell immediately, for example the lace holes are too close together. It’s the same with a wetsuit. A badly fitting suit zips up too easily, there’s too much Velcro overlap on the back of the neck, you can pull the neoprene away from the skin without any real tension, that sort of thing. The key one is wrinkle marks and folding from the neoprene around the elbows. If you ask someone to bend over and you can see massive gatherings of neoprene, the suit is too big and around the back they’ll be just too much neoprene. It just won’t seem as compressive as it should.
What if you’ve never worn a wetsuit before? How does someone identify the right level of compression, with nothing to relate this to?
We describe is as a strait jacket without the arms tied behind your back! It will feel slightly strange, but the sensation you have when you’re stood up is going to be very different from the sensation when you’re in the water. That’s just gravity. When you’re stood up, gravity will pull you downwards and outwards, against the wetsuit, so you’re fighting it, battling with it. When you’re in the water, you’re horizontal, you’re floating and the suit is holding your body in, rather than your body pushing against the suit. So we explain those differences in how it’s going to feel. Part of it is good fit – you see a lot of people putting a wetsuit on and saying “Oh, that feels a bit tight”. I could fit someone in a wetsuit a size smaller than they would normally have, it’s all about fitting it correctly. That’s why we made a video, which you can find on HuubTV (here). We did it with Richard Varga – he’s the fastest swimmer in tri, he should know how to put a wetsuit on, but when I started to do a fitting with him he said “Ah, I didn’t know it was supposed to take that long! And I didn’t know you had to roll the front up”. I said yes, and you have to roll the back up and then you do the sleeves – it was a real eye-opener! The person in the shop fitting you really has to spend a lot of time going through the process, pulling it up and asking “is that a bit easier? Yes? Okay, let’s do it again, now does it feel a bit easier?” It’s just working through that with the customer. We do have customers who ask for things to be sent mail order, but as a company we believe there’s no replacement for visiting an experienced tri store and asking someone who knows what they’re doing to fit you out.
Would you recommend people swim in a wetsuit prior to buying it?
It would be a wonderful utopia, if you could try one out, then go back to the shop and the shop would say “No problem, we’ll put it back on the rack”. The problem is, the next customer isn’t going to accept that suit that you’ve swum in. If everyone would accept that every suit they buy will have been swum in at least once, it would be fantastic. We’d love that. When you buy a pair of running shoes, they’ll let you go and jog up and down outside and the next customer probably doesn’t know – there are no abrasions, you’re not going barefoot and all that. The problem is, you take a wetsuit down to a lake, you’ve got to pull the tags off and if you don’t rinse it out properly it’ll smell a bit weedy. You can tell it’s been swum in. Is it true you shouldn’t use Vaseline on your wetsuit?
I’ve actually never seen any data about that! We say don’t use anything petroleum based, because neoprene is a petroleum-based material. We work with a company that make a product called SuitLube which has a high silicone content. In the States, they use a product called “Pam” cooking spray which is similar to the UK’s Crisp&Dry!
A common complaint about standard wetsuit sizing is that tall people say the legs are too short and shorter people say the legs and arms are too long – what can “non-standard” sized people do?
It’s really hard, because you’ve got so many different body types and people vary so much even within the same height and weight. You can’t vary the volume of a suit, but you can vary the length of the legs easily enough. We tape ours, so you’ve got a good 6 inches you can cut off and the same with sleeves. When it comes to body types, it can be tough, but you’ll struggle to find someone that you can’t fit a suit to at all because neoprene stretches. You’ve got two good contact points, over the shoulders and at the crotch, and it’s not that hard to get it to fit on someone with a long body. I think in the past when people have had problems, it can be solved just by cutting the legs, or the sleeves or simply trying more styles to find a suit that fits correctly. We do sizing for stockier people too. There are a lot of people my age who have come from rugby or other strong “power sports”. We’ve got chests of 43, 44, up to 48 inches – a few of them are pretty tall, but a lot are around 5’9 – 5’11’’ – and it occurred to me that there was nothing there for them before.
What are the biggest myths and fallacies in wetsuit marketing?
The biggest one is the catch panels with troughs in them. When I first met Huub Toussaint and asked him to help me design these suits, I showed him some samples and said these are the best on the market, and he started laughing when he saw the forearm catch panels of a certain well-known suit. I said why are you laughing? He said “Well, they don’t work and here’s a White Paper that I’ve published to show that the reality is they should probably be on the top of the arm, not underneath”. He showed me a video too. That really bugs me, because that company still talk about them giving benefit and I would ask anyone, please, to show me the test. They can’t, because no-one’s actually doing the research and development that’s being claimed and no-one’s trying it on active drag. That’s why everything that Huub (Toussaint) tells us we listen to and take on board, because it is grounded in science. Another one – there are certain types of neoprene with aerodome-type cavities in them. The manufacturers claim it has 25-30% more buoyancy, but we tested them, and on a good day it’s a 1.5-2% difference. I constantly see these claims and sometimes it’s not the wetsuit manufacturer’s fault, they’re told these claims by the neoprene manufacturers, but that annoys me. It also annoys me when companies say “We ask our athletes what they think and that’s how we make a better suit”. That is a vital component of the development process, absolutely, but at a certain point, asking athletes who tend to wear your suits to give you feedback becomes non-productive, because they’re going to err on the side of positive. But when you’re doing a lot of demos and tests, all that feedback can improve your product. You have to get into the water, measure the differences and get some science on it. I don’t think these days many triathletes would buy a set of carbon wheels or a carbon frame, for high-end money, if it hadn’t been in a wind tunnel with some sort of aerodymanics testing on it, for which the company can produce some data. We’re investing £250,000 (with the help of the Technology Strategy Board) to build the most technologically advanced testing rig that measures active-drag – the force used to propel yourself – and turns it into quantifiable numbers. We know we do more tests than anyone else in the wetsuit world anyway, but with this new machine we’ll be taking massive leaps ahead. We’ve been using one in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands which has a single pressure pad in it, but the one we’re building, which will be based in Derby in the UK, will have 12 pressure pads.
How far does that testing go? Do you also test things like speed of removal?
Yes, we do. When you’ve got elite athletes, like the Brownlees, if they can’t get that suit off as quick as the next guy, they’re not wearing it, no matter how much money you dangle in front of them! That’s one reason we put the calf release in. Less restriction on the calf muscle gives you a more flexible foot, allowing you to plantarflex as well as dorsiflex which helps your kick. It helps when you get out the swim and try to run [through transition] but it also allows you get that suit off a lot quicker. Another area was the breakaway zipper – that was invented by a group of guys who worked at Quintana Roo. I used to work at QR and I said, we’ve got to have that at Huub because just one tug and the whole back of the suit falls open. That makes a significant difference to transition times. Harry Wiltshire does a lot of testing for us. He recently tested our latest prototype, which has the most flexibility we’ve ever put into a design, but he couldn’t get out of it! So we’ve got to start again and try to turn that flexibility into something you can get out of, because if you waste seconds taking it off, that small extra benefit you gained from that suit during your swim has been lost.
When it comes to wetsuits, black is still the new black. Do you think we’ll start to see wetsuits in different colours?
I really hope so, from a safety point of view. The bottom of the lake is black, everyone is wearing black and if someone puts their hands up because they’re in trouble, it’s hard to spot them. We’d like to use other materials – the material that Harry tested was nice and bright. So from a safety point of view, it would be great but also to be able to recognise someone during the swim and for the pros to have a distinctive pattern or design.
What does the future hold for Huub?
The most exciting thing for us is that with this new piece of testing equipment, we’re going to be able to test differences on the scale of a single percentage point. It’s going to help really define the parity and show the true benefits. The wetsuit world is still a long way behind the bike world, with the amount of testing that’s done and I think it’s time we upped our game. If the other companies wake up and follow, as a result of us doing this then brilliant, the products will be much better quality and that’s what makes me really excited.
Part 2 a technical chat with Huub Toussaint is available here.