Huub Albacore Swimskin
Updated: Aug 23, 2018
Unless you’re lucky/good enough to be Kona-bound, for British triathletes the market for swimskins has to be somewhat limited. However, the hot summer this year saw a number of (normally rare) “wetsuit optional” races where a swimskin would have been a cooler option (it’ surprisingly easy to overheat in a full wetsuit, we don’t tend to notice how much we sweat when we’re already in the water!).
For the last month or so, I’ve been testing the Huub Albacore swimskin in both open water and the pool, to try to get a sense for what time difference it can actually make on race day.
What is a swimskin?
To the uninitiated, a swimskin looks very much like a trisuit (I’ve heard of people using them as trisuits, but I’m not sure how well this would work, as it’s a pretty tight fit), but instead of being made of your typical stretchy lycra material, it’s more likely to be made of something designed to help you slip through the water more effortlessly. With the Huub Albacore (I tested the small size – I’m 173cm tall with a 91.5cm chest and 74cm waist), there’s also noticeably less ‘give’ in the suit, adding an element of compression.
A swimskin is not a buoyancy aid (it’s not made of neoprene), focusing instead on hydrodynamics and compression to help you swim faster (some trisuits are designed to be efficient in water, but most are not particularly effective when used without a swimskin or wetsuit over the top).
There is one fairly big drawback with swimskins in the UK (I can’t speak for other triathlon governing bodies) in that, if the swim in a standard or sprint distance triathlon is declared non-wetsuit, then if you choose to wear a swimskin for the swim, you’ll need to keep it on for the whole race (BTF rule 4.10 c).
The Huub Albacore swimskin
At £264 (GBP), the Albacore is a pretty serious investment. But if Huub’s claim of “up to 4.5 seconds improvement per 100m” can be realized, for an ironman swim that’s cutting up to nearly three minutes off your swim. Significant enough to warrant they money perhaps.
The suit looks very smart in all-black with subtle silver and red detailing and, thanks to the big Huub logo across the chest, no-one will be in any doubt that you’ve splashed the cash (that may or may not be a good thing!). The hydrophobic material feels a little rough to the touch (I remember reading somewhere that shark skin is like sandpaper, and they swim pretty fast…) and it’s pretty thin, with taped seams.
Getting the suit on requires a little patience and confidence. Although I’m pretty sure I ordered the right size (the compression is noticeable but not extreme once the swimskin is on), getting it past my thighs and hips meant pulling the suit hard enough that I was worried I would bust the zip or split a seam (or damage a vital organ!). Thankfully after 10+ attempts now, neither has happened and once the suit is on, it’s actually pretty comfortable (still not sure I’d ride a bike or run in it…).
It's worth taking your time to get the suit on (in my experience, this can have a direct effect on the performance in the water, see below) and make sure that (like a wetsuit) you get a really snug fit at the bottom in order to allow for full shoulder movement at the top. On the suit I tested, the leg cuffs don’t quite sit flush, but it’s hard to imagine that was the cause of too much drag. Getting the swimskin off quickly requires a little practice but can be done in about the same time as a wetsuit.
One thing I found odd with the Huub Albacore was lack of any kind of lanyard on the rear zip. I guess if you’re going to wear the swimskin for the full race (and you have a mate to zip you in at the start), it’s not a problem. But if you intend to remove the swimskin in T1, there’s no chance you can reach the zip unaided. I simply tied a spare shoelace to it (no doubt creating the tiniest bit of extra drag in the water…).
In the water
From the very first push off the wall in the pool, the suit feels fast. It’s difficult to explain, but you can almost feel the water sliding over the hydrophobic chest panel. It was strange then, that on my first test in the pool (a series of 100m cruise and speed intervals) I found there to be no difference in my times! Regardless of whether I was wearing the swimskin or not, I was seeing the same times for the same RPE (rate of perceived exertion).
Now admittedly, all of my testing of the Huub Albacore swimskin has been done on RPE. As much I would have loved to get my hands on Huub’s ‘MAD’ testing system, that wasn’t going to happen. And if you think about it, RPE isn’t a bad way of doing things as we pretty much have to swim to RPE when we’re racing anyway (how many of us can actually check our GPS mid-swim?!).
Nevertheless, I have to confess that I was initially disappointed. I had hoped the Albacore might make me more Phelps than Fisher, but it wasn’t to be.
I did wear the swimskin for a wetsuit-optional Olympic distance swim (blog here) as well as a sea swim and was again a bit disappointed.
It wasn’t looking great.
However, as Huub had been good enough to let me test the swimskin, I felt obliged to see the test through to the end and publish my full findings. So, I headed back to the pool for a more controlled environment. There would be two further test sessions a couple of days apart.
Pool testing protocol
The test protocol was as follows: Test One would be 400m, 200m and 100m efforts at ‘best pace’, first in the swimskin and then in a normal pair of training swim trunks (no fancy FINA jammers or buoyancy shorts). Test Two (a few days later) would be the same but in reverse, with just trunks first and then the swimskin second. Each test would have a warm up, generous recovery gaps and an easy swim between the two sets of intervals.
The thinking behind reversing the two tests was to try to overcome the limitations/inaccuracies of swimming to RPE and to allow for some level of fatigue on the second part of each test.
The results make interesting reading:
Test ONE (swimskin first, trunks second)
400m – 12 seconds faster in swimskin
200m – 4 seconds faster in swimskin
100m – 3.5 seconds faster in swimskin
Test TWO (trunks first, swimskin second)
400m – 16 seconds faster in swimskin
200m – 5 seconds faster in swimskin
100m – same time in trunks and swimskin
Averaging out the two tests, the Huub Albacore swimskin was faster over 400m by around 14 seconds, faster over 200m by around 4 seconds and faster over 100m by 2 seconds (this last test is the one I’m least convinced about, but I’ve already explained the limitations of the testing protocol).
Quite a marked difference to my initial tests where I saw virtually no difference in the times for 100m reps at either cruise or speed efforts.
Separately, I also did a full IM-distance swim (3800m) in the pool in the swimskin and recorded a time of 1:01:46 (with the first 1900m coming in just under 30 minutes). For a full IM-distance swim with only a moderate RPE, that’s perhaps a bit faster than I would have expected.
So why did the swimskin get faster the more I tested it? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have a few candidate theories….
1. I think getting the fit right is important and there’s a chance I was not taking enough time to get the swimskin on properly in my initial tests, which meant the shoulders were too tight and this was restricting my usual shoulder rotation when swimming (I naturally have quite a fast arm turnover).
2. Perhaps the suit has somehow got faster since I’ve started using it. By that, I mean that perhaps it takes a certain amount of exposure to water for the suit to fully ‘develop’ its hydrodynamic properties. Seems unlikely, but I don’t want to discount it entirely (I’ve asked Huub for their opinion - see below).
3. I guess there is a chance that I have got better at swimming in the swimskin. Maybe it has altered my stroke (Huub claims the compression helps guard against ‘snaking’ in the water) and maybe it has taken me a few swims to get used to this and start using it to my advantage.
4. Was I swimming too easy in the suit during the first couple of swims? Was I expecting some kind of ‘magic’ to happen that would just let me glide through the water effortlessly and was my RPE actually too low when I was wearing the swimskin?
My experience suggests that if you buy an Albacore swimskin the day before a race to unbox it and wear it for the very first time during the race, you might be disappointed. But then to do that would be to ignore the age-old adage that you should never try anything new on race day (we’ve all done it, though…).
For whatever reason (I’ve asked Huub for their input and will add it below when it comes in), I found that my initial disappointment was overturned as I spent more time testing the Albacore, learning how to put it on correctly, how to swim in it and getting used to its feel.
This goes against previous advice I’ve seen that says swimskins have a short shelf-life and should only be worn for racing.
Ultimately, the tests don’t lie. Up to 16 seconds faster per 400m; that’s potentially two and a half minutes faster over an IM-distance swim. If you’re competing at the sharp end, that could be the difference between a podium or not.
Now to test the Albacore swimskin against the Albacore wetsuit! Or maybe I can get my hands on the new Agilis……
Visit Huub's website for more information on the Albacore swimskin (available for men and women).
Editor's Note: I received a reply from Huub (in addition to the comment below from the man himself, Huub Toussaint) in which they say that the Albacore swimskin should be fast out-of-the-box (contrary to my theory #2). Instead, they say the most likely explanation for the initial experience was fit. This does seem to make sense and serves to highlight the need to both get the right size for you and to really focus on how you put the swimskin on. I might do a video on this when time allows...