Could a specialised swimsuit and some motion analysis shave seconds off your race times?
Swimming is among the most minimalist of sports in terms of equipment, yet in recent years, high-tech swimsuits have become so effective that in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, competitors wearing the Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit - made from a mix of woven elastane-nylon and polyurethane - set 23 out of 25 world records and won 94 per cent of the races.
These non-textile, full-body suits were subsequently banned in 2009 by world swimming’s governing body FINA, which ruled that that men’s swimsuits may maximally cover the area from the waist to the knee, and women’s suits from the shoulder to the knee. The fabric must be a textile or a woven material (an open-mesh material like cotton, nylon or Lycra).
As a result, material in modern swimsuits has been modified. For example, Speedo’s Fastskin LZR Racer X range uses woven fabrics made from a mix of polyamide and elastane. The firm spent over 10,000 hours in research and development for this line and tapped into a database of 1,200 athletes, including several Olympic swimmers. Their bodies were 3D-scanned to identify exactly where a swimsuit can offer support and compression of specific muscle groups, along with a more precise fit. The swimsuit range was developed by Speedo’s in-house R&D team, Aqualab, based at its global headquarters in Nottingham.
This team included Professor Kwing-So Choi of Nottingham University, a fluid mechanics expert who co-ordinated fabric testing to establish the ‘speed’ of each fabric, Rick Sharp, professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, who oversaw physiological tests on swimmers, and Carl Butler, a physiotherapist with British Swimming who advised on swim anatomy and body stability in elite swimming. Much of the testing was carried out at InnosportLab NL, an instrumented pool in Holland where swim equipment validation on athletes was conducted. In addition, some of the world’s top swimming coaches were consulted.
This research identified where a swimsuit can enhance the body’s muscle kinetic chain for maximum performance in the water. At the same time, the team gained important insights into how athletes feel in the water and how this can empower them to swim faster.
In both male and female suits, the Fastskin LZR Racer X is constructed using two fabrics; LZR Racer CompreX and LZR Racer PulseLite.
LZR Racer CompreX provides compression horizontally and stretch vertically within the same fabric. It is targeted to work with big muscle groups like the hips, glutes and quads, while also ensuring freedom of movement.
LZR Racer PulseLite is a light but durable fabric that offers added stretch, letting swimmers feel more ‘in tune’ with the water. This dual-fabric construction aims to provide compression where it is most needed, while maximising the range of movement across the whole suit.
Also unique to the Fastskin suit are laser-cut panels called Ab-Activators that are designed to increase sensory awareness of the core abdominals, encouraging swimmers to activate their core muscles, which in turn encourages an optimal position in the water.
Speedo also claims that the suit’s ‘X’ seams follow and enhance links in the muscles’ kinetic chain, as well as promoting an optimal swim position in the water. The seams are ultrasonically welded and provide a ‘framework’ for the swimmer’s body shape.
In addition, the striking design makes the suit and the swimmer stand out on the starting blocks, which may sound trivial, but can have vital psychological benefits.
This was in fact an important consideration in the development and design of the Fastskin range. Speedo claim the suits’ combination of compression, construction, sensitivity and support can help to create the feeling of being ‘fast’, which can lead to an actual improvement in performance.
Sean Hastings, vice-president of product and marketing at Speedo International, says: “It is as important for an athlete to ‘feel’ they are in the right suit, as it is to be in the right suit.”
This is confirmed by Costas Karageorghis, reader in sport psychology at Brunel University London. “Psychological research provides compelling evidence that the emotional state and confidence that you exude prior to a competitive situation will have a direct and resounding influence on your performance. You are what you think so if you feel fast, you’re likely to perform to superior levels.”
Needless to say, other major swimwear brands are equally refined in their design. Arena’s Carbon-Air range features horizontal carbon bands woven into the suits, which are said to increase support and control. The suit also has a streamlined design and is very easy to move in, giving athletes a better range of movement on starts, strokes and turns as well as making the suits easier to get in and out of.
Arena says its swimsuits, with their carbon fibres and high-?stretch fabric, ‘lock out’ when a critical stretch level is reached. This maximises compression on over-extended zones to increase muscle support and control when and where it’s needed.
Strategically placed low-profile bonded seams and elasticised tapes ‘store’ potential energy which is released during dives, kicks and turns to boost efficiency, power and speed.
Nike’s Hydroflow NG-1 swimsuits combine two hydrophobic stretch-woven fabrics to help limit water absorption and reduce drag for an optimum balance between flexibility and compression.
The suits have strategically patterned compressive panels to increase stability and core support, while fully bonded seam lines create a smooth outer and inner surface to reduce drag and irritation. These seams run obliquely round the outer gluteal muscles and are reinforced with high-stretch recovery tape to lift and compress the body.
Even waistband construction on the men’s ‘jammer’ suit has been carefully designed. It is flat-bonded and reinforced to enhance water seal and cut drag, while on the women’s ‘neck to knee’ suit, seam reinforcement tape is used at the neckline, keyhole, and arm openings to minimise slippage while strengthening the seal. The ‘stabiliser panel’ at the chest provides increased compression and support, at the same time allowing the full range of motion of the pectoral muscles.
However, as with any sport, it’s not just equipment that can boost performance. Technique is key.
Florida-based Swimming Technology Research (STR) specialises in improving swimmers’ performances by using “advanced technology, the principles of physics, and the science of biomechanics”, says STR president Rod Havriluk.
STR’s Aquanex system uses sensors attached to a swimmer’s hands synchronised with an underwater video
to analyse all four competitive swimming strokes (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle). It takes less than 10 minutes to test a swimmer on all four strokes.
STR also has a system for developing swimming technique called MONA ((Modél Optimál NAtación). This includes four views (front, side, top and bottom) of all four competitive strokes. These are analysed by a computer program not just for optimal technique, but also to help reduce injuries from stress and overuse, an important consideration given the vast amount of training required of competitive swimmers.
STR’s systems have been used by hundreds of national level swimmers, as well as Olympians and world record holders, though Havriluk notes that coaches deserve the real credit for creating champions: “Our data simply gives the coach the exact data to help his or her swimmers progress as far as possible.”
Havriluk believes there’s a long way to go before swimmers reach their human limits. “Future possible improvements from swimwear and goggles are trivial compared to technique adjustments based on the principles of physics,” he says.
It seems that you can pay as much as you want for your swimwear, but it will still be technique and hours in the pool that make the real difference.