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Danny Sirdofsky/MEDILL

Alex Tyler, a junior on Northwestern's swim team, took a stand against the "high-tech" swimsuits at the U.S. Open by convincing others to wear the classic brief-cut suit during the final heat of the 200 individual medley. The swimmers spurned "high-tech" suits for that one heat. 

The science behind the suit

by Danny Sirdofsky
Oct 06, 2009

The two-year assault on the swimming record books is expected to be curtailed dramatically after the Federation Internationale de Natation, the international body that governs swimming, bans “high-tech” suits from competition on Jan. 1.

FINA’s 2007 decision to allow the Blue Seventy Nero swimsuit in competition opened a Pandora’s box, allowing manufacturers to sell suits that would assist swimmers in breaking world records at a staggering pace.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 24 of the world’s 25 fastest times ever recorded in the men’s 100 freestyle were eclipsed.

The suits, most prominently those made by Speedo, Arena and Jaked, sold for approximately $500 each and had to be replaced after eight to 10 heats, or every two to three meets. But results made the pricey suits seem worth every penny. They affected all levels of competition, improving times by acting as a flotation device.

Sean Mathews, a middle distance swimmer for Northwestern, said records were being broken so frequently that meets “got to be kind of a circus.”

Alex Tyler, a 20-year-old junior on Northwestern’s swim team, has been opposed to the technology since it was legalized two years ago. At the U.S. Open Swimming Championships in August, he convinced the seven other members of his final heat in the 200 individual medley to ditch the body suits in favor of the classic brief cut suit, commonly referred to as a Speedo.

“We were going to put on a show as a sign of what’s to come,” he said.

While Speedo has claimed that physiological research and new methods of training have also contributed to the dramatic increase in the number of world records broken over the last two years, FINA’s ban has signaled that many in the swimming community feel the suits are primarily responsible.

Research on the link has been conducted by Joel Stager, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Swimming Research and a professor at Indiana University’s Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming. After Speedo came out with the first generation of “high-tech” suit in 2000, Stager tested the claims that they reduced swimmers’ times by 10 percent.

By comparing the Olympic trial times from 1996 with the times from 2000, he concluded that the suit didn’t alter times by 10 percent. The number of records broken in 2000 came within the expected range that Stager came up with using statistical analysis.

Stager has since collected data from the U.S. Olympic trials in 2004 and 2008. Just before the 2008 trials, the next generation of “high-tech” suit was born, and the results were dramatically different. “The only thing new to the sport was the suit,” he said. The number of records broken was well out of the expected range, showing that the suits were having a dramatic effect on competition.

“On average, 10 world records are set in any calendar year,” he said. “By the end of 2008, something like 120 records were set. It became more about what suit you had on and not who was in the suit.”

So why do the suits improve times so drastically?

“It’s mostly about flotation,” Stager said.

The suits are made of polyurethane with panels that are not water permeable, meaning they don’t allow water to get between the inner suit and the skin. This trait allows suits to trap air, which makes them more buoyant and thus easier for the swimmer to stay near the water’s surface. At the surface there is less water acting as a decelerating force on the swimmer. This added flotation aids the swimmer in the fight to stay on top of the water and affords them more energy over the duration of a heat.

Mathews said he could feel the effects of the added buoyancy in the pool. “The suits let you ride higher in the water. It feels like you’re swimming downhill,” he said.

Many of the suits for both men and women extended from the shoulders to the ankles, which helped the entire body take advantage of the increased flotation. The new FINA ban has now restricted the men’s suit to designs that reach from the waist to the knee, and the women’s suit from the shoulders to the knee.

Bob Groseth, the executive director of the College Swim Coaches Association, noted that this change was important, especially pertaining to a swimmer’s lower body. “One of the first things to go as a swimmer are the legs,” he said.

Increased compression is another important trait of these swimsuits. The ultra-tight suits reduce a swimmer’s drag in the water by tightening up their figure. The suits are so tight in fact, it can take multiple people and a pair of gloves to put it on.

Bill Schalz, who has coached men’s and women’s teams to high school state championships in Illinois, acknowledged the hilarity of getting into a suit like the Speedo LZR. “It takes two people to zip the suit up, and the swimmer isn’t one of those two,” he said.

The compression aids the less-fit swimmers more so than the ultra-muscular because it tucks in the unwanted shapeliness, while taking advantage of fat cells, which are naturally more buoyant than muscle cells. Women benefit more from the compression than men, as they have on average higher body fat percentage, and are able to decrease the drag caused by their natural curves.

The slick polyurethane is the third component that allows swimmer’s to cut their times. The material causes less friction in the water than does human skin, where water molecules can more easily attach to the body. Speedo claims on their Web site that this helps decrease passive drag, which is the force acting to decelerate the body when it is totally rigid, as in when a swimmer makes their initial dive into the water, or when they push off the wall.

At the World Championships in Rome this summer, 43 new world records were set, proving to be the straw that broke FINA’s back. The records will all stand post-ban, but it may prove difficult to generate as much interest in the sport when records are no longer being broken at every meet.

Northwestern men’s swim coach Jarod Schroeder said he isn’t expecting many new records to be established any time soon.

“It’s going to be a few years before swimmers catch up to what technology has set out.”