The performance of swimmers is measured to the nearest 0.01s, with swimmers at the top end of competitions separated by a mere 0.10s. These small margins mean that even the smallest factor can make the biggest difference. At London 2012 in the Men’s 200m Butterfly Final there was only a mere 0.25s difference between gold medal winner Chad le Clos and bronze medallist Takeshi Matsuda, with Michael Phelps finishing in silver only 0.05s behind le Clos.
Drag is a major factor in the energetics of swimming and small decreases in a swimmer’s drag can affect their performance. Therefore it is no surprise that swimmers are often looking for new ways to improve their performance, and the type of swimsuit a swimmer chooses to wear can certainly make a dramatic difference to performance.
When you go swimming, one thing that slows you down is the drag of your body, or what you’re wearing. This means that when you are in the water, the kind of swimwear you have can slow you down by creating more drag, or speed you up by reducing drag.
With a newer generation of swimsuits that cover larger parts of the body and are made from different materials than traditional swimsuits, it would appear that there is certainly potential for drag reduction.
Research conducted by J. Molledorf, et al (2004) shows that these newer swimsuits can reduce skin friction of the material itself by 16% and by 10% when worn by a swimmer. A Lycra designed suit covering male swimmers’ torsos reduced the energy demand of swimming compared with a standard racing suit, due to the drag reducing characteristics of the suit.
The opinion of new suits improving performance however is somewhat divided, many see this as a controversial topic. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and several universities carried out research that led to development of faster swimsuits. The scientists studied some of the fastest swimming marine animals and tried to mimic their abilities with technology. The resultant product was made out of polyurethane, which reduces drag significantly and allows the swimmer to be faster. Traditional swimsuits are typically made from Lycra, which absorbs air and water, consequently slowing you down in the water. At the FINA world championships in Rome, swimmers wearing the new suits set 29 world records in only five days. Consequently in 2010, FINA, the governing body for swimming, banned use of the suits.
The use of technology to make swimsuits better continues to be a controversial topic.
To read J. Molledorf’s research in full click here.
Image Credit: http://www.thetimes.co.uk