- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Elite swimmers would be crazy to swim with sharks, but they can’t be blamed for wondering what enables the creatures to glide so effortlessly undersea.

Swimwear manufacturers asked the same questions, leading to the latest wrinkle in competitive swimsuits.

It’s just one example of how technology is making today’s swimmer faster than those of past generations, but better swimsuits alone aren’t helping athletes break records. Training techniques away from the water are playing a part as well.

Stu Isaac, senior vice president of team sales and marketing for Speedo, says swimsuits have been evolving constantly, with several key milestones. Suits have matured from being made of simple cotton or wool to nylon to Lycra over the second part of the 20th century.

“Lycra was a major breakthrough in 1973,” Mr. Isaac says. The following year, a large number of swimming records were shattered by Lycra-clad athletes.

Swimmers still train in Lycra suits, but innovations have changed the look and design of competitive swimwear. Woven microfibers introduced in the late 1980s gave way to polyester and polyurethane models in the early 1990s while suit designers wrestled with ways to reduce drag in the water.

“In the past, [the focus] was just the fit of the suit, more form-fitting, less drag,” Mr. Isaac says.

Speedo’s Aquaspec suits, featuring a coating that helps reduce drag, came next. They created less surface resistance with the water, Mr. Isaac explains, decreasing the coefficient of friction.

Around this time, Speedo designers introduced suits that covered not just the swimmer’s torso, but his or her whole body.

The suits also began abandoning smooth exteriors. A golf ball has dimples that help it glide through the air, Mr. Isaac says. Swimsuit designers started using a similar approach that improves the flow of water around the body.

These suits often used V-shaped stripes to create this effect, “like rivulets on an America’s Cup sailing boat,” he explains.

The stripe patterns were inspired by studying sharks, whose skin features grooves that help them slice through the water efficiently.

The most recent swimsuit innovations came with compression, making suits that squeezed muscles tighter to reduce vibration and help the body spring back to its natural position after a stroke or a kick.

“Compression also helps maintain core stability,” Mr. Isaac says.

The athletes routinely sing the praises of the new technology.

Jacki Hirsty, a competitive swimmer and spokeswoman for Arena sportswear, says using the modern swimsuits is “like having 19-year-old skin again.”

Her first experience wearing an Arena Extreme suit, Ms. Hirsty says, felt like “being shot out of a cannon … it feels like you’re wearing nothing.”

Being lightweight may not be crucial for older swimwear models, but with newer versions that cover the entire body, being light is an important feature.

Ms. Hirsty says every suit maker uses a somewhat different technology toward different ends. Arena focuses, in part, on keeping suits completely water repellent to reduce drag. Its suits also feature an insert around the knee area that helps offset the compression effect for those joints.

“As you sit around all day, the pressure on the knees gets to you,” she says.

Other innovations boosting current swimmers, she says, include low-profile goggles that reduce drag.

Sports physiologist Rob Sleamaker introduced the Vasa Trainer in 1989 as a way for swimmers to keep in shape when they couldn’t get to a pool. The device, which has a person lie on a padded bench and use his or her arms and legs in a swimming-like motion, quickly became a darling for swimmers and their trainers. No weights come into play with the machine, only a person’s own body weight.

Mr. Sleamaker updated the Vasa Trainer two years ago, creating a more nuanced machine called the Ergometer.

“It employs an air-flow resistance combined with precise force measurement,” says Mr. Sleamaker, who was in town last weekend for the annual American Swimming Coaches Association conference in Crystal City. “It’s used for training, but more important, it monitors [a swimmer’s] progress. You can look at the strength discrepancies from one side to the other.”

Mark Davin, the head swimming coach at American University, says swimwear has changed “dramatically” in his lifetime.

“I think it does make a big difference at the world-class level. The majority [of athletes] are using those suits,” Mr. Davin says.

American University swimmers are allowed to choose which modern-day suit they use for competition.

“Some of that is depending on what events they swim,” Mr. Davin says.

For some events, such as the breast stroke, many swimmers prefer to feel the water on their skin, so a full-body suit isn’t as appealing. Swimming champions like Michael Phelps routinely wear the full suits, but that may be more helpful for freestyle swimming, says Mr. Davin, whose students use the Vasa Trainer as part of their preparation.

Today’s swimmers also can see better than ever while in the pool.

Steve Furniss, captain of the 1976 U.S. Olympic swimming team and executive vice president for California-based Tyr sportswear, says modern goggles have been redesigned to sit within a swimmer’s eye-socket area.

“It doesn’t rest on the bone structure [of the face], and it offers unparalleled vision,” Mr. Furniss says. “They peripherally can see their competitors underwater.”

Today’s swim caps also help reduce drag. Older models could lie flat, but being put on the swimmer’s head created wrinkles, Mr. Furniss says. Newer models, often made of silicone, are molded in a dome shape and lie on the head in a smoother fashion.

Not everything in the pool is high-tech, but some old-school tricks use modern thinking.

Some swimmers use a combination of surgical tubing hooked to a belt that swimmers strap on and swim against as a basic workout. When a swimmer has gone as far as possible, he or she swims back using the tubing’s saved energy to jet through the water.

The technique helps muscle memory kick in, Mr. Davin says, so the body recognizes how it feels to be moving at an accelerated speed and can come closer to duplicating it, in theory, than if the body had never moved at such a clip.

Mr. Isaac says future suit advances likely will stem from the study of biomechanics as well as computational fluid dynamics — studying how fluid flows over different body types at different speeds.

Yet some training remains decidedly old-fashioned, Mr. Davin says, such as working out with medicine balls.

“It’s becoming popular in the U.S. again,” he says. “It’s easy to do.”

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