Can Swimsuits Help You Swim Faster?

back view of a female swimmer standing by an indoor swimming pool

Swimming is a sport where fractions of a second can make all the difference between victory and defeat. Athletes constantly seek ways to improve their performance, and one area that has garnered significant attention in competitive swimming is the role of swimsuits. Swimsuits are not just pieces of clothing; they are tools that can potentially enhance a swimmer’s speed and efficiency in the water.

In the quest for that extra edge, swimmers and researchers have explored how swimsuit design and technology might impact performance. This article delves into the intriguing question: Can swimsuits help you swim faster? To answer this question, we will examine the evolution of swimming attire, the science behind swimsuit design, and the real-world impact of these aquatic garments on athletes.

The Evolution of Swimming Attire

Swimwear, a vital part of athletic attire, has undergone remarkable transformations throughout its history. We’re about to dive into the fascinating journey of how swimwear has evolved over the years without getting bogged down in details or gripping stories.

Ancient Beginnings

Swimming, an age-old pastime with origins dating back to the Greeks and Romans, had a modest start in the attire department. Early swimmers sported the simplest of garments, often just loincloths or basic clothing. Back then, it was all about practicality and unrestricted movement.

The Roaring 20s

Fast forward to the early 20th century, when swimwear began to reflect changing social norms. Women’s swimwear has embraced one-piece swimsuits, offering more coverage and modesty. Men, on the other hand, stuck with the classics—tank tops and shorts.

The Synthetic Revolution

The mid-20th century ushered in a revolution with the introduction of synthetic fabrics like nylon and spandex. These game-changers brought about a better fit, reduced drag, and greater durability in swimwear. Designers started crafting swimsuits with the goal of optimizing a swimmer’s hydrodynamics.

The High-Tech Era

Zooming ahead to the late 20th and early 21st centuries, swimwear entered the space-age era. Engineers and designers embraced cutting-edge materials, such as polyurethane blends. These modern marvels gave rise to swimsuits that offered compression, minimized water absorption, and increased buoyancy. A hot debate ignited within the swimming community, questioning the fairness of these high-tech suits and their impact on performance.

Rules and a Return to Tradition

Recognizing the need to maintain fairness in competitive swimming, governing bodies like World Aquatics (formerly known as FINA—Fédération Internationale de Natation) implemented regulations on swimsuit design and materials. Swimsuits returned to a more traditional design, emphasizing athlete skill and conditioning over technological advantages.

How Swimsuits Enhance Performance

Swimsuits play a crucial role in enhancing a swimmer’s performance. These garments have evolved over time to provide athletes with a competitive edge while adhering to established regulations. Let’s explore the key factors that contribute to the performance-enhancing qualities of modern swimwear.

  • Reduced Drag

One of the primary objectives of swimsuit design is to minimize drag in the water. Traditional swimwear tends to create more resistance due to its loose fit and absorbent nature. Modern swimsuits are constructed from hydrophobic materials that repel water, reducing drag significantly. The snug, form-fitting design ensures minimal water resistance, allowing swimmers to glide through the water with less effort.

  • Compression

Swimsuits are designed to provide compression to various muscle groups. This compression can help improve blood circulation and reduce muscle oscillation during swimming. As a result, athletes experience less fatigue and better muscle support, allowing them to maintain their performance for longer durations.

  • Improved Buoyancy

Certain swimwear designs incorporate buoyant materials or strategically placed panels to enhance buoyancy. Increased buoyancy aids swimmers in maintaining a streamlined position in the water by reducing the drag that the lower body produces. This feature is particularly advantageous for long-distance swimmers, as it conserves energy and promotes efficient swimming.

  • Flexibility and Range of Motion

While reducing drag is essential, swimwear must also allow swimmers to move freely. Modern swimsuits strike a balance between compression and flexibility. The stretchiness of the materials permits a full range of motion for swimmers, enabling powerful strokes and efficient kicks.

  • Lightweight and Quick-Drying

The lightweight nature of modern swimwear ensures that it doesn’t weigh swimmers down when wet. Additionally, the hydrophobic properties of the materials enable the suit to dry quickly, preventing excess water absorption that can impede performance.

  • Enhanced Fit

Swimsuit designs are tailored to provide a snug and secure fit. By ensuring that the fabric stays in place throughout the race, this lowers the possibility of drag from moving or loose material. A secure fit also helps swimmers maintain proper body alignment in the water.

In conclusion, modern swimsuits are carefully engineered to optimize a swimmer’s performance. They achieve this by reducing drag, providing compression, enhancing buoyancy, allowing flexibility, and maintaining a lightweight and quick-drying design.

Types of Competitive Swimsuits

Competitive swimmers have a range of swimsuit options to choose from, each designed for specific swimming disciplines and individual preferences. Let’s explore the main types of competitive swimsuits available to athletes.

  • Racing Briefs (Jammers)

Racing briefs, often referred to as jammers for men, are minimalistic swimsuits designed for speed and reduced drag. They are characterized by their streamlined design and high-cut leg openings. These suits provide excellent freedom of movement while minimizing water resistance. Sprint swimmers who want to be as agile as possible in the water frequently choose jammers.

  • One-Piece Swimsuits

One-piece swimsuits are the standard choice for female competitive swimmers. They offer full coverage and support, ensuring that swimmers maintain a streamlined shape. These suits are suitable for a wide range of swimming disciplines, including freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke. The design of one-piece swimsuits varies, with options for thin straps or racerback styles to accommodate different preferences.

  • Kneeskin and Jammer Suits

Kneeskin suits for women and jammer suits for men are slightly longer than traditional racing briefs and one-piece swimsuits. They provide increased coverage while maintaining the benefits of reduced drag and improved compression. Elite swimmers who compete in longer-distance events frequently wear kneeskin and jammer suits.

  • Tech Suits

Tech suits are a category of high-performance swimsuits designed with advanced materials and construction techniques. These suits offer exceptional compression, reduced drag, and buoyancy-enhancing features. Tech suits are often used in elite competitions, such as the Olympics, to maximize a swimmer’s performance. They are available in various styles, including full-body suits for both men and women.

  • Wetsuits

In open-water swimming and triathlons, wetsuits are commonly worn to provide insulation and buoyancy. These suits are typically made of neoprene and offer protection against cold water temperatures. While not used in traditional pool competitions, wetsuits are essential for athletes participating in outdoor events.

  • Bodysuits (No Longer in Use)

Historically, full-body swimsuits, known as bodysuits, were used in competitive swimming. However, they are no longer permitted in most competitions due to their potential for providing excessive buoyancy and reducing fair competition. Swimsuit regulations have been updated to prohibit the use of these suits in official races.

LZR Racer Michael Phelps
Presentation of the swimsuit to the press. Center, Michael Phelps. Image: NASA, Public Domain.

During the 2009 World Swimming Championships, many records were broken thanks to a revolutionary new swimsuit designed with the help of NASA. This particular full-body swimsuit was called “LZR Racer” by Speedo and it gave swimmers a great advantage. However, this advantage was too much and the swimsuit was banned by FINA (International Swimming Federation) in 2010.

Research and Studies on Swimsuit Performance

The performance-enhancing capabilities of competitive swimsuits have been the subject of extensive research and studies within the realm of sports science. These investigations aim to understand how various swimsuit designs and materials can impact a swimmer’s speed and efficiency in the water. Here, we delve into some key findings from research on swimsuit performance.

  1. Hydrodynamics and Drag Reduction

One of the primary focuses of swimsuit research has been hydrodynamics, the study of how objects move through water. Researchers have sought to design swimsuits that minimize drag, the resistance a swimmer encounters when moving through the water. Studies have shown that the shape, texture, and material of a swimsuit can significantly affect drag.

For example, the use of advanced fabrics and seamless construction techniques has been found to reduce water friction and turbulence. Swimsuits with low-drag properties enable swimmers to glide through the water more efficiently, ultimately improving their overall performance.

  1. Compression and Buoyancy

Swimsuit studies have also investigated the role of compression and buoyancy in enhancing swimmer performance. The term “compression” describes the pressure that a swimmer’s swimsuit puts on their body. Research has demonstrated that strategically placed compression can help support muscles and reduce muscle vibration during swimming, potentially delaying the onset of fatigue.

Buoyancy is another critical factor, especially in long-distance swimming. Swimsuits engineered with buoyant materials can help swimmers maintain a more streamlined position in the water, conserving energy and enabling them to swim faster.

  1. Material Selection and Innovation

Research has led to the development of cutting-edge materials specifically designed for competitive swimsuits. These materials are chosen for their hydrophobic (water-repellent) properties, lightweight nature, and ability to maintain shape under extreme conditions.

Studies have shown that the choice of materials can influence a swimsuit’s ability to remain hydrophobic, ensuring that it doesn’t absorb water and become heavy during a race. Innovative materials have also been engineered to provide the right balance of flexibility and support, allowing swimmers to move with ease while benefiting from muscle compression.

  1. Suit Design and Construction

Swimsuit studies have explored the impact of design elements such as seam placement and suit structure. Seamlessly constructed swimsuits have become popular due to their ability to reduce drag and minimize skin friction. Researchers have identified specific areas where seams can be strategically placed to maximize hydrodynamic efficiency.

Moreover, the design of swimsuits, including their coverage and cut, varies for different swimming disciplines. Researchers have examined how these design differences can cater to the unique demands of each swimming style, from sprint events to long-distance races.

Controversies and Regulations in Competitive Swimming

The world of competitive swimming has not been immune to controversies, particularly regarding the use of advanced swimsuit technologies and their impact on the sport.

  1. Technological Advancements

As technology has advanced, so too has the development of high-performance swimsuits. These innovations have led to faster swim times and a redefinition of what is achievable in the sport. While technological progress is typically celebrated, it has also raised questions about the potential for an unfair advantage.

Swimsuits constructed from cutting-edge materials, featuring compression zones, and designed for minimal drag have sparked debates about whether such advancements give some swimmers an edge over others. The concern lies in whether success is primarily attributed to the swimmer’s ability or the technology they employ.

  1. The Polyurethane Suit Controversy

One of the most significant controversies in recent years has centered around the use of polyurethane swimsuits. These suits, often referred to as “super-suits,” were highly buoyant and non-absorbent, providing swimmers with a considerable advantage in buoyancy and reduced drag. Swimmers wearing these suits shattered records and raised eyebrows in the swimming community.

However, the controversy grew to such proportions that governing bodies had to intervene. In response, World Aquatics (formerly known as FINA) banned the use of non-textile swimsuits, including those made of polyurethane, in 2010. This regulation aimed to level the playing field and ensure that swimmers’ performances remained primarily reliant on their skills and physical abilities.