Suiting Up for the Olympics

The world's most advanced swimsuit shaves time so swimmers don't have to shave limbs

Shaving your legs just isn’t enough to give swimmers an edge anymore. With a combination of computational fluid dynamics, aerospace engineering and a bit of help from NASA, Speedo has launched its latest swimsuit built to shatter records at the Olympic Games this summer in Beijing–or before.

Used for the first time this weekend at meets in Missouri and Australia, three world records and two American records fell. “Sure, we were hoping, but even we didn’t expect that,” said Stuart Isaac, Senior Vice President at Speedo. “Some of those records had been held since 1988 and 1991. These were records that people had been chasing for decades.”

The LZR Racer is Speedo’s sixth suit in the past 16 years to shave crucial hundredths and tenths of seconds. In key locations on the suit, the woven fabric used in previous designs has been replaced by polyurethane membranes with 24 percent lower drag (it’s too stiff to use everywhere). The suit has eliminated stitching and instead relies on ultrasonic welding to further reduce drag. A new core stabilizer provides additional support to help the athlete maintain good form throughout the race.

Lockheed Martin and NASCAR would be impressed by the science behind the suit. Body scanning of 400 elite athletes was completed to optimize shape, sizes and contours. Computational fluid dynamics, a form of numerical modeling, identified locations on the body that created the most drag and might benefit from the polyurethane panels. Wind tunnels at NASA were used to evaluate the drag on more than 60 specific fabric options. Water flumes (wind tunnel w/ water) then helped to optimize the suit by testing on mannequins and actual swimmers.

Behind the recent records are quantifiable results that suggested real differences. The suit has 5 percent less passive drag than their last version (when coasting), while swimmers consumed 5 percent less oxygen at a specific speed—meaning they could swim faster. With prices ranging from $290 to $550 (just pants to full suit), putting your name in the record books won’t come cheap, but who can put a price on gold?

To dig further into the world of shaving hair and shaving seconds with science, we spoke on the phone with Stuart Isaac, senior VP at Speedo.

PopSci: So who’s setting these records, the athletes or the suits? Aren’t we cheapening the value of a world record?

Isaac: There’s no doubt that many sports have this problem. Yes, the swimmers today have advantages that let them go faster than swimmers ten years ago. However, that’s the nature of sport, whether it’s tennis rackets or golf clubs or new running shoes or the composition of running tracks. I wouldn’t say it cheapens it, but yes, they have an advantage over those in the past. All the people now have access to the same technology, so the best swimmer is still winning.

PopSci: So is this it? Seems like there’s a point where you’ve reduced the drag all you can.

Isaac: You’re right to a degree. Especially since the rules say we can’t do things that change the shape of the body to decrease drag. The suit can still make you perform better biomechanically and physiologically though. I also think you’ll see more interest in whether there can be more specificity in a suit by stroke or distance.

PopSci: If the fit of the suit is so sensitive, why not make custom suits for the top athletes?

Isaac: We’ve thought about that a great deal. Everybody says, “Hey, do you make a custom suit for Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin?” We don’t. We could do that for the top 30 swimmers, but we don’t think that philosophically it’s the right thing to do. We’ve always felt that we want to create a suit that everybody has access to, so that nobody has a truly unfair advantage.

PopSci: If these things are so good, why not cover the feet, hands and face?

Isaac: We’ve looked into that in the past, but the rules now say you can’t cover the hands or the feet and you can’t have anything covering the head that’s attached to the suit. They figured they had to draw the line somewhere.

PopSci: Alright, we’ve gotta ask about shaving. So, do they still shave even when they wear the suit?

Isaac: Yes, but that’s a good question. Sometimes, even though it’s a tight weave, you can have a hair go through the suit. But, part of it is also about their feel for the water. So virtually everybody still shaves.

Got a question? Have a tip? Submit new research, technology or questions about all things sports & science to zarda13@yahoo.com

See more of The Score, our sports science blog, here.

Testing the Suit

Testing of the suit took place in pools, and also in water flumes.

More Testing of the Suit

The suit has 5 percent less passive drag than their last version (when coasting), while swimmers consumed 5 percent less oxygen at a specific speed–meaning they could swim faster.

Computational Fluid Dynamics

Computational fluid dynamics, a form of numerical modeling, identified locations on the body that created the most drag and might benefit from the polyurethane panels.

Computational Fluid Dynamics

In key locations on the suit, the woven fabric used in previous designs has been replaced by polyurethane membranes with 24 percent lower drag (it’s too stiff to use everywhere).

Computational Fluid Dynamics

Body scanning of 400 elite athletes was completed to optimize shape, sizes and contours.

Ultra Low Profile Zipper

If strands of leg hair can cause drag, imagine what a zipper might do. The suit has ultra low profile zippers for optimized aerodynamics.

Bonded Seam

The suit has eliminated stitching and instead relies on ultrasonic welding to further reduce drag.

Core Stabilizer

A new core stabilizer provides additional support to help the athlete maintain good form throughout the race.

The LZR Racer

The result of all this is a near-perfect suit. When it was used for the first time at meets in Missouri and Australia, three world records and two American records fell