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The Great Swimsuit Hoax

Jun 18, 2010  - Forbes and Ursula Carlile

Australian swimmers and the parents who pay their way through the sport are being advised to ignore false, overblown and rule-busting claims of performance-enhancement in current-generation race suits and opt for common-sense affordability.

A paper entitled "The Great Swimsuit Hoax" by veteran Aussie coaches Forbes and Ursula Carlile concludes that "the current suits do not enhance performance, and may even retard performance when compared to shaved skin" and recommends that parents and swimmers make their choices based not on brand, claims and price (and the assumption that greater fee means better performance) but on correcting fitting for each individual, opt for suits based that fit correctly correctly sized and fitted suit that is appropriate for each swimmer’s body shape.

The authors also conclude: "If current materials actually retard performance, then swimmers are better off minimising coverage by wearing briefs (men) or suits to the hips (women), thereby avoiding additional expense." That message is one that is not only pertinent Down Under, of course, but applies the world over, especially at a time when purse strings are being pulled ever tighter, at the level of parental decisions and governmental moves, such as that which saw the end of the "free swimming" campaign in Britain yesterday.

The Carlile's paper in full:

The Great Swimsuit Hoax

Why swimmers: 

  • Should not pay exorbitant prices for competition swimsuits that do not help them swim faster;
  • May swim faster in brief swimsuits; and
  • Should not believe the advertising hype of swimsuit manufacturers. 

The Background

The Evolution of Swimsuits 

The evolution of swimsuits up to the mid-1990s saw changes in the material and cut of suits that reduced the extent to which suits slowed swimmers down. Less of the body was covered and materials became lighter, tighter and held less water. 

From the mid-1990s swimmers wore suits that covered more of the body until full body suits began appearing in the late 1990s. Manufacturers claimed that the new materials used were superior to shaved skin and therefore enhanced performance. 

Current knowledge about suits and how they affect performance, and scientific studies analysing historical rates of improvement prior to 2008 indicate that these major changes did not enhance performance, despite the extravagant claims of manufacturers to the contrary. 

2008 and 2009

The introduction of the Speedo LZR in 2008 started a revolution in swimsuits that resulted in 255 world records being broken in 2008 and 2009.

Following widespread condemnation from swimmers, coaches and the media, and an almost unanimous vote by its member countries, FINA, the world swimming body, were forced to prohibit suits that enhance performance and regulate a range of suit characteristics from 2010.

Why did these suits enhance performance? 

The most significant factor was that the suits were made from increasing amounts of non-porous material - 50% polyurethane (a plastic) in the Speedo LZR and up to 100% plastics and/or neoprene (a synthetic rubber) in other suits. These materials trapped air in and under the material, giving swimmers increased flotation. The less of the swimmer in the water, the less water resistance and the faster the swimmer.

These materials, sometimes with a coating, may also have slightly reduced surface resistance and provided benefits by compressing fat tissue and larger muscles to provide a more streamlined shape. 

2010 and Beyond

Current Swimsuits and Performance Enhancement

We have looked closely at the factors that determine how a suit may enhance performance, and whether current FINA-approved suits do indeed enhance performance. This has involved much reading and consultation with experts. 

Scientific studies have demonstrated that suits did not enhance performance prior to 2008, and so it follows that the current suits will not enhance performance.

A recent comprehensive study analysed the progression of US swimming records or fastest times for the year from 1962 to 2007 in open and age group classifications. Below is a significant quote from the implications of this study:

“Of particular importance, is the lack of effect of the pre-2008 swimsuit revolution. Despite the consistent claims of manufacturers of performance improvements mainly through very large reductions in resistance, those claims were not reflected in the best performances in US swimming. Since recent swimsuit construction has returned to pre-2008 standards, one should not expect today's suits to have any notable effect on performance (unlike the 2008-9 suits). Despite swimsuit manufacturers returning to the pre-2008 unsubstantiated claims of swimsuit effects, one should expect no benefit from any form of the suits…

The cost of competitive swimming suits seems to be related to the amount of material contained in the suit as well as the type of material used. It would be advisable and financially responsible to opt for the least expensive suits, particularly for age-group swimmers. Paying extra for a more expensive competitive swimsuit would not be money well spent as there would be no advantage yielded to the swimmer. That assertion is supported by other technological reasons offered [in scientific journals]. It can be reasonably believed that the current swimsuits for racing do not enhance swimming performance, do not fulfill manufacturers' claims, and are unreasonably marketed and priced.”

[Johnson, Edmonds, Jain and Cavazos Jr. (2009). ‘Analyses of elite swimming performances and their respective between-gender differences over time’ published in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports]

Our considered conclusion is therefore that the current suits do not enhance performance, and may even retard performance when compared to shaved skin.  

Most significant is that the current suits must be made of materials that become wet, cannot trap air in or under the material, and therefore cannot aid buoyancy.

It is now known that surface resistance has a relatively minor role to play in swimming speed. In other words, while smooth is generally better, the effect is minimal for a swimmer moving in many different planes. In any case it may well be that shaved skin is smoother and faster than any wettable material.

Any possible benefits from compression changing the shape of a swimmer would be difficult to achieve with the current materials and suit profiles.

Performances in national and international competitions since the introduction of the new FINA rules suggest that current swimsuits do not enhance performance, as was the case prior to 2008. 

The Manufacturers and FINA

Despite the new FINA rules, the swimsuit manufacturers continue to claim performance enhancements that, if true, would render their competition swimsuits illegal (e.g. that they “repel” water!). Visit any of the manufacturers’ websites and be amazed at the claims associated with the competition suits.

All evidence indicates that these enhancement claims are simply not true. The fact that FINA Swimwear Approvals Commission approves these suits indicates that it agrees that these suits do not enhance performance.

Conclusions and Recommendations 

Our conclusions are: 

  • Current FINA-approved suits do not enhance performance, and in fact may well retard performance when compared with shaved skin. 
  • Under the new FINA rules, it is not possible for suits to enhance performance. 
  • If a suit is the correct size and fits properly, it doesn’t matter what brand the suit is or from what material it is made. 

Our recommendations are:

  • It is important to wear a correctly sized and fitted suit that is appropriate for each swimmer’s body shape.
  • It is not necessary to buy the more expensive brands when there is nothing to suggest any of the suits enhance performance. 
  • If current materials actually retard performance, then swimmers are better off minimising coverage by wearing briefs (men) or suits to the hips (women), thereby avoiding additional expense. 

Forbes and Ursula Carlile, Ryde-Carlile, Sydney, June 2010