Friday, October 24, 2008

Swimsuit Technology
Where did all this improvement Really come from?

Over the last year, there has been much dialog about the vast improvements in swimming times starting a year before the Beijing Games with world records falling faster than the snow here in Buffalo. Then the Olympics produced even more records with some of the fastest and deepest fields in history. The newest generation of swimsuit technology has certainly received the bulk of attention. During the Games, some have pointed to the “Water Cube” the deepest and widest pool yet, absorbing all those waves. This entire dialog makes sense that improvements in suit technology and the increased volume of the pool would reduce the turbulence and help improve performances during the Olympics.

However, I believe inadvertently, all this attention to suit technology has quietly revealed a key component that sports scientists have been clamoring about for years. Simply put, the importance of swimming technique on performance. Let me explain. Forever, we were always led to believe to swim faster, we had to increase the power or be bigger and stronger or swim tens of thousands of yards….right? Well if that were true, how does changing ones swimming suit increase power? Of course it doesn’t, but even the small increments of reduced drag these suits allegedly produce, are what many have called “dramatic” performance effects like we have never seen before. And please, don’t use the “suits are buoyant” or any of the other arguments I been reading about lately. I have been an insider on swimsuit testing and technology since 1996, and have been part of testing many different suit configurations and fabrics from a number of the leading swim suit manufacturers, and most of these claims are simply not true.

This dialog about buoyancy and the like deflects what this technology clearly has demonstrated. Even small changes in reducing the drag, resulted in significant improvements in performance for swimming. I believe the technical component of swimming is the most underrated reason why times continue to improve, and has been really ignored in lieu of increasing the power or volume of training. So all these years, was it really increased power/strength that fueled improvement, or some other effect that somehow continued to reduce the drag as swimming times dropped. We know for sure that improved technique reduces the metabolic cost of swimming, so for all you obsessed with horsepower, even better metabolic performance from the engine. Swim suit technology testing has revealed as velocity increases, so does the drag incurred by the swimmer, by a factor of four. Like it or not, overcoming drag is and always has been the major obstacle to going faster.

So imagine if swimmers and coaches began to really measure swimming technique, like the swim suit companies measure reduction in drag, instead of just eye-balling technique. And speaking of eye-balling technique, I also believe in this vein of improving swimming technique, another important technology has emerged that will really drive swimming improvements for years to come. In the last 4 years, there has been a unique situation emerge in swimming unlike any other 4 year cycle, and it has to do with video technology. In particular, underwater video has permeated our sport, and web sites like YouTube have meets from all over the world posted almost minutes after it happens. In the last 4 years, more and more underwater video has been accessible for viewing. For years, the only coaches that really had access to underwater video were those that had a swimmer at the top level. For years we listened to others tell us what the best in swimming looked liked from underwater. It’s even possible now using this public video forum, to download and do measurements from this video. And best of all, this new view of swimming has really demonstrated that swimming technique, even among the best is as unique as a fingerprint. Gone are the days of having to rely on the opinion of others, I can see for myself. And if I’m motivated enough, I can measure it for myself. Over the last 4 years, I believe swimmers and coaches have used this new view to rethink the importance of swimming technique, and this new view and emphasis has contributed greatly to the recent assault on the record books.

So . . was it really increased power . . or reduced drag from improved techniques?

Only your LZR swimsuit knows for sure…