What are these now banned super fast swim suits and how do they work? Would they help a non sporting person like my self swim faster?
Unlike the early “shark skin” swim suits which were made of a textured woven fabric, the latest suits are made from a thin layer a flexible and stretchable closed cell foam material. Each micro closed cell is a pocket of gas which is less dense than water. The swim suit gives the swimmer extra buoyancy allowing the swimmer to float slightly higher in the water. The more of the swimmer that can be lifted above the water the less the resistance or drag on the swimmer. This is because the resistance of a person swimming in water is 780 times higher than if they were swimming in air. The more of the body out of the water the faster the swimmer — even if it is only half a millimetre more it is an advantage.
Shape is important as well. Nature is a good example of what is needed to be a fast swimmer. The fastest swimming fish like trout have sleek, smooth flowing lines with no bumps or protrusions. As soon as we put on a pair of pants we have waste band which is across the direction we are swimming. This is why the new suits start at the shoulders and go all the way to the feet. The modern neck-to-knee racing suit turns the human body into a sleek graceful shape of lowest possible resistance.
Surface texture is important and the first “shark skin” suits exploited this. They used tiny hairs on the surface to reduce the friction of the suit in the water combined with tidying up the human body shape.
FINA has announced rule changes for 2010 which will prevent the buoyancy foam skin from being used and athletes will have to revert to all fabric suits which do not provide this extra lift out of the water.
There are spin-off benefits to the average person wearing super swim suits. The most important one is the role model effect of body suits being acceptable and useful. The more children and adults we have wearing these suits on our beaches the less cases of skin cancer we will have to treat. On that basis alone super swim suits are a gold medal winner for all.
So to the second question — would such a suit help me swim faster — the answer is yes. However the advantage of 2 to 3 seconds for elite athlete is fantastic but the slower the swimmer you are the less the time advantage. This is why the public will be able to purchase them in go faster colours.
(Personal Comment: If I may venture a personal opinion, the technology allows the athlete to reach their highest personal potential. The swimming performances are a celebration of how we have used technology to improve our life on this planet, the more that we realise we can work with technology in every part of our life gives us the confidence that we can tackle the environment and other challenges facing our future.)
Lachlan Thompson is Associate Professor Aerospace Engineering. He is the creator and designer of the “Superbike” used by the Australian cycling team and is a consultant on aerodynamics and the engineering design of sports equipment and clothing. He is also the University’s research leader in Space Technology.
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