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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Speedo's LZR swimsuit

The Speedo LZR racer: feedback on a developing debate, and the value of technique

Welcome to the Science of Sport!
Be sure to visit our main page where we have daily analysis
and comment of the swimming and other events at Beijing 2008!

Thanks to all who have commented on yesterday's post, which focused mainly on the newly developed swimsuit by Speedo, the LZR Racer. This suit is making waves in the swimming world, since it has been worn for 9 out of 9 world records in the pool this year! Some coaches believe the issue of fairness needs to be debated, with calls for ethics debates around it.

Your comments have been very insightful, none more so than Jamie's, as he wrote in response to yesterday's post. I had not even thought of rowing as an example of a sport with similar equipment "advantages" possible. But his email gives a great example:
In rowing we also have an interaction with water and this aspect of the technique/training generally has a bigger impact than the physiology. FISA (our international federation) dealt with similar issues as swimming is going through in the 70's and 80's when some countries started using riblets running the length of the boats hull and also applied what was called "fish slime" which changed the properties of the hull/water interface and made significant difference in time (10 sec in a 6 min race).

The riblets were banned because of the expense as they were very easily damaged and had to be replaced often and the "fish slime" was banned as it was deemed a pollutant in the water

Our rules now say the following:
Bye-Law to Rule 31 - Boats and Equipment

1.4 No substances or structures (including riblets) capable of modifying the natural properties of water or of the boundary layer of the hull/water interface shall be used.

It would seem that the claims of Speedo/NASA indicate that with the new suits this boundary layer between the body/suit and the water is definitely modified. Whether FINA consider this unfair or not will be the deciding factor in the debate.
Input from an expert on swimming hydrodynamics

In addition, as I began writing the post yesterday, I contacted Prof Raul Arellano, who is based at the University of Granada in Spain. Arellano has spent years studying fluid movements during swimming, and has published numerous papers looking at propulsion and biomechanics of swimming, so he contributes to the specific debate around swimming with a far more experienced and educated eye than I can!

And his input is very interesting. I've pasted some of his response below, with my comments immediately following them.
The problem with the new swimsuits is that they improve the body shape much more than skin friction. And this improvement is very individual... the percentage improvement depends on the person's body shape. I have observed a master swimmer with a lot of fat around her abdominals reduce her time in 100m butterfly by 6 seconds to break the Master's world record. The changes in the body shape underwater using a smaller size full body swimsuit were clearly evident (the fat position was fixed and the perimeter reduced).
In yesterday's post, and in the news reports, a great deal was made of the reduced drag as a result of the LZR suit being seamless and consisting of new materials tested by NASA. This insight suggests that in fact, the suit's ability to reduce friction and drag may be minor compared to the improvement in body shape as a result of wearing the swimsuit. Is this analogous to the compression garments now being touted for team sports and explosive sport in particular? That came up in one of the comments to the previous post - of course, the effect would be substantially larger in the water, and the mechanism is different, but it's still intriguing.

In addition, Prof Arellano noted the following:
These changes [in performance] are much smaller in well trained top athletes, but enough to improve the performance some tenths of second. But you need to add some more things related to HiTech doping; for example, is the use of biomechanics HighTech doping? This tool is far less accessible than a swimsuit and so very few swimming teams use this kind of enhancing tool. We have observed changes in the start technique, changes in the underwater phase of the start and turns, changes in the stroke synchronization, changes in the body position, and so on.

In our experience testing top level swimmers at the end of one feedback and training workout to improve the swimming start, we obtained improvements of half a second in the 10m start time. Is this improvement doping? You can see the videos of Olympic champions during Munich 1972 or Seoul 1998 and you can observe very bad start and turn techniques, these changes can affect to the top performers much more than the use of new swimsuits.
For example, if you observe Michael Phelps' start and turns, he can obtain more than two seconds' advantage in 400m IM. The rest of competitors and their coaches can use the same turn technique as Phelps but they don't ? Why? ...Who knows?
Fascinating insight - what is being referred to here is that we may dwell on the swimsuit and its potential advantages, but there may be even bigger advantages gained through the use of biomechanical studies/methods and training to improve the technique of the swimmer, not during the stroke only, but also the start and turns. Of course, the debate still exists that two swimmers may be very closely matched in terms of physiology, biomechanics and technique, but the one in the faster swimsuit will win. And it is unfortunately a reality that not all swimmers will have equal access to the "possibly faster" swimsuit. As I mentioned yesterday, sponsorship agreements often dictate that swimmer cannot wear a Speedo, and that means the playing field may not necessarily be equal. Many individuals (including Alain Bernard, world record holder) have obatined individual sponsorships that opposed that of their federation (Bernard is a Speedo LZR man, the French team is sponsorsed by Arena). One thing that is for sure is that I would hate to be the sole swimmer not wearing the suit that is possibly worth one second in my Olympic final...

Why leave any stone unturned?

In any event, one thing that never ceases to amaze me is that there are, as Prof Arellano has pointed out, world class athletes who miss out on opportunities for improvement that they could use to gain seconds on their performance. And who knows why they would not? The case of the Speedo LZR once again highlights the fact that there are people who naturally embrace technology and innovation, and some who do not (or cannot, as the case may be). I know if I was swimming, I'd be embracing every single opportunity for improvement, even if it was unproven!

And then finally, Prof Arellano has noted the following with regards to Alain Bernard, the French swimmer who recently broke the 50m and 100m freestyle records. This is in the context of talking about the recently set world records and whether they are solely due to the new swimsuit:
At least I can observe clearly some technical aspects improved by some record holders before their impressive performances. Bernard, for his 50m and 100 m World record, significantly improved his start technique, getting the 1st place immediately from the start (this point improved more than half a second [from his France record in 100m free performed last season in France]. This is critical to be winner in the 50m or 100m events, where the waves generated by the rest of competitors can affect you in a magnitude (increasing your total drag) that is impossible to overcome keep up with the more quicker starters. You do not have enough energy to surpass the increased wave drag.
Interesting then that training, even in the day and age of superior technology can still make such a large difference. I recall that Roland Schoeman, South Africa's best swimmer at the Athens Olympics, stood out for his incredibly fast starts, that often had him a body length clear within the first 30 m of a 100m freestyle event. I find it astonishing that the other seven guys in the Olympic Final could be that comprehensively "outstarted", considering the importance of that aspect of the race. There are analogies and comparisons with many sports; I can think of a few cases where athletes have made very basic errors in preparation that would be easily resolved through simply listening.

And so like Prof Arellano, I have no answer for why more athletes would not develop these obviously crucial areas a little more than they have, and work on technique when it's apparently available to those who really want it. I suspect that part of the problem is that elite atheltes (and their management team) become quite insulated from the "voices" beneath them. And so they fail to hear or listen to anyone but the select few in direct contact with them. Thus, they often won't even perceive the possible benefits they might gain simply by listening to others.

Regardless, the swimsuit debate rages on, with a discussion between FINA and Speedo scheduled for the World Short Course Championships in a few weeks. Difficult to see how anything can be done now, unless they're prepared to scrap the world records set so far this year?

Looking ahead to the rest of the week...

That's it for the swimming for now - thanks to all who have commented and written in, feel free to throw your hat in the ring on this latest one.

But speaking of technique, it's back to running tomorrow, when I'll take a look at running technique, and specifically, the landing of the foot. Should you land on the forefoot? Or is heel striking the better option? We'll have a crack at that then.

As for the rest of the week, a big event on the weekend - World Cross Country championships in Edinburgh. The first big Championship clash of the year between Kenenisa Bekele and Zersenay Tadese. I'm sure that will warrant a post or two!

But for tomorrow, it's foot strike in running. Join us then!


For more discussion and analysis of the Speedo Swimsuit issue, click on the following links:
  1. The Speedo LZR Racer: Introduction and debate: Does Speedo's "supersuit" make world records irrelevant? The line between "tech-doping" and innovation
  2. Speedo's LZR: The role of swimming technique in progress - the suit or the style?
  3. The swimsuit wars begin: Arena enters the fray, and what goes into suit design
  4. Adidas launches its swimsuit: Are we watching swimmers or "human-powered boats"?
  5. Arena attack Speedo: Arena seeks to have the Speedo LZR Racer banned
  6. Arena's threat of legal action: Suddenly the integrity of the sport is at stake
  7. World records disappear by EIGHT seconds: The swimming crisis


Andrew said...

The more you discuss these types of issues, the more abstract the answers have to be. What defines *athletic* competition?

Greg LeMond used aerobars to win the Tour de France; this is OK but a recumbent bicycle is not?

Speed skaters can use clap skates to great effect, but they can't wear aero helmets?

Eddie the Eagle, IIRC, out-distanced his competitors but finished dead last due to losing style points for using the technique that allowed him to jump so far.

Adventure races usually have strict rules on the types of canoe/kayak racers can use, but there are few limitations on the mountain bikes used in the same races.

The list goes on. Where do we draw the line between athlete and equipment? After all, I'd have never made my high school tennis team if my 20/400 vision hadn't been corrected with high-tech "equipment"; i.e. contacts.

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Matthieu said...

Thanks for the interesting discussion. I used some of your conclusions and discussed the issue of tech-doping on my blog (in french).


My opinion is that as long as is does not change the focus of the sport, it's ok. No one would talk about tech-doping in sailing, because technology is part of the competition. the Speedo swimsuit, by helping swimmers to have the correct body shape and technique in a sport that never relied on anything high-tech, is off-limits, I'd say.

Anonymous said...

There are three types of drag associated with a body either being “towed” or swimming on the surface of the water. Those are friction, wave and pressure drag. At Olympic level velocities, a fabric or seam where the manufactures of the suite claim that the frictional drag is significantly improved, will not significantly affect the overall performance of the suit transferred to the athlete or the performance time. Frictional drag at these velocities is not a major player because velocities are much to slow.

The body shaping characteristics many have referred to might come into play with less skilled athletes, but one would have to assume that an elite swimmers body alone would already have a shape that would achieve lower drag. This re-shaping isn’t any different than what crew chiefs do with race cars to reduce the drag on the cars by adjusting the rear wing, or re-shaping the nose of the car. In motor sports, crew chiefs that make their equipment work better are applauded, in our sport, they are chastised.

The post from Prof Arellano that noted the following more closely reflects how these elite swimmers are gaining some of these big improvements. Sport scientists, especially those that have been using digital video to measure how swimmers move through the water have known for years that the technical component in swimming has a big upside in performance improvements. Prof. Arellano is one of a couple of swimming scientists that have been taking these measurements for a long time, and talking about the improvements that can be gained.

Unfortunately, these findings have long been ignored by those that coached elite swimmers until recently.

These changes [in performance] are much smaller in well trained top athletes, but enough to improve the performance some tenths of second. But you need to add some more things related to HiTech doping; for example, is the use of biomechanics HighTech doping? This tool is far less accessible than a swimsuit and so very few swimming teams use this kind of enhancing tool. We have observed changes in the start technique, changes in the underwater phase of the start and turns, changes in the stroke synchronization, changes in the body position, and so on.

There have been a number of really good studies that have measured the percentage of time starts, turns, and especially gliding techniques can affect performance. And as Prof. Arellano has noted in another part of his post, it is possible, to improve the first 10 meters of a race up to a half of a second in just the first 10 meters of a race. What Olympic swimmer would turn down that kind of improvement? There are even bigger gains to be had on turns and gliding from the wall, which Prof. Arellano alludes to in his post below.

In our experience testing top level swimmers at the end of one feedback and training workout to improve the swimming start, we obtained improvements of half a second in the 10m start time. Is this improvement doping? You can see the videos of Olympic champions during Munich 1972 or Seoul 1998 and you can observe very bad start and turn techniques, these changes can affect to the top performers much more than the use of new swimsuits.

Anonymous said...

On the topic of tech-doping, the UCI (cycling powers-that-be) have now banned power measuring devices (eg. SRM, powertap, ergomo...) from 2009.

Here is a link to an article that sums it up:

I will not regurgitate the entire article as it says all that needs to be said, sufficed to say that next on their hitlist will be Radio communication devices and heart rate monitors.

It seems like data is the latest source of tech-doping! (pink is the new black)

It still won't stop the riders using the devices in training where most of the benefit lies (except time trialling), and so it still does not allow the "equal access to all" that it strives to achieve. All the riders who have spent thousands of their hard-earned on the pricey devices are up in arms and forming petitions to the UCI.

On the lighter side, they will also be banning team support cars from 2011 and so it will be rather humerous to watch the big boys riding with the saddlebags like the rest of us as well as standing on the side of the road fixing their own punctures :-) Let's just see how popular tubbies will be now!

Lalu said...

I am a swimmer, former wind tunnel researcher (unsteady flow), and presently a researcher in biomechanics.

The suit provides unfair advantage because of the expense of tailoring a suit to match precisely the shape of an individuals body to be effective in reducing drag from vortex shedding. The shaking of skin and muscle while swimming at higher speeds scatters a swimmer's kinetic energy into the water. The suit greatly reduces this loss by holding the muscle and skin shape more constant, creating fewer and smaller 'mini-tornados' of water shedding off the body.

Also, the muscles are no longer putting energy into shaking and stretching the skin in unorganized-chaotic patterns that eventually dampen out. This source of kinetic energy loss is greatly reduced.

If a suit is off the rack, and not tailored, the suit will wobble and not hold the skin-muscle shape. I suspect that less expensive versions of this suits will be much less effective that those tailored for Speedo sponsored swimmers whose bodies have been 3-D scanned.

I have not examined the fabric the see how easily it stretches and conforms to the body, so alternatively consider the following contradiction-argument:

The designs shown do not cover the arms and shoulders (also indicated by Speedo as high-drag regions). Speedo does not put panels on the arms or shoulders likely because the material restricts motion excessively when stretch beyond an elastic range. If the material did stretch well, there would be ample reason to cover the shoulders and arms. As an aside to this, breastrokers will likely be wearing a different design to allow for pelvic flexion and full articulation of the femur-acetabulum connection at the hip.

The conclusion is that the suit must be expensively tailored to stretch minutely in just the right places for each swimmer's unique body shape - hence, the suit must be expensive to have the advertised advantages.

Also, video that I have seen shows flip turns that look more restricted in motion than those from swimmers not wearing the new suit. The supporting 'girdle' around the abdomen is likely creating an elastic effect here, stretching around the lumbar and gluteous region, while compressing like a spring on the front side of the abdomen and pelvis. When the swimmer flips over and straightens their body, the stored potential energy in the elastic stretch (back side) and compressive spring (front side) are available to help the athlete straighten and push off the wall with greater kinetic energy and perhaps in less time.

Less drag from unsteady flows, storing potential energy for later use during flip turns, and significantly greater advantage for more expensive, individually tailored suits. The last item prevents a leveling of the playing field for athletes who cannot afford all the advantages the suit offers, and learn to train while using these advantages.

I am against this 'evolution' of the sport in this direction. I am in favor of seeing athletes compete fairly, and in favor of the Unity the world can experience in honoring champions who rise from a level playing field.

Anonymous said...

This is crazy, Technological doping? What a stupid excuse for the progession of swimming. The swimming world is progessing like every sport in the world. New suits and better technique they help but it is the swimmers at his or her core that is going to bring out world records and ultimate change in his or her swimming. Other sports, like cycling use aerodynamics and wind tunnel test for there bikes and helmets. These things help but it is up to the rider to perform.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Thanks for the comment. I don't agree with your statement that swimming records are progressing like every other sport in the world. In fact, I'd love for anyone to prove that statement. I believe that swimming world records,especially in 2008, are falling far faster and by far bigger margins than is physiologically possible.

For example, how many world records are normally set in an Olympic Year, during the build-up to the Olympics? You may be surprised to know that the answer is...FIVE.

So far in 2008, there have been 37 records - 19 long and 18 short course. 34 out of 35 are the Speedo. Now that is data that one cannot argue with. I have little doubt that the suit is responsible for the records

But of course, the suit does not swim by itself, but then we say technological doping, that's not what we mean anyway. If you watch a cyclist who is using drugs, he still wins thanks to his 4 hours of training and effort on the bike. It's not like the drugs push the pedals for him. But if he wins the race, beating the guy who has not used drugs, is there a problem? Of course, and that is the issue here.

So while I appreciate the the swimmer is still breaking the record, the real question is whether it's good for sport to have one so clearly dominant piece of equipment, that is able to obliterate history. Speedo, has, in effect, pushed the "Reset" button on years of swimming performances. The other manufacturers will now follow and the sport of swimming will be different from now on


Anonymous said...

Well in my own personal opinion, I think this is all mental. No matter what you're wearing it might affect you a little bit, but just think. If someone told you that you're wearing the worlds fastest swim suit wouldn't that kind of make you swim faster. I know I would. In fact I did when the speedo Fastskin II's came out I bought one for short course state championships that year and dropped three seconds. Now I new I was going to drop time I had put in too much work to not drop any. But that extra Mental factor simply pushed it even further. You also really can't understand it until you have one speedo's amazing suits on, whether it's the LZR or just another fastskin... they make you feel great. so in my opinion i think it's just a placebo effect. You all put up good points though.