The latest swimsuit technology may help Olympic swimmers break more records.
Super-streamlined swimsuits. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.
A team of scientists has developed what may be the world's fastest swimsuit. Mechanical engineer Herve Morvan of the University of Nottingham in England worked on the suit, which is made by Speedo. His team analyzed body scans of over 400 top swimmers to find the body parts that generate the most drag. Using precision body compression and low-friction material, the new suit creates five percent less drag overall than last year's model. That may not sound like much.
But at this level of competition, any small improvement is absolutely vital, and if you watch Olympic swim racing, it is very difficult to determine who has won until a formal announcement is made.
Last year's suit was worn in 21 world record breaking swims; the Beijing Olympics will help give this suit a chance to do even better. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the science society.
Making Sense of the Research
In the Olympics, the competition is so tough that swimming races are won, and records broken, by a few hundredths of a second. So any fair and legal advantage—no matter how tiny—can make the difference between a gold medal and no medal at all. And there are really only two ways to swim faster: become a better athlete, or wear a better swimsuit. (It is hoped that Olympic trainees try to do both.)
The ideal swimsuit minimizes the amount of drag, or resistance, created by the water as the swimmer moves through it. Drag is made up of several components, including form drag, or the drag created by the shape of the body, and skin friction, or the resistance of the water against the surface of the body. Smooth, streamlined, narrow shapes create less form drag than bulky, angular, thick shapes. To take an extreme example, swimming in a business suit and dress shoes would create an enormous amount of form drag, because of all the thick, heavy material hanging off the body. Skin friction can be reduced by designing smooth materials that create little resistance against water.
The fast swimsuits, which cover most of the body, reduce both form drag and skin friction. However, they require two different kinds of material to achieve this. The low-friction material is extremely lightweight, while it takes slightly thicker material to compress and smooth out the body's angles and curves. The suit also has to allow the swimmer to have maximum control of his or her limbs, so it can't restrict muscle movement.
By taking computer scans of hundreds of world-class swimmers as they swam through water, Morvan's team identified specific points on the body that create the most skin friction, and placed the low-friction fabric at precisely those spots. While they were at it, they even discovered ways for the swimmers to position their fingers to reduce drag even further.
While it's very difficult to scientifically prove that this suit will be faster than any other, it does create five percent less drag than the previous version of the same suit, which was very successful. So the circumstantial evidence suggests that the new suit could contribute to many future gold medals and world records.
Now try and answer these questions:
- What is drag? How does it affect a swimmer's race time?
- Why is a five percent reduction in drag important at this level of competition?
- What are two important types of drag on a swimmer's body?
- Why don't competitive swimmers wear boxer-style swim trunks or other recreational swimsuits?
- Why do the competitive suits cover more of the body than regular swimsuits? In other words, why don't the swimmers wear as little material as possible?
You may want to check out the March 28, 2008, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: electricity from bacteria, people power, thermoelectricity, and what the sun is made of.