Bodysuits: here to stay

With Speedo launching their new generation fastskin, its clearer than ever that the bodysuit is here to stay in the sport of swimming, despite controversy when they were first introduced. We take a look at how they have influenced the sport since their introduction and look at ways you can get the most from your suit.

Bodysuits – now seen everywhere. Photo: SWPix

Four years ago, in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics, we ran a poll on the introduction of bodysuits that gave an overwhelming thumbs-up to their use. That result mirrored the decision in the Court of Arbitration for Sport earlier in the year that had concluded that the suits did not flout FINA’s laws and hence cleared them for use in the Sydney Olympic Games.

Of course at that time bodysuits were rarely seen; some swimmers had been wearing fastskin or aquablade suits at the British Olympic trials and they were clearly in evidence at Australian and American national championships as well, but their penetration into the sport was limited. That of course changed following Sydney where the huge publicity that the suits obtained and the subsequent increased availability, if not affordability, of the new costumes. Now the ubiquitous fastskin can be seen at virtually every meet from club galas to masters’ competitions as more and more swimmers seek to gain whatever edge they can in pursuit of their own goals.

But has this helped the sport and should the suits even have been allowed at all? On the question of legality, there is no black and white answer; although conclusive scientific evidence showing that there is a performance advantage is still thin on the ground, anecdotal evidence supports the fact that they can make you swim faster. Certainly, if the suits made you swim slower, then they certainly wouldn’t be being used at elite level, which probably means that, ethically at least, they fall foul of the sport’s laws, but that is immaterial now and the suits are set to stay.

Whether they have been good for the sport is another difficult question. Certainly at the highest level they have added a new dimension of interest to the sport, much as the introduction of coloured clothing to cricket did, but it’s impossible to say whether they have contributed to a rise in standards. There is, though, a confusing message that may be sent to young swimmers about the way to swim faster; the suits provide an obvious pathway to fast swimming, while the physical preparation and dedication of the athlete inside the suit is far less apparent. It is this that has been at the heart of the suits’ spread through the sport.

All of which is not to say that swimmers are getting lazy and seeking an easy way to faster swimming, although there are bound to be those who fall into that trap. Even those who put in the hours and effort in training might now attribute improvements in their times to the suit rather than the work they have done. What is important then, is to ensure appropriate use of the suits and to avoid overuse.

Regardless of any physical advantage a suit may give, there is undoubtedly a psychological advantage that they can offer; the placebo effect that the belief that the suit will enable a faster swim actually enables that faster swim, regardless of any actual benefit from the suit itself. Overuse can therefore lead to a dependence that may inhibit performance without the suits. Conversely if they are restricted to important competitions only, then the mental boost is still offered, and perhaps even enhanced, when it really matters. It is this premise that is the cornerstone of Bill Sweetenham’s recent policy on restricting the use of bodysuits outside of trials or major international meets.

But beyond any mental edge, there are ways of increasing the purported physical benefits of the suits. These are simple, commonsense principles that can easily be followed and which will help maximise the potential benefit of the suit.

Fabrics like this don’t last long.

Don’t wear them too often. Quite apart from the mental aspect outlined above, the fabrics used in suit manufacture are not designed for longevity. A large part of the physical benefit of a body suit is in its ability to exert pressure on the muscles, reducing fatigue. Obviously a baggy suit offers significantly reduced muscle compression and, of course, increased drag. Performance suits are worse than many others in this respect and will only offer maximum benefit for a small number of races before the irreversible stretch in the fabric renders them effectively useless. Consider that Ian Thorpe never races in the same suit twice.

Look after your suit. Since they are not a cheap investment, it makes sense to look after them to maximise their useful life. Be careful of rough surfaces when wearing the costume and always rinse through in cold fresh water after use. Not only does this prolong the life of the fabric but also any surface coating that the suit may have, both of which can be adversely affected by chlorine.

Make sure it fits. For most beneficial effect, the suit should be tight fitting with no wrinkles or gaps at the suits edges that could let in water. In particular check the small of the back and, in a full body suit, the areas around the neck and shoulders.

Finally, don’t warm up in them. This is perhaps the key to gaining maximum benefit from a suit. For most of the major brands the intention of the fabrics and coatings used is to interrupt the flow the water over the body, either by disrupting the surface tension or by channeling the flow, to both reduce drag and potentially improve buoyancy. This effect is most keenly felt when the fabrics are dry. Indeed when the suits become waterlogged, they can actually provide more drag than benefit. Hence one should always start a race in a dry suit. However, even quite apart from any technical reasons, sitting around in wet costumes that cover large parts of the body will inevitably cause muscles to cool down, which will adversely affect performance.