The Lycra Swimsuit That's Worth Its Weight in Gold

A first-hand test of the tech that revolutionized swimming.

Jun 17, 2008 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:34 AM


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On a Saturday at 7 a.m. at a gym in Briarcliff Manor, New York, Henry Donahue, DISCOVER’s CEO and a recreational triathlete, was struggling to suit up for his regular swim. Although the Tracer Light—TYR’s new swimwear for the 2008 Beijing Olympics—screamed “speed” in sleek brown and green lines, Donahue was taking more than a little time squeezing himself into it.

After some help with zipping his shoulders into the skintight, shoulder-to-ankle racing suit, Donahue walked to the pool looking like a capeless superhero—or a guy in a sleeveless, lightweight wet suit. “I don’t think it’s that cold in there,” the lifeguard said.

Cold is not the enemy. Drag is. Tracer Light’s tight fit is intended to rein in body parts such as breasts and buttocks that wobble in the water and increase resistance. “Nothing is wiggling,” Donahue confirmed. TYR says the girdlelike garment streamlines the swimmer better than a full-body shave.

Athletes sometimes compress their bodies during a workout to decrease recovery time, but TYR’s secondary goal (after undulation elimination) is to “maximize oxygenation…for optimum performance.” How exactly does squeezing make you swim faster? I asked physiologist Joel Stager, who studies oxygen transport during exercise and directs the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming at Indiana University at Bloomington. He couldn’t give a direct answer, although he had done a bit of research. “When I started asking around about this, nobody had ever heard of it. I called up a guy who had just finished a textbook on muscle physiology and the guy was like, ‘What?’” Stager said. “Show me the data!”

OK, our weekend trial won’t give Stager the science he’s looking for, but Donahue does take product testing seriously. He got up at the same time and ate the same breakfast as he had for his baseline test the previous weekend. He couldn’t wait to blow himself out of the water. I stood by with a Timex Ironman stopwatch as Donahue jumped into the pool to start his warm-up.

A length or two in, he said it felt like he was floating higher than normal—and if he’s right, something’s wrong. Suits that enhance buoyancy are forbidden in swimming competition by the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), the same spoilsports who banned streamlined helmets and webbed gloves. The new “performance” wear—both the Tracer Light ($80 to $320) and Speedo’s offering in the category, the LZR Racer ($290 to $550)—did receive FINA approval, though the uproar surrounding some recently broken world records may make the regulators change their minds (or their procedures).

TYR and Speedo have to be careful about the claims they make: They say the suits reduce drag, and they hope buyers will take that to mean faster times. Between measuring frictional properties of potential fabrics in NASA wind tunnels and modeling the fluid dynamics of jiggling flesh, the manufacturers have definitely created some hydrodynamic suits. They just don’t test them for racing speed.

It is certainly possible that swimsuit science could shave off a fraction of a second, the margin by which high-level races are won. Donahue’s gains, however, were not so subtle. When he touched the wall at the end of his sprints, our positive thinker had dropped a full 15 seconds from his 400 and 6.4 seconds from his 100. A recent study found that expensive placebos work better than identical cheap ones. Looks like when it comes to psyching yourself up with swimwear, you get what you pay for.

– DISCOVER reporter Jennifer Barone

On the next page, DISCOVER CEO Henry Donahue gives his first-hand account of trying out some hi-tech swimming gear

Hi-Tech Swimsuits, Tested First Hand As office perks go, the Olympic swimsuit experience was a mixed bag. On the plus side, I got to road test the same high-tech suits that some of the greatest swimmers of the world will be wearing in Beijing. I also dropped my personal best times significantly. That being said, I had to squeeze into an extremely constrictive swimsuit in front of a co-worker and have my performance improvement ascribed to the placebo effect.

For the first test in a TYR suit [described on page 1],I felt good and I swam fast. I was definitely helped both by being in the middle of a swimming-intensive phase of my triathlon training and by not wanting to embarrass myself in front of one of our editors.

Looking back at the test, though, I was unsure about a couple of the immediate observations. Was the suit actually buoyant? As I discovered from Jen’s research for the article, that would be a big deal. More importantly, was my time improvement due to the technological or the psychological benefits of the suit?

As a follow-up, I went back to the pool alone a couple of weekends ago and ran the same field test wearing the Speedo LZR Racer. Swimmers wearing the LZR Racer have broken 37 world records since the suit’s introduction in February—almost every single record that has been broken this year—and athletes are abandoning their sponsors to get the Speedo’s competitive edge. If any suit would make me swim faster, this was it.

I still can’t say for sure whether the suit adds buoyancy. The speed seems to come more from its girdle-like construction. Both the Speedo and TYR versions had noticeably less drag, and hold the lower body in a more streamlined, horizontal position in the water.

And my time? It was slightly better than in my regular TYR shorts, but nowhere near the PR I logged when I donned the racing suit for our editors the first time—all of which suggests that the embarrassment-avoidance effect had a meaningful impact. I may have to invite Jen back for my next triathlon.

– Henry Donahue

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