The more streamlined your shape, the faster and easier you slip through the water when you swim. Technical suits compress your body in all the important places to make you hydrodynamic. Specialized suits do not impede your movements or ability to take deep breaths.
History and Evolution
Swimming costumes started out designed for modesty rather than speed in the water. Pioneering swimmer Annette Kellerman shocked the public when she donned thigh-revealing swimsuits in the early 1900s, but those suits enhanced the safety and comfort of women swimmers who previously struggled in the water, weighed down by heavy garments. Swimsuits shrank in the decades leading up to the 21st century as experts tried to reduce drag. Advances in the study of the biomechanics of swimming as well as fluid dynamics revealed that compressing and shaping the body rather than uncovering it held promise for faster speeds during races.
Permeable versus Non-Permeable suits
Swimming suit fabrics evolved from wool, to rubberized cottons, to Lycra and Spandex-type materials. They got tighter, more form fitting and flatter against body curves. All the materials were water permeable and woven. In a technical first, Speedo teamed up with NASA engineers after the 2004 Olympics and created a swimsuit that greatly reduced drag. Speedo added polyurethane panels that repelled water. The water slicking action eliminated the friction caused when water meets and interacts with fibers. The high-tech suits featured "ultrasonically welded" rather than stitched seams, which further enhanced the streamline effect.
Specialized racing suits transformed imperfect physiques into ideal shapes for swimming. Lumps, bumps and curves reset according to the compression panels contained in the high-tech suits. Some swimmers wore two suits, and the layer of air trapped in between helped make them stay higher in the water. Swimmers not ordinarily in the running for medals surged ahead, literally buoyed by the supportive suits. The technical suits gave swimmers with average abdominal strength the sleek lines of a honed athlete without spending months building balance and core strength.
The Speedo "LZR Racer" suit burst onto the international swimming scene during the 2008 Olympics with its polyurethane panels that made swimmers slick in the water. Michael Phelps wore the suit on his way to a record eight gold medals. Advances in suit technology blurred the line between swimsuits and flotation devices. Manufacturers such as Jaked came out with more extreme versions of the LZR Racer suit, adding more polyurethane coverage and compressing the core abdominals much like a girdle.
In addition to technical concerns about the high-tech suits, the high price tag of technical suits grated on officials and spectators, who considered the suit an unfair advantage to wealthy competitors. USA Swimming banned the suits for young competitors aged 12 and under following the 2008 Olympics, and later, the international governing board of swimming, FINA, banned "non-fabric" suits that covered the entire body for all international competitions. Confusion remains, though, about exactly which suits qualify for what competition and whether officials should nullify the "technical suit medal" record times.