The Technology Behind Speedo’s High-Tech Swimsuits That Challenged the Olympics

Speedo’s LZR Racer reduced drag and improved swimmers’ mobility.

Speedo’s LZR Racer in action. (Photo courtesy of Speedo and NASA.)

Speedo’s LZR Racer in action. (Photo courtesy of Speedo and NASA.)

Skill is only half the battle when it comes to professional swimming—at least this is what Speedo USA aimed to prove when it designed its high-tech LZR Racer swimsuit after the 2004 Olympics.

The realm of competitive swimming has alluded to the intense training and dietary requirements of the sport. However, back in 1976, a shift occurred after the most Olympic world records were set after the introduction of swimming goggles. In 2008, Michael Phelps would once again rock the boat with Speedo’s supersuit, which, later on, would propel a number of other swimmers to set a whopping total of 93 world records. In fact, all but one of the swimmers who set records in the 2008 Beijing Olympics donned the LZR Racer.

Advances in swimming technology mostly had to do with textiles. The ultimate goal for the industry over the past few decades has been to figure out how to minimize as much drag caused by swimsuits as possible. The 50s saw the use of nylon, while the 80s moved on to Lycra—a synthetic elastane fabric with hyper-stretchable capabilities—that set the pace for innovative swimwear for the next couple of years. When Speedo created the LZR Racer, it decided to partner with scientists from NASA, universities, as well as sports institutes to create the most advanced, modern swimsuit yet.

“People would look at us and say ‘this isn’t rocket science’ and we began to think, ‘well, actually, maybe it is,’” said Stuart Isaac, Speedo’s senior vice president of Team Sales and Sports Marketing.

The Birth of the Supersuit 

The LZR Racer is a full-body suit that reduces skin friction drag. (Photo courtesy of Speedo and NASA.)

The LZR Racer is a full-body suit that reduces skin friction drag. (Photo courtesy of Speedo and NASA.)

In 2004, Speedo’s Aqualab research and development conducted a computational fluid dynamics study where it discovered that viscous drag is approximately 25 percent of the total retarding force. To reduce this, the researchers tested over 100 fabrics and material coatings in a wind tunnel in order to simulate low-speed viscous drag.

The LZR Racer uses a special fabric that Speedo dubbed the LZR Pulse, which is made of very fine microfibers of nylon and spandex that were combined in a high-density weave. Compared to the FastSkin II (Speedo’s most advanced suit fabric at the time, which was used in the 2004 Olympics), the LZR Racer was able to reduce skin friction drag by an additional 24 percent. It also uses the Hydro Form Compression System, which allows it to meld onto the body similarly to how a corset does. According to the team, this compression helps swimmers maintain their form so they can swim even longer and faster. Speedo says swimming efficiency improved by up to 5 percent thanks to this detail. Besides reducing drag, this lightweight material is also capable of repelling water and is highly stretchable.

Tests were also performed on various seams such as traditionally sewn seams and ultrasonically welded ones. This resulted in the creation of the first fully bonded, full-body swimsuit with ultrasonically welded seams. This means that the overlapping fabrics of the swimsuit were fused together instead of sewn, which helped to reduce drag by up to 6 percent. The zipper, which was also ultrasonically bonded inside the fabric, also contributed to reducing drag by 8 percent compared to a standard zipper. These were significant components in the design process, since they added extra compression to the fabric.

Reinventing the Swimsuit

The LZR Racer provides extra compression around the abdomen and the lower back.  (Photo courtesy of Speedo and NASA.)

The LZR Racer provides extra compression around the abdomen and the lower back. (Photo courtesy of Speedo and NASA.)

Another significant aspect of the LZR Racer is its panels and core stabilizers. Traditional racing swimsuits typically use only one single layer of fabric that includes low profile seams to minimize drag. However, swimsuits composed of only one material tend to become too tight because of high tension that, in turn, hinders the swimmer from being able to move freely. To solve this, Speedo utilized composite layers made of materials with various elastic and surface properties.

The LZR Pulse serves as the swimsuit’s base layer, which is fitted to the swimmer’s body. The additional panels are then overlayed onto the outer surface of the LZR Pulse. These panels consist of thin polyurethane sheets that are more firm compared to the elasticity of the Pulse and are customized according to the movements of certain swim strokes. An example is the panels that cover the quadriceps, which are specially designed to be shorter for performing the breaststroke as compared to those for the freestyle. This is to avoid limiting the mobility of the hip joints, which are heavily exerted when doing leg kicks during the breaststroke.

An internal core stabilizer is also included, which is made of another stretchable fabric that is bonded to the inner surface of the LZR Pulse. This is intended to tighten the abdomen and the lower back, creating the corset-like grip of the swimsuit. This allows it to further reduce form drag while improving core stability.

Industrial and engineering analysts at Langley later participated in the assessment of results from the surface drag tests, while the University of Otago in New Zealand and engineering firm Ansys assisted in the water flume testing and computational fluid dynamics aspect of the research. The addition of NASA to the team also helped to address certain gaps in testing, particularly with wind tunnel results.

“Speedo had the materials in mind [for the LZR Racer],” shared Isaac, “but we did not know how they would perform in surface friction drag testing, which is where we enlisted the help of NASA.”

A Short-Lived Victory

There has been little to no conversation on the impact of technology in swimming—even though the LZR Racer threw the sport for a loop after its smash performance in the Olympics when it was first released.

The introduction of the LZR Racer in the 2008 Beijing Olympics had an incredible effect on the race results. Winners of 94 percent of the races and 92 percent of world record-setting races had competed in the swimsuit. The suit was so effective at reducing drag and improving performance that FINA, the international governing body of water sports, was forced to ban the use of the LZR Racer in future competitions. In fact, the suit was regarded as a form of “technological doping,” with the argument being that the LZR Racer only served to diminish natural ability, therefore threatening the integrity of the sport.

Italian swimsuit manufacturer Jaked was also one of the few dozen companies that rode the high-tech swimsuit hype following Speedo’s success.

The ban was enacted beginning in 2010 and required swimmers to use swimsuits made out of permeable materials instead. The new mandate also established certain limits on how much a swimmer’s body could be covered, further preventing the use of any kind of high-tech full-body swimsuits. While Phelps did manage to score several records with the LZR Racer, he was still supportive of FINA’s decision.

This has resulted in the innovative efforts of engineers to shift to swim caps and goggles. However, considering that they don’t exactly cover the entire body, it’s still hard to say if the impact they have will be as significant as the LZR Racer’s.

As advances in sports technology continue to progress, this might not be the last time the Olympics will see enhancements like this from occurring. The question now lies in how to ideally balance technology and human effort as we celebrate athletic talent and technique. In fact, the goal could be for them not to compete, but instead work together.

For more news and stories, check out the impact of robot competitors in sports here.