Do Fast Suits Make a Difference?

Something strange happened with swimming records in 2008. Joel Stager, a professor of kinesiology at Indiana University, Bloomington, ran a statistical study on swimming world records since the 1970s. The number of world records broken has gently curved upward, and record times have gently curved downward, but both are reaching plateaus, as expected.

The year 2008 was a curve-cracking anomaly. More than 40 records were set in 2008, double the average for the last 30 years. The fastest men in the 100-meter freestyle at the Beijing Olympics swam, on average, almost four standard deviations faster than predictions.

Swimmers set significantly more records in February and March 2008 than during those months in the past 30 years. Speedo introduced the LZR Racer in February 2008. The statistics weren't out of the ordinary in previous years, when other fast suits were introduced [source: Stager].

"Coaches are better. There's more video feedback. But the suit is really the only thing that has changed," says Kipp.

Speedo's Jason Rance cites improvements in training methods such as high-altitude conditioning, more specialized centers worldwide dedicated to training and more swimmers who swim full-time. "It's a combination of factors, of which the LZR Racer has been one," he says.

Stager pulled a case study from Japan. In April 2008, at the Japan Olympic trials, no swimmers wore LZR Racers. Two months later, at the Japan Open, swimmers competed in LZR Racers in the same pool. Swimmers swam significantly faster at the Open, although they were presumably trying for faster times at the trials. Strangely, sprinters improved significantly more than distance swimmers.

Data like these support -- but far from prove -- that the LZR Racer makes swimmers faster. But the data focus on swimmers who are already fast.

"The LZR Racer is the icing on the cake for athletes at the top of their game. It's not going to make you or me into superstars," says Rance. "We always say to children, and more importantly, to their parents, focus on getting your feet into the pool and doing the lengths on the swim team with a coach."

"I wouldn't necessarily go out and play golf with Tiger Woods's clubs," adds coach Kipp. "If you don't learn the basic techniques, and you don't learn how to train, the suits are not going to help you."

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