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Swimming in the Next Dimension

How the latest generation of body suits influences day-to-day coaching

by
Jonty Skinner 
Athletic Intelligence Consulting

If you look back in time, it’s clear there have been some dramatic changes in swimsuit technology. Arguably, the greatest impact on the sport was delivered by the most recent developments in this technology.

All things in life go through cycles, not least swimsuits. In the last century, we’ve gone from full-body suits of a heavy material that weighed swimmers down, to suits that were as brief as possible and almost see-through, then back to full-body suits that not only reduce friction but also add buoyancy. Suits in the early part of the 20th century were made of wool and weighed up to 8 pounds when wet. A century later we have the Blue70 suit, which requires approximately 4 pounds of applied weight to make it sink below the surface of the water.  So, suit material went from wool to rayon to nylon to Lycra to Fastskin (2000), as full-body suits returned to the fore, and most recently to the LZR Racer (2008), where more material versus less was the order of the day. It’s been quite a journey.

Now, I don’t know whether you’re for or against “progress,” but, personally, I’m conflicted on the subject. Technological progress is an inevitable part of this sport, but I believe it shouldn’t come at the price we appear to have paid for it.

I’ve studied time progressions through the decades, and the stats show that the ‘90s were one of the most stagnant periods in swimming history.  At the end of that decade, rapid innovations in suit technology seemed to jump-start the record-breaking process. Times have fallen and fallen. At one level, it’s been great to watch and seems to have been good for the sport. But these changes have left every swimmer, coach, parent, and governing body on a slippery slope and FINA would seem not to be dealing with it very well. I am beginning to rue the day we allowed that virus in the back door. Yes, since the ‘90s, swimming has seen a renaissance in terms of record-breaking performances. Times that seemed untouchable have been rendered almost meaningless. But what, I wonder, is the true cost of such technological progress? At what point is the sport more about technology than technique, more about materials than physique?

Little has been said or written about how the new suits have impacted the sport in ways other than by dropping performance times. They bring an insidious aspect that could hamper rather than help coaches unless coaches realize their true impact on the sport. If you look at the results since the introduction of the FS Pro in 2007, it’s clear that we have been riding a wave of what I call the WOW factor. (Or, if you’re watching a rival team, maybe the SOB factor.) It’s the LZR that has garnered the most attention. It’s by far a faster suit than the FS Pro, but it was the FS Pro that turned the corner on truly enhancing bodyline and structural compression, and was probably the first suit that impacted technique and potential training options. So, until we get through an entire cycle of indoor and outdoor, this WOW factor won’t abate, and its effect on the opinions coaches have of their success will continue to be, in my opinion, a muddied affair.

Coaches are constantly looking for answers to the age-old question: What does it take to put an athlete in a position where they can achieve a peak or breakout performance? When that over-the-top, breakout swim (or season) occurs, they tend to study that season’s training logs in search of what it was that might have contributed to the breakout performances. If it worked once, it should work again and again, right? And if they can find that magic formula, they will always be successful at helping their swimmers swim fast. Sounds great, right? Everyone wants in, like “Where can I sign up?”

The problem is that this isn’t really the way it is in coaching. Swimmers grow and change, team dynamics change and performance dynamics evolve over time. Although there is a staple of work focus that is constant in terms of its impact, many of the variables ebb and flow and, as coaches we need to understand the big picture when planning a season. That said, we’ve just gone through two summers where performances have been radically altered by the suits. Having your team swim 100% lifetime-best performances has a limited correlation to the magic bullet of coaching, and I seriously question whether coaches can rest on their laurels and try to emulate or reproduce the training programs that were successful over the past four seasons. Even if you recognize that performances have been skewed, and that what you did in training wasn’t necessarily the perfect plan, you still have to recognize that this sport has changed dramatically in the past year. Using the training methods that were successful in the past will more than likely put you in a position where those that change and adapt will reap far greater benefits than you. The paradigm has taken a dramatic shift, and anyone who fails to see these suits in the correct light will likely end up frustrated, or worse… on your own and wondering where the herd went.

A few years ago, I wrote an article about freestyle in which I argued that, in terms of broad technique, there are two main options, and that our infatuation with short-course yards (SCY) racing was leading us down a path of diminishing returns in long-course (LCM) swimming. My rationale at the time was the fact that, while swimming with a straight-arm catch versus a high-elbow catch was more powerful, it had a greater metabolic or energy cost. Using this technique in LCM seemed, to me, to limit the swimmer’s options beyond 100m free. 

A swimmer can be very successful with the straight-arm option in SCY because the actual time spent swimming as opposed to turning is small (cost issue). That changes dramatically in LCM. Enter the suits and their effect on metabolic cost (they lower the cost substantially) and suddenly swimmers can sustain straight-arm technique easily over a 100m long course. This past Olympics was a testament to that fact. You used to see the odd high-elbow swimmer in the thick of the 50; now you don’t. They used to be in the thick of the 100; now they’re rare. You used to have 200-meter swimmers competing in (and in many cases winning) the 100m; now you don’t. Today’s 100m races are dominated by straight-arm, 50-meter guys. 

So, what does a coach do? Do you continue down the path of teaching kids a high-elbow freestyle? Or, do you reason that today’s ten-year-old swimmer, when he’s twenty, will be wearing a suit that allows him to sustain rate and straight-arm dynamics over 400m? If you want to develop and establish neural function correctly, it’s best to embed the process during those periods when the swimmer is most malleable, since it’s much harder to change when they’re not. As they say: neurons that fire together, wire together.

Coaches had best take a long, hard look at what they’re teaching their age groupers today. If anyone thinks they have the next Michael Phelps or Natalie Coughlin, they should at least be asking themselves what technique base they intend to embed in the swimmer, in particular with regard to taking advantage of the suits we’re likely to see in 2016 and 2020. Technological development will not stand still.

Have you even thought about that option? Yes, there is a good chance that FINA will reassess their position on the suits. Even so, regardless of whether they do or don’t step back to 2007, or eliminate any neoprene or neoprene-derivative from the suits, the permitted suits will continue to enhance performance. Not recognizing that simple fact and its fundamental impact on coaching may result in some swimmers being disadvantaged.

You cannot fail to notice how some countries have strengthened their grip on certain events. France, in particular, has jumped out of nowhere to being a major force in men’s sprint freestyle. How did that happen? Where did they suddenly get all of their awesome sprinters? Some of them have always been there, and one could be considered a prodigy just coming into his own. But, what changed? What made the difference?

The possibility exists (this is international sport, after all) that something hidden is going on. People, being people, are prone to point fingers and spread rumors about possible underhanded methods. A crowd favorite: Why accept something as genuine when you can tear it down by speculating about the possibility of drugs? You don’t even have to provide evidence; rumors do the job. My own feeling is that it’s not a suggestion I care to make.

It’s just as likely that the French coaches figured out the kind of program that prepares their sprinters to finish their 100m races on a consistent basis and with the ability to sustain a higher percentage of velocity over the second 50. Their sprinters have in the past been in the pack. At times, they even showed standout flair in relay splits. What was missing was consistent front running prior to 2008.

But there’s a third possibility: They didn’t change much at all. What changed was the effect of the suits on their training programs. Most American coaches are enamored with endurance training — doing the mileage, paying the price. They were, for the most part, more successful because their athletes worked harder. Enter the suit. Programs with more emphasis on neural or speed-based adaptation concepts jumped forward because the suit afforded them easy access to muscular endurance, body tone and balance with no comparable dry-land training programs. The suits reduced the function of endurance in the equation. The French sprinters could now finish races with sustained velocity using, in some cases, inferior techniques. This seems to me to be the most likely answer, the one in my mind that makes the most sense

I see the French success story as reinforcing my point that the playing field has changed and that coaches would do best to think differently about how the suit is impacting performance on a metabolic and a biomechanical level. It’s highly probable that training routines that have in the past been successful will continue to lead to success; but the levels of success will be limited. I believe that the dynamic of preparing athletes has shifted dramatically, and anyone thinking otherwise, or doing the same thing as before, stands a good chance of getting left behind in the wake — or maybe at the wake — depending on how you handle defeat.

Editor’s Note:  Jonty Skinner, a former world record holder in the 100m free and, from 1994 to 2000, USA Swimming’s Resident Team Coach, and was USA Swimming’s Director of National Team Technical Support.  In this role, he coordinated the testing, tracking, and assessment of the National Team athletes.