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