WARNING: This is long. If you just want to know about modern practice and competition swim suits, skip down to near the end. I’m going to tackle this subject chronologically, since the road to the present has had its share of strange activities.
There has been swimming as far ago as the Greeks and Romans. Apparently they didn’t believe in swim suits, as surviving frescos show that swimming was done in the nude. That may seem embarrassing to us, but keep in mind that they also wrestled in the nude. Of the two, I’d rather swim.
Let’s jump forward to the 1800s. Generally swimming was still done in the nude, but various special bathing clothes were starting to be adopted. These originally bathing suits were made of canvas or wool, involving undershirt + drawers-type clothing for men, while women were generally expected to wear multiple bulky layers of clothing covering the torso, arms, legs and sometimes even the head. Total dry weight often exceeded 10 pounds. Evidently swimming for speed wasn’t on the agenda
By the time the first Olympics rolled around, competitive swimmer was starting to become more popular, and socially acceptable yet functional options were required. However, men’s and women’s suits were generally still made of wool, with suits covering the trunk, chest and shoulders These suits weighed just a few pounds when dry, but weighed much more when wet. These swimmers were strong!
Speedo entered the picture as far back ago as 1914, creating suits that freed up the arms for movement, and decreased the weight tremendously. Jantzen and BVD soon followed with stretchy, form-fitting suits. From the 1930s on, the race by manufacturers to product better and faster swim suits was on. And it has taken us much farther than anyone thought it would.
As little as 20 or so years ago, the world of practice and competition swim suits was pretty stable. Practice suits were similar to how they are now; durable, heavy and sized according to the swimmer. Competition suits were tiny (many sizes smaller than the swimmer normally wears), paper thin and light, and would typically last anywhere from a half year to a year. It was not unusual for top male swimmers to be wearing a size 26 or 28. Other than that, life in the swimwear world was pretty boring.
Around 2000 though the swimwear world started to move into overdrive. Speedo introduced the Fastskin, with a surface designed after a shark’s skin. At that same time Ian Thorpe of Australia started wearing his full form-fitting body suit by Adidas. Strangely, others didn’t follow his suit immediately and Thorpe remained the top swimmer in the world, and pretty much the only one in that type of suit.
But companies did notice, and by 2008 the “shiny” suits had taken over. These suits revolutionized swimming, and caused an explosion of world records that had never been seen before. Speedo’s LZR Racer lead the way initially, being worn by 98% of all swim medal winners at the Beijing Olympics. Within 17 months of its introduction, an astounding 93 world records had been broken wearing this suit alone. Other suit manufacturers soon joined the race, and an onslaught on records was started.
These suits improved swimming in 3 critical areas.
- trapping air for buoyancy so that the body would ride higher in the water, drastically reducing water resistance
- provided body compression, resulting in a reduced profile in the water, as well as compressing muscles allowing them to work better when fatigued
- provided lower resistance to water flow than human skin
It was so bad that in 2009 FINA (the world swimming body) declared that the shiny suits basically amounted to “technological doping”. They established that as of 2010, a new set of swim suit guidelines would be in place that limited the impact suits could have on those three crucial areas, as well as establishing that no suits can be worn past the shoulders or knees, or above the waist for men. In addition, no swimmer may wear more than one suit at a time in competition.
As a side note, at the Beijing Olympic in the 100 Free, Alain Bernard of France won the gold medal. Alain is probably the widest and most muscular swimmer I have ever seen in my life. Many experts theorized that a swimmer his size would not have had a chance of winning without the shiny suit.
These suits had one impact that survived the banning of the suits. One that affects all of us in swimming.
Prior to shiny suits, top level suits would run $100-200, and would often last a whole season. However, shiny suits ran from $600-800 (or higher), and were typically good for 10 races at the most. That’s not 10 meets, that’s 10 races. They could take from 20-45 minutes to put on, and often required an assistant to help in the process.
The legacy these suits left us is a willingness to pay big bucks for top level swim suits. So now, even though today’s suits have nowhere near the technology or impact of shiny suits, we are still left with much higher price tags.
Present-Day Practice and Competition Swimsuits
First off, younger swimmers, such as those in Novice or below, do not need competition suits, even if they go in the occasional meet . The benefits for them are far too small to be worth the very hefty price tag. But wearing board shorts or other similar beach wear is also not advisable for training either. Those bulky suits weigh the body down, and make holding a good body position far more difficult.
All swimmers should have a few practice suits. These suits are generally polyester / nylon and lycra mixes and should be treated for chlorine resistance. Speedo, Tyr and a few other companies make them. These swim suits should fit comfortably, unlike competition suits. Women’s suits are all pretty similar, but men’s suits come in brief and jammer.
Experienced swimmers may also want a competition suit. While these do cost a lot, they definitely allow older and more technically proficient swimmers to go faster than they would in a practice suit. These suits can be tough to put on (usually 2 or more sizes smaller than practice suits), and require up to 20 minutes to put on.
Manufacturers of these suits include Speedo, Tyr, Arena, and Blue70. Top woman’s suits range from $150 to over $500. Men’s suits range from $150 to $400.