ISU professor helps design new Speedo swimsuit that's breaking world records

Aug 20, 2007
ISU professor helps design new Speedo swimsuit that's breaking world records
Speedo's new Fastskin FS-PRO swimsuit, modeled by six-time Olympic gold-medallist Michael Phelps. Photo courtesy of Speedo

Rick Sharp was once a competitive swimmer and still swims daily. And so the professor of exercise physiology in Iowa State University 's Kinesiology Department is getting great satisfaction out of being part of a design team that created Speedo's new Fastskin FS-Pro swimsuit, which is being credited with helping world class swimmers break dozens of national and international records in the six months since its release.

In February, Michael Phelps wore the suit for the first time and set a world record in the 200-meter butterfly, even though he hadn't shaved for the meet. Kate Ziegler tried out the suit in June and broke swimming's oldest record -- the 1988 mark set by Janet Evans in 1,500-meter freestyle -- by almost 10 seconds. Others had similar success at the recent national championships in Indianapolis.

Expect Speedo's recent design to be all the rage among swimmers at next summer's Beijing Olympic Games -- now just a year away.

Speedo comes calling two years ago

The director of ISU's Kinesiology laboratories, Sharp was first contacted around two years ago by Speedo officials to assist in the design and evaluation of the new suit.

"They called me up to ask me to help out with the R&D (research and development) aspect of the suit," said Sharp, who serves as physiology consultant to Speedo International and participates in numerous swimming coach education programs in the U.S. and abroad.

"They contacted me because I had done some research over the last 10 years on suit design and swimming performance. It actually started with a study we did on shaving down -- tapering -- on whether shaving down made a measurable physical improvement in performance. I also did a study on the early version of the whole body suits to see if there was a similar effect in performance with those. That's how Speedo knew me and they came up with the idea of helping to design a suit that might work as intended."

The Fastskin FS-Pro swimsuit features a new, water-repellent fabric made through weaving a combination of spandex and nylon yarn. The fabric feels like a windbreaker when dry and is patented and dubbed LZR Pulse. It weighs 70 percent less than other swimsuits, but has 15 percent better compression -- an important feature to maintaining the pace of world class swimmers. It retains almost no water and needs only 45 minutes to dry after being in water for one hour.

Sharp reports that Speedo officials had already identified the fabric with the right low-drag characteristics by the time they first contacted him. But they had to fit that fabric into a design, which is where he came in.

"We talked about aspects of design that are important," he said. "Once they put together prototypes, they had several testing sites around the world for different aspects of the testing. We'd collect all the information from the testing and feed that back to the group as a whole and come up with ideas for the next prototype -- what we would tighten up, loosen up, etc.

"We have an outfit in New Zealand to do flume testing on a water treadmill -- putting swimmers in there to perform at different speeds to measure energy costs at the various speeds that a swimmer maintains," he continued. "That was my chief role as a physiologist -- to assess the energy cost in a specific design. I looked for something that would lower the energy cost as much as possible, and yet maintain these race paces that they have to keep in competition."

Shaping the swimsuit

He analyzed the physiological data that came in from testing all over the world and make suggestions on improving performance.

"My perspective is that you have a nice fabric -- a low-drag fabric that is as slippery as possible -- but you need to shape the body and prevent the skin from flapping around in the water, since that creates a lot of drag," he said. "We wanted to make something super tight and hold everything in -- something that wouldn't restrict breathing or movement -- that would allow real freedom at the same time. So the question became 'How tight can we afford to get the suit before restricting motion or breathing?'"

The design team used data gained from body scanning hundreds of international swimmers to successfully answer that question and devise the groundbreaking suit. According to Sharp, that suit is being marketed specifically for competitive swimmers, as well as Master swimmers "who also want to go fast."

Sharp hasn't worn one of the new suits when he swims. He doesn't even have one in his Forker Hall office. But he doesn't care if he ever gets to try out the suit. He gets plenty of satisfaction from just seeing it work.

"It's really gratifying to see your efforts pay off and have an impact on things like this," he said. "It certainly wasn't without frustrations. This is not something that took an afternoon to think up. There were plenty of failures and frustrations along the way. But to work as part of team from a lot of different professional backgrounds -- and have everyone put their professional input into this sort of thing and meld it all together into this product -- was challenging and rewarding at the same time."

Source: Iowa State University

Explore further: Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Flying thermometers

Jul 13, 2012

Some satellites carry instruments that provide measurements of the surface temperature of oceans and seas – like a thermometer in the sky. Scientists met recently to review data from new satellite missions ...

Olympians sue Samsung over Facebook app

Apr 27, 2012

Eighteen US Olympians including swimming greats Mark Spitz and Janet Evans are suing Samsung Corporation, saying its US Olympic Genome Project Facebook app misuses their names and images.

Amazing skin gives sharks a push

Feb 09, 2012

Shark skin has long been known to improve the fish's swimming performance by reducing drag, but now George Lauder and Johannes Oeffner from Harvard University show that in addition, the skin generates thrust, ...

Recommended for you

Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

Apr 16, 2014

Science has often come to the rescue when it comes to the world's big problems, be it the Green Revolution that helped avoid mass starvation or the small pox vaccine that eradicated the disease. There is ...

Japan stem cell body splashes cash on luxury furniture

Apr 14, 2014

A publicly-funded research institute in Japan, already embattled after accusing one of its own stem cell scientists of faking data, has spent tens of thousands of dollars on designer Italian furniture, reportedly to use up ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Aug 12, 2008
Olympic swimmers should be nude to prevent the suit from giving them a competitive advantage.

More news stories

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Turning off depression in the brain

Scientists have traced vulnerability to depression-like behaviors in mice to out-of-balance electrical activity inside neurons of the brain's reward circuit and experimentally reversed it – but there's ...

Is Parkinson's an autoimmune disease?

The cause of neuronal death in Parkinson's disease is still unknown, but a new study proposes that neurons may be mistaken for foreign invaders and killed by the person's own immune system, similar to the ...