The sporting goods world is rife with hype. Can these basketball shoes make you jump higher? Can this jersey cut through the air and make you run faster? Usually, the answer is no. So when Speedo pitched me on its current high-end racing swimsuit, which some prominent Olympians are currently wearing, I didn’t think much of it. After all, gone are the days of the full-body “fast suits”—these are just shorts. I was already swimming in stretchy Spandex shorts. How much of a difference could there really be?
A pretty significant difference, it turns out.
The Suit for Olympians
The suits I’m talking about are the Fastskin LZR line from Speedo. If that sounds at all familiar, it’s because in 2008 it was the full-body LZR Racer swimsuit that was responsible for 98% of the swim medals won and 23 of the 25 world records that were broken at the Beijing Olympics. It was so fast that it led people to call it “technical doping,” and it was banned from use in competition the very next year. Starting in 2009, male swimmers could only wear suits that covered from waist to knee, or less, while female swimmers could wear suits that covered shoulders to knees.
The suits I was being pitched were the Fastskin LZR Pure Intent (men’s/women’s) and the Fastskin LZR Pure Valor (men’s/women’s), both of which are suits being worn by athletes like Caeleb Dressel, Hali Flickinger, Ryan Murphy, Abbey Weitzeil, and others. The Team USA version is decked out like the American flag (though the men’s Pure Valor looks a bit like their crotches have been redacted?), but anybody can buy the non-Old Glory version online.
First, a cautionary note on sizing. My waist is about 31 inches, so I looked at Speedo’s online size chart and saw that I was a size 22. Friends, this was a mistake. Speedo also showed the measurements for hips, which I ignored because I had no idea how big my hips were. I just assumed that if the waist was right then we’d be fine. We were not fine. We were so very not fine. The shorts that arrived looked like they were made for a kid and I instantly knew that we had a problem. These shorts are also not as stretchy as plain old Spandex. The result was that I couldn’t pull them up past my knees. It was very literally impossible. Despite nobody being there to witness this futile attempt to pull on shorts, I felt deeply embarrassed.
Upon measuring my hips, I found that they’re 39 inches, which would have me pushing the limits of a size 24! Oops. So, Speedo sent the larger size. In the meantime, a former-swimmer friend convinced me that if I didn’t buzz my leg and chest hair there was no point to this exercise. More and more awkward by the minute.
The size 24 finally arrived and it still seemed impossibly small. My swimmer friend assured me this was normal, and that I would need to shimmy, squirm, and “pinch my cheeks in.” It still took five minutes of very intense wriggling, and it got stuck several times, both on my hips and my butt. The waistline would dig into my flesh, and it was generally a painful and uncomfortable experience. I ended up being glad I buzzed my legs because there was enough hair-pulling as it was. In retrospect, I probably should have gotten a size 25, despite that appearing to be way too big for my waist.
Once I actually had it on, though, it looked right. Not comfortable, but “right” in that it looked like a gross approximation of how the pros wear it. The suit sat low on the waist. It’s a compression suit, and I could really feel the squeeze. My butt was smooshed flatter than I’ve ever seen it. I felt like I could barely move, but upon further examination I did still have a full range of movement, so what the hell, let’s go swimming.
When I jumped in the pool, I could instantly tell that it felt different somehow. As I swam, I couldn’t really feel the water as much where the suit was. It felt like I was slipping through the water easier, but I knew it could be in my head, so I designed a test: I would swim 100 yards, then 200 yards, then another 100 yards, as fast as I could (in a 25-yard pool). First I did this drill in my regular Spandex jammers that I’ve had for 10 years, then I would stop, eat lunch, and repeat the same drill in the LZR Pure Intent. I knew this gave my old swimsuit an advantage because my arms would be far fresher on my first swim, but I figured if the $400 suit couldn’t make up the difference then it was basically a fraud.
Here were my times:
Holy crap. I was really ready to call bullshit on this whole thing, but that is statistically significant. More than 12 seconds off my first 100 yards and more than 26 seconds off my 200 yards! Witchcraft! By the time I did the second 100-yard swim in the LZR my arms were very much spent, but it was still more than six seconds faster. I repeated that same series of drills a couple days later, but this time wearing the LZR Pure Intent first, and the results were effectively the same, except I was even slower in my old shorts during my second set. This was measured with my Garmin Enduro watch, which automatically counts laps and times them, though it did hesitate by a few seconds each time I stopped at the end of a set, so we can subtract 3-5 seconds from each, but that seemed to be pretty consistent for every set.
After I crunched my numbers I reached out to Speedo asking what sorcery was in these shorts. The response I got: “The latest Fastskin suits were designed by combining 20 years of performance learnings with innovative technologies and fabrics, and Speedo worked alongside some of the world’s leading research institutions to study the ancestry of sharks and how they reduce drag when they swim. Speedo also collaborated with various partners including the Natural History Museum in London and Formula 1 on these suits.”
Umm, the ancestry of sharks? You did 23 and Me on Jaws and somehow made a fast pair of shorts? OK, that all sounds cool I guess, but it doesn’t really tell me much about how the damn thing actually works. I’ve reached out to Speedo again and will update if I hear back.
Here’s what I can tell you. When you touch the outside of the suit, it isn’t soft and silky like Spandex, but slightly rough. The website claims its “shark skin-mimicking texture creates micro vortices along the suit’s surface, helping reduce drag and encouraging forward propulsion,” which again, maybe. But the material itself feels almost more like a high-end rain-jacket. Indeed, when I stuck the suit under a tap, the vast majority of the water beaded right off (whereas my Spandex shorts sucked it up). This tells me the suit has some hydrophobic properties, which would indeed let it slip through the water with less friction.
The waistband lined with not one, but two silicone bands that not only pull at your body hair while you’re trying to tug it on, but also keep water from flowing into the suit, where it can really slow you down. I also noticed that the suit has a ton of vertical stretch (if you pull from top to bottom), but almost no lateral stretch. I suspect that’s how it achieves compression without limiting range of motion. On the butt-panel there’s a slightly raised hexagonal pattern, which makes these shorts look very cyberpunk, but I genuinely have no idea what it does beyond that.
These shorts look cool and did indeed make me swim faster. I am a very rank amateur, so I would suspect that someone with actual training and good form would net even more of an advantage. That being said, if you aren’t racing, then having a suit that helps you swim faster isn’t really that important. Most of us just swim for fitness, and while you want something that doesn’t slow you down unnecessarily, you’re still going to get a good workout even if you’re swimming in baggy boardshorts (not that I’d recommend that). These shorts (and the women’s full-suit) are built for competitors, full stop. If you’re trying to win races, either in actual swim meets or maybe you’re just obsessed with trying to break personal records, then yes, these $400 shorts (or $600 suit for women) will definitely help you go faster. That’s why Olympians wear them.
But it’s cool to see that, yes, they can indeed help a very ordinary swimmer go faster, too.
Update, 8/3/21: I heard back from Speedo regarding some of my technical questions. The company said it worked with research partners at the Natural History Museum in London to explore how skin texture changes over the length of a shark.
“The principle is that in areas where water flowing over the body is likely to ‘detach’ causing drag, we build in our texture which creates micro turbulence on the surface of the suit, causing the water to ‘hug’ the surface and therefore reduce drag for the swimmer.”
For its collaboration with F1, Speedo said, “...we brought in some experts from F1 to help us ideate around how we could use our learning on shark skin texture with their experience in reducing the drag of a Formula 1 car. We were able to be inspired by how they tackle essentially the same problem, all be it with a very different type of body moving through a slightly different fluid (air instead of water).”
And lastly, as far as compression goes: “As well as the different areas of texture already discussed, we develop our fabrics to be able to compress the body to reduce form drag (the drag caused by the body shape moving through the water) as well as to compress the body in the key swim muscle regions to ensure that all the muscle action goes into propelling the swimmer forward and is not wasted. To give ourselves the flexibility to introduce more flexible areas of the suit, to ensure swimmers are able to have freedom of movement, we use layering of different fabrics.”
This would explain why my butt was smooshed flat (reduction of form drag), but I still had full range of motion in my breast-stroke kick.