Engineering in Sports: LZR Racer Swimsuit

Engineering plays an important role in most sports. Whether it's a seemingly simple sport, such as running (take a look at the latest running shoes to see advanced engineering in action), or an obviously engineering-dominated sport, such as Formula 1 motor racing, it is difficult to find a sport untouched by engineering innovation. Over the next few weeks I'll explore to what extent engineering influences sports and how sports influence engineering.

Speedo LZR RacerSpeedo LZR Racer SwimsuitLicense: CC BY 2.0, Kazuhisa OTSUBO

Let's start with the recent introduction of a new swimsuit engineered for speed that has ignited the age-old debate around rules that try to keep sports relatively fair so the best person, rather than the best equipment, wins.

Speedo LZR Racer Swimsuit

Swimming is the latest sport to embrace engineering in the form of a swimsuit that is optimized to reduce drag and help a swimmer maintain a streamlined shape. Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) aided the latest Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit in its quest to minimize drag and the swimsuit is claimed to increase swimmer efficiency by up to 5%.

If the benefits of the LZR Racer are true, this is clearly a must-have swimsuit, and therein lies an issue for Federation International de Natation Amateur (FINA) - swimming's governing body. Do they sanction such a swimsuit and the arms race it unleashes, or do they ban it? Debate rages.

Sanctioning the LZR Racer, which costs US$290 - 550 means raising the financial bar required to compete in an otherwise equipment-free sport. Not sanctioning the swimsuit deprives the world of seeing how fast a human-powered torpedo can fly through the water. However, for the time being there is no debate - FINA have approved the LZR Racer for competition.

So Far So Good

Since its introduction in February 2008, swimmers wearing the LZR Racer have broken 37 world records as of May 15, 2008. In most Olympic years, as now in 2008, it seems that many swimming records are usually broken, but already the LZR Racer - engineered for speed - is surpassing the expectations of its manufacturers.

There's also a good chance that the placebo effect of wearing a super suit is pushing swimmers to achieve greater performance, and possibly intimidating those that don't have the suit. Is it all in the mind?