For the athletes performing at the London 2012 Olympics, science and technology are an integral part of their performance and their sport. As one of the more traditional sports, swimming remains a controversial playground for the application of new technology. It is, however, where the human body exists in possibly its most unnatural environment, offering huge opportunity to scientists and technologists in improving basic human limitations.
From the invention of the loin cloth, we have looked to technology, even in its most basic form, to improve our ability to perform during a specific task. The key in the success of this at any level is a detailed understanding of the environment, the human needs and the available technology.
Swimming with sharks
The shark-inspired fabric of Speedo’s original Fastskin first challenged swimmers with the concept that their skin, no matter how smooth, is simply not fast enough. At the time this involved a process of creating a microscale surface that closely replicated a shark’s skin with regards to a structure known as derma denticles: tiny ridges that can, if positioned correctly, reduce the frictional drag of a surface. Furthermore, by covering the swimmer’s body in fabric, the stiffness is increased, which also lowers drag. This latter principle remains a key component of every subsequent racing suit development.
More recent experiments and simulations have defined a form that can pierce the water with minimal disturbance and drag. This generates a new challenge of exploring materials and fabrics that can manipulate the shape of a swimmer as well as ensuring smooth water flow and comfort. The major breakthrough in being able to achieve this has been with the use of variable modulus fabrics whereby the compressive properties are different at certain key locations up and down the body. By positioning specific Lycra content, the lumps and bumps of the swimmer’s body can be shaped into a more streamlined, tubular form.
In the water itself, the suits must endure a highly aggressive environment, most notably the hypochlorite salts used to disinfect many swimming pools. The materials we use must be able to withstand these conditions and, for now, that means we are confined to selecting synthetic materials. While we endeavour to do this responsibly and with a focus on efficiency, a future challenge is materials that can be produced using greener methods, with a smaller environmental impact, while still being robust.
Aside from this, the main chemical challenges that we face come during the finishing and processing of these items. For example, on a microscale, we apply anti-fog and mirror finishes to goggles, but durability is always a challenge, often due to swimmers’ cleaning and storage habits. Our racing suits are finished with a liquid fluorocarbon to help manage the sequential flow of water along the length of the swimmer’s body. While this is essential for the low friction properties of the fabric, it can affect the construction process. In our top specification suits we use ultrasonically welded and bonded seams and the chemicals involved can resist the adhesion of the glue that we use.
Through inspiration and experimentation, we develop the concepts and ideas for our designs and then look to science and technology to make them a reality. Chemistry is obviously a vital component in enabling us to achieve our aims but it is just one of the many tools we need. We do not design and synthesise the polymers for fabrics or coatings – we make use of the technologies available to us from a wide range of industries, once fundamental research has been adopted or turned to application. It is only by combining knowledge and innovations from a range of disciplines that we can realise our goals.
The immediate future, as in so much of science, is nano. Advances in nano-fabrication methods and our understanding of nanoscale phenomena will allow us to even more precisely control the properties of materials. We can use nanoscale technology to manage water flow and to alter the strength of materials, which will be particularly useful on items that undergo high stress during fitting and use. Looking further ahead, we believe a significant future challenge will be how the organic fabric of human skin will blur into the synthetic skin of ‘fabric’ as the convergence of human biology and technology becomes more widespread, acceptable and legal. These ideas present enormous capability in terms of tracking, personalisation and instantaneous reaction to environments or stimuli.
Technology is just one component of a complex and lengthy process in which an athlete seeks performance perfection. Each element of coaching, training, nutrition, recovery and the facilities themselves can contribute to individual success. Swim technologies also contribute to winning medals and setting records and this can lead to controversy in the eyes of the purist. So ensuring that technologies do not contravene the rules of the governing body and, indeed, the spirit of competition is hugely important.
Our philosophy is to help the athlete fulfil their potential but fundamentally we believe that the only true differentiator between winning and losing is the swimmer’s natural talent and hard earned physiological state.
Tom Waller is head of Aqualab, Speedo’s global R&D facility