Are race suits really worth it? An Olympic swimmer's perspective...
Want a tech suit? Freaked out by the price? Want to know what you really get for your money? Olympic swimmer and Commonwealth double gold medalist Ross Davenport worked on the development of the FINIS Rival 2.0 technical race suit and got to see first hand what it takes to pack max tech into minimum fabric.
Davenport has definitely swum a length or two million. “I’ve swum three Olympics but my career highlight was at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games,” he says going on to reveal why Melbourne is one of his favourite places on earth. “I came away with two golds and a silver.”
He now works with FINIS in their international business team and, given he is knee deep in technical swim equipment, it’s interesting to hear his perspective on the advancements in the pool. “I wasn’t a tech swimmer. I was a grafter,” he admits. “Yes, I used a range of equipment but not as much as today because that field has grown rapidly over the last few years. I started my international career as tech suits were coming out and I watched them evolve drastically.”
Now, thanks to the Rival 2.0, Davenport has first-hand experience of the research and development involved in creating a race suit. “Being involved in tech suit development I know how hard it is. There is so little material you can play with, especially for guys, and there are so many regulations to get a suit passed by FINA.”
Developing a race suit seems to revolve around restriction. “The fit is so important. Being comfortable and compressive in the right areas. You need flex in the right areas, like the hips, but tight compression on the thighs and quads. You’re trying to increase blood flow as well as being able to have the movement to do all four strokes.”
A great race suit is not only fast, it’s strong and the Rival 2.0 is being called the toughest tech suit ever. Davenport has some insight into why. “The seam structure is key. We played around and by twisting them slightly and having tape on the inside you can alter the body position to get the swimmer higher in the water,” reveals Davenport. Swimmers on the development team were really buzzed by the way the suit made them feel in the water. “The said the suit was lifting their legs up and giving a sense of buoyancy.”
It sounds a bit like a line from a superhero movie but the 2.0 also has the ability to pass strength on to those who wear it. “On the women’s suits we added core compression. Every thing comes from the core and with a stronger core you can generate more power and more force. As soon as you fatigue you lose your body shape and become less efficient,” explains Davenport.
“By having a stronger core and that seam reinforcing, the swimmer can really optimise the power and strength in short distances and over longer distances its almost like a corset, helping them stay in line and still be able to generate the most force.”
The super powers of compression don’t end there. “You want to compress the largest muscles that produce lactic acid. Lactic acid is your best friend but also your worst enemy. You need to produce it to get your muscles firing and then you need to get rid of it as quickly as possible or you slow down,” Davenport explains.
“A suit can help with that because the muscles that are pouring lactate are compressed. This will increase blood flow to those muscles and that blood flow will try to remove the lactic acid and wash it away.”
When it comes to the fabric, what little there is, Davenport says the magic ingredient is actually water. “The fabric has to absorb some water for FINA. So it can pass their tests, the suit has to sink after so many minutes in the water,” he explains.
“I didn’t know this but it is better to have a fabric the absorbs some water than to have a fabric that is completely repellent allowing water to slip off. Water over water glides better than water particles over a shiny surface,” says Davenport. “So the suits absorbs a very small amount of water so as the swimmer goes through the water the glide is water particles to water particles rather than another surface.”
This key piece of intel goes someway to explaining why some swimmers get their suits wet before a race (no, it’s not to help them adjust to the temperature of the water). “A lot of swimmers splash the suit and dampen it before the race because when the suit already has moisture in it, it can glide from the moment you dive in,” he reveals. “I didn’t know that but it makes complete sense.”
While all this goes a long way to explaining why a tech suits costs so much, Davenport acknowledges it is an investment. “The first time I raced in a tech suit, it was way back in 2000. I remember that it cost my parents at the time a huge amount. I appreciated how much it cost and looked after it, to keep it in the shape and condition it arrived in. And every time I put it on I knew it was a thing of incredible value.” Davenport can also still recall how it felt. “I remember diving in and having a different sensation. And there’s confidence you get from wearing a suit”
Which leads us to what is possibly the real super power of a tech suit - the effect it has on an athletes’ mindset and preparation. “You put the race suit on and you are ready to race,” says Davenport who is a firm believer that tech suits give swimmers a mental edge and confidence they are ready to race. “A tech suit is worth the investment for a number of reasons but it is like race armour. You wouldn’t run a marathon in thongs.”
Davenport is also quick to point out that forking out for a top-of-the-range tech suits isn’t a way to short cut training. “There are, unfortunately, no quick fixes in swimming and I say this a lot to parents and swimmers, in the last ten years of my international swimming career I probably swam about 1 million lengths,” reveals Davenport, “and I went to the Olympics to swim four lengths of the pool.”
“You can see the huge commitment you have to put in for the achievements you get out. A huge amount of work goes into getting to the start line of those four lengths. Training is key to being comfortable standing in the blocks in that race suit ready to smash your PB but when you get your PB, it’s clearly not the race suit that did it.”
When it comes to junior swimmers, Davenport has some solid race suit advice. “I don’t like seeing a 9 year old in a Rival 2.0.” He goes on to explain that younger swimmers simply haven’t built the level of muscle to benefit from the advanced compression in a Rival or Rival 2.0.
“I would much rather see a swimmer spend a quarter of the cost on a Fuse Junior than a Rival 2.0. If I go out to play football with my friends, I don’t play in a customer made pair of boots like a premiership player because my skill level doesn’t benefit from that. It’s the same with tech suits. Once a swimmer’s performance has outgrown the suit they can move up to the Rival and then the Rival 2.0. When we are talking about the Rival 2.0, we are talking about serious swimmers of 15 years and above that have started to generate the muscle and the power that will benefit from the suit.”
And Davenport has once final piece of advice for parents and swimmers trying to decide what to race in to achieve better results. “Because a lot of parents feel under pressure to get the latest gear. They feel like “if I spend more my swimmer will swim faster’. Clearly race suits have benefits but it also pays to remember that if that swimmer trains harder, works harder, spends a little more time on starts and turns and maybe doesn’t eat the bag of lollies at 7.30am on race day, they might race better.”