Technical suits are always a big topic of discussion in the swim world. So what exactly are they, when should you wear them, and what else do parents need to know about them before you break out the big bucks?
What are technical suits and how do they work?
Technical suits are specially made swim suits designed to help swimmers achieve their very best times. There are a variety of tech suits available to your swimmers including the ones you see Olympians wear. The pricing varies and tend to be on the spectrum from “hmmm that’s kinda pricey” all the way to “Holy <expletive deleted>, that’s expensive!”. Like fast pools, technical suits help physics work in your favor to help provide optimal conditions in an effort to help swimmers get the best times possible for them. Most technical suits have the following conditions at play to some degree or another.
- Compression: The suits are designed to be very tight and hold your muscles in. Some even claim to be able to shape the swimmer’s body into an “efficient hydrodynamic shape” This reduces drag, enhances streamline, and can delay the onset of muscle fatigue.
- Water repellent fabric: The fabrics are specially made to repel water allowing you to move through the water more easily.
- Reduced drag: if you’ve ever seen someone wearing these suits, when properly sized the suits look like they are painted onto the swimmers…there are no wrinkles or sagging. Most of the suits also have special technology to reduce the drag from seams…the more expensive the suit, the fewer seams it has…to the point where the most expensive suits have their seams fused together instead of sewn so they are virtually invisible.
When to wear them:
There is a time and place for these suits. You’ll see some kids wear them at every meet…not to be mean, but their parents must have more money than sense. There are a lot of reasons you don’t want to do this…not the least of which is the fact that tech suits are very expensive and wear out incredibly quickly. Surprisingly, it seems the pricier and better the suit is the fewer wearings it has in it before it should be retired. A lot of the technical suits are only good for 3-5 wearings. Also, it is not good strategy to wear them all the time. The idea is to save these suits for when you need to be your absolute fastest…so the strategic swimmer chooses a few of their most important meets and breaks out all of their secret weapons for only those meets… including tapering, technical suits, and for the older kids (usually high school and above) shaving. These things help bring out their best times because they have everything possible working to their advantage and they feel faster than ever in the water. If you wear the suits all the time you become reliant on them and while everyone else suddenly feels lightening fast in the water for one of the biggest meets of the year, it just feels like another day in the pool for your kid. So, when in doubt talk to your coach before breaking out the tech suits for a meet.
Now your swimmer may point out. ..”But Michael Phelps and Katie Ladecky wear their tech suits all the time!” Well yeah, you often see them on TV in tech suits, but keep in mind that:
- If the meet is on TV it is probably a big meet, even for them.
- Many of them are contractually obligated to wear those suits at certain meets because the company that makes the suits sponsors the swimmer. They want the Olympic level swimmers that our kids look up to wearing these suits as often as possible so our kids will see them and want to be like their favorite swimmer.
- If you are reading this your kid is probably not yet an Olympic level swimmer.
Who should wear them?:
This is something each swim family has to decide for themselves. I’ve heard some parents say that they won’t buy a technical suit until their swimmer makes High School State Championships, then I’ve also seen an average 7 year old wear these suits at dual meets (again, not a good idea!). I’d say the ideal policy lies somewhere in the middle of those extremes. The policy my family sets for our swimmers is… for us to consider purchasing a lower end tech suit they need to have a legitimate shot at a Zone Time. For a higher end suit they need to either have a legitimate shot at HS States, YMCA/USA/NCSA Nationals, and/or placing at Zones….or if we can find a great sale on it we might upgrade. But that is just our thoughts, what you decide is between you, your swimmer, your swimmer’s coach, and your bank account.
Something very important to note: As of September 1, 2020 the suits that are permitted for 12 & under swimmers are very limited. The rules have to do with suits that have bonded or taped seams and woven fabric extending past the hips. Here is a very good article directly from USA swimming explaining the rule. Also, vendors are typically very good at pointing you in the right direction to find a legal suit, just be sure to let them know your swimmer’s age.
With that in mind, if your swimmer is still on the slower side, and still needs work on many of the basics, your bank account is safe because a technical suit is not something that you really need to worry about at this point. Contrary to what some kids may try to convince you…the suits are not magical…they won’t suddenly fix your stroke, or make you stop breathing out of your turns….and an “efficient hydrodynamic shape” doesn’t do any good if your swimmer still belly flops on their starts. These kids can find their impressive time drops by working on those things without spending tons of money on fancy suits.
What is available and Legal?
Every few years companies come out with new tech suits, and controversy in the swimming world often soon follows. There is much debate about what should and should not be legal. You may remember when Michael Phelps won his 8 gold medals they were wearing full body suits. At the more recent Olympics you didn’t see those anymore. This is because the full body suits are now illegal. Now you can’t wear anything below the knee, and there is a plethora of other ever evolving rules for tech suits. So if you see a tech suit on a clearance rack for an unbelievable price, it is probably because it was recently deemed illegal. I remember years ago when my oldest son was an age group swimmer, the leg skin suit he had been wanting went from $200 to a $10 clearance bin overnight. Of course, since it was illegal the $10 suit was completely useless. So be sure to check to make sure the suit you have your eye on is legal before you buy it. There are tags on the backs of most tech suits that indicate they are FINA approved.
Some of the popular suits you’ll see swimmers wear include:
- Speedo Valor (new in 2020!)
- Speedo Pure Intent (new in 2020!)
- Speedo LZR Pro
- Speedo LZR Elite 2
- Speedo LZR Racer X – (Make sure you try these on, some people can’t wear them due to the shape of their legs…they are a particularly tough fit for age groupers).
- TYR also has a variety of popular Tech suits available.
- Arena is another brand popular among elite swimmers.
These suits are supposed to be tight…really tight…ladies if you are a child of the 80’s you might remember the days of jeans so tight you had to lay down so you could zip them up?…well those jeans ain’t got nothing on these suits!
Sizing with tech suits is tricky. I learned this the hard way when I bought my son his first LZR . We’d received our tax return right before High School sectionals, and Will had been having an outstanding season, so we decided at the last minute to surprise him with a LZR for the meet. I read up on the suits, and they said to buy the suits 2 sizes smaller than your usual suit…being a mom, I was concerned it would be too small, so I bought it just one size smaller. This mistake almost cost him a trip to Districts…the suit was way too big (by tech suit standards) so when he swam his races the suit filled with water, so instead of being extra fast he got to carry a suit full of water with him through his races. Talk about a waste of $265 plus express shipping costs! Fortunately, he still managed to swim well enough to advance to Districts…but to this day as a college swimmer he has a size 27 LZR Elite suit sitting in a drawer somewhere that is still way too big on him. I’m starting to think he’ll never grow into it. 😉
So after that fiasco, he got some advice from his very talented friends who had experience with these suits, on how to find the right size. The consensus of the men’s swimming world seems to be…if it takes you less than 10 minutes to squeeze yourself into a high end tech suit, like a LZR, then it’s too big. Conversely, if you can manage fit into it, and it covers all of the necessary parts, and you can still move freely enough to swim, then it is not too small. Turns out after lots of advice and research… Will is no where near a size 27 LZR, he in fact still to this day wears a size 24!! Though I’m not gonna lie, every time I see him wear it I worry there might be a wardrobe malfunction at any minute!
So make sure you do your research before buying a suit, each one is sized differently. If you can, take time to talk to people who have experience with the type of suit you’re interested in. If a store will let you, it is best to try them on before breaking out the checkbook. With some suits stores won’t let you try them on at all because the simple act of trying it on stretches the suit and wears it out. So talk to the vendor and see what they say. Also be sure to get some advice on how best to put a suit on…there are tricks to it. I’ve actually known kids who have gotten blisters on their hands trying to put suits on…and one kid whose arm muscles were so sore after trying several tech suits on that he had trouble going to practice that night!
Look for sales!!
If you take the time to look you can often find these suits at significantly reduced prices. If your team has a contract with Speedo or one of the other big name brands you can usually get a hefty team discount. You can also sometimes find good sales with vendors at meets or online. For example, some of the links I gave you above currently have really great sales going on.
Do the suits really work?
Like fast pools, the answer is, yes and no. The upper end swimmers tend to need optimal conditions to achieve optimal performance, and these suits are a part of that. However, again, the less experienced swimmers are going to find more time improvements by refining their strokes, doing better turns, better streamline, etc. These suits won’t do much for a kid who still has a lot to work on in those areas.
Do we really need them?
In most cases for age group level swimmers, no, you don’t NEED them. Even for the faster swimmers at this age tech suits are a luxury, not a necessity. I’ve been to only a few meets where I saw every single swimmer in an upper end Tech suit. Those meets were High School State Championships, YMCA Nationals, NCSA Nationals, and USA Zones. If you are competing at those levels, then yes, you do need the tech suits to try to be competitive. Other meets like local USA or YMCA championships you’ll see a mix of high end and lower end tech suits, and a few kids still just wearing regular suits. Again, if you are unsure, ask your coach and they can give some guidance about whether or not to your swimmer is ready for one of these suits.
At the Meet:
If your swimmer plans to wear one of these suits please note that most swimmers do not warm up in them unless they are in the first couple of events and won’t have time to change. This is because:
1. They want to feel extra fast in their race compared to warm-up.
2. They don’t want to get the suit wet before their first race.
3. They don’t want to wear the suit out anymore than they have to at the meet.
Also boys need to be sure to tie these suits extra tight. If they aren’t tight enough water will get in and slow you down. Finally, remind your swimmers to be careful…as with any other valuables, you don’t want to leave these things laying around. While I’m not saying swimmers are a bunch of masked bandits just looking for an opportunity to snatch your stuff…there have been a few instances of “deck shopping” (aka stealing) at some of the larger meets over the years. It’s always better to be safe than suitless at the big meet!