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Fast Pools and LZR Suits

If your facility hosts a competitive swimming program--or even if it has a pool--conversations since August have likely centered on Michael Phelps, the U.S.Olympic swim team and their record-shattering results. Phelps won eight gold medals--an unprecedented accomplishment for any athlete in a single Olympics.

Along the way, there were such memorable performances as the 100-meter butterfly, in which Phelps beat Serbia's Milorad Cavic by a margin so thin that it seemed to hinge on a pre-race decision by either athlete to trim his fingernails. And the 4 x 100 free relay, which the United States won in a field that swam so fast that every team in the pool posted a time faster than the winning time four years earlier.

The excitement has been contagious, and swimmers across the country, from the smallest child to the master’s level competitor, are telling coaches, “I want to swim like Michael!” Those who run these programs and facilities, however, are wondering what it is about the Beijing pool that has allowed such record-breaking results, what their programs need to allow their swimmers to consistently post personal bests, and whether a swimmer needs a full-body LZR suit to succeed in the new world of competitive swimming.

I sat down with Pat Hogan, managing director for club development for USA Swimming, to find out.

Can You Build A “Fast” Pool?

Swimmers look forward to swimming in a “fast” pool--one with features that reduce wave action and water turbulence, allowing swimmers to move through the water more efficiently and potentially post a fast time.

A backgrounder written by Hogan and Mick Nelson, USA Swimming club facilities development director, details the main features of a “fast” pool:

1. Good gutter design

2. Wide, wave-quelling lanes

3. Depth

Gathering Water In Gutters

First, the gutters of the pool are designed to capture the waves (or “dynamic surge”) created by swimmers as they move through the water, rather than bounce back into the pool. This function can be helped or hindered by other pool construction factors.

For example, some competition pools (including the one in Beijing) are built wide enough to allow for an additional lane along either side wall in which no athlete swims, allowing a swimmer to better avoid waves created by others and waves potentially bounding back from the side walls and gutters. Additionally, the end-wall design and placement of the touch pads play a role. In most competition pools, the touch pads hang from the gutters and stop at water level, leaving the gutters free to do their job. However, sometimes touch pads are designed to hang high on the end wall to display the manufacturer's name, which blocks the gutter and its wave-capturing ability.

Drawing Lines For Lanes

A “fast” pool also has wide lanes and wave-quelling lane lines. Competition pools typically have 7-, 8-, or 9-foot-wide lanes. Wider lanes are preferred because they offer a bigger buffer zone between swimmers, and better accommodate athletes with long arms. However, wide lanes also increase the potential for swimmers to swim “crooked,” which translates into swimming farther. Lane lines can be designed to help control sideways-moving waves and keep the surface of the water smooth.

Depth Perception

A “fast” pool is deep. Typically, “when a pool is deeper than the average height of the swimmers, the pool usually ‘swims very fast’,” Hogan and Nelson write. This is fairly typical of competitive swimming pools.

What’s the most important factor for making a “fast” pool? “First and foremost, you need fast swimmers,” Hogan says.

Gathering Supplies

What equipment do I need for a competitive swimming facility?

Most facilities with a pool are probably already equipped to host competitive swimming. Hogan says, “To start a competitive swim team, you need access to a 25-yard pool--[it] could be another length, but 25 yards is the most common size in the USA--marked with lane lines on the bottom and turn crosses on the end walls of the pool. A minimum pool depth of 4 feet is desired.”

Once it is built, “the pool should be equipped with floating lane lines that attach to the end walls, backstroke flags at both ends, a pace clock and the safety equipment mandated by local health codes. In addition, the facility owner/operator must be willing to commit the necessary pool time,” Hogan adds.

Finally, just as a “fast” pool is a function of fast swimmers, a competitive swim program needs a coach. “The most important need is a safety-certified swimming coach who knows the basic fundamentals of competitive swimming,” Hogan says.

Once these elements are in place, some items on the wish list can become readily available or as time and finances permit. Hogan suggests additional equipment like kickboards, hand paddles, fins and pull buoys. A video camera and a dry erase board will help with educational and corrective efforts.

Some plusses for the facility need to be planned before the construction phase, like seating for 500 spectators, and deck space for athletes and volunteers during a meet. A classroom or meeting space also is a bonus.

Hogan also suggests items in the ”really-nice-to-have” category to take the program up a notch: “an automatic timing system with an eight-lane scoreboard, [and], if the pool is indoors, a properly sized ultra-violet purification system and an HVAC system designed and sized for the proper air flow and relative humidity.”

What About The Suits?

Much has been made of the full-body LZR suits, designed to compress and streamline the athlete’s body, reduce drag an estimated 5 to 10 percent, and make perhaps a 2-percent difference in the times of a top swimmer. LZR suits (pronounced laser) are made by Speedo and designed for better oxygen flow to the muscles while repelling water.

LZR suits are the newest, highest-tech version of the age-old training practice of wearing multiple swim suits and omitting shaving during training, then wearing a single sleek suit and shaving most or all body hair that cannot be hidden under a swim cap. The better the conditions for reducing drag and the better the athlete feels, the less drag that is on his or her body, and the better the time.

But if the sight of Michael Phelps in an LZR is causing demands from your swimmers but reticence on your part because of the $500 price tag, Hogan has some good news: “The new high-tech suits, like the Speedo LZR, are not necessary for age-group swimmers. Some of the key features of these suits, such as body compression and drag reduction, do not come into play until a swimmer achieves a certain level of physical maturity and overall swimming efficiency.”

So save that money for kick boards and video cameras to help build the strength and hone the strokes of those future fast swimmers.

Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is a writer, editor, speaker and owner of Hilltop Communications, based in Centerville, Ohio. She can be reached via e-mail at jcpatterson@prodigy.net.

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