Technology & swimming: 3 steps beyond physiology

Abstract : The science of engineering materials and the development of materials science during human history have strongly evolved over the past two centuries 1,2. Other new technological fields such as particle physics, computer science, nanoscience also flourished 3 , all leading to innovations that impacted sport. Polymers and metal alloys such as carbon fibres are exemplars of materials now widely used in various disciplines 4. In 2008, polyurethane made its first appearance in swimming with the use of a new swimsuit generation. The result was a sudden improvement of performances, allowing athletes to go beyond physiological limits that have been nearly reached 5,6. This study aimed to quantify the gain provided by the three generations of swimsuits introduced in 1999, 2008, 2009 and to estimate the upcoming performance drop in 2010. Using a recently published methodology 7 , we analyzed the single best result each year for the world's top ten swimmers from 1990 to 2009 in order to assess the sudden progression trends and quantify the total performance gain. Materials and methods We collected the best performance of the world's top ten swimmers every year in 34 swimming events from 1963 to 2009 8-10. A total of 6790 individual performances were selected from the data spanning the 1990 – 2009 period as they present a complete measure each year. We focus here on the impact of material science in swimming by measuring the impact of the three successive generations of swimsuits on human performance and estimate the upcoming performance drop consecutive to the decision of the FINA to suspend their use. We investigate the recent evolutions of the best performers over the 1990 – 2009 period and demonstrate that three bursts of performances occurred in 2000, 2008 and 2009. The overall observed gains of these bursts exceed 2.0% for both sexes. The drop in performance that may result from this rule change may return to similar levels as seen in 1999.
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Geoffroy Berthelot, Stéphane Len, Philippe Hellard, Muriel Tafflet, Nour El Helou, et al.. Technology & swimming: 3 steps beyond physiology. Materials Today, Elsevier, 2010, 13 (11), pp.46-51. ⟨10.1016/S1369-7021(10)70203-0⟩. ⟨hal-01713615⟩

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