BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The difference between finishing first and
coming in second in competitive swimming is measured in
milliseconds, so when a swimmer's technique and fitness is as good
as it gets, a coach turns to one remaining variable to sharpen the
competitive edge -- the swimsuit.
In that scenario, scientists in the Center for Research and
Education in Special Environments at the University at Buffalo (UB)
may be a coach's best friends. They have a patent pending on a
structural element that can improve a swimmer's time by decreasing
the force water exerts on swimmers, called "drag," by 10 percent
when incorporated into the swimsuit design.
The new element, which the researchers call a turbulator, alters
the fluid dynamics of water as it flows over and around the
swimmer. How drag acts on a body moving through water plays an
important role in the amount of energy a competitor must exert to
cover a specific distance: less drag, less energy required, quicker
Trials of suits incorporating the turbulator into their fabric,
conducted at UB over two years, showed that adding the element
could improve a swimmer's time by 3 percent, said David Pendergast,
Ed.D., UB professor of physiology and biophysics. Pendergast and
Joseph Mollendorf, Ph.D., UB professor of mechanical and aerospace
engineering, were senior researchers on the project.
TYR, the company that has licensed the technology and named it
"Aqua Shift(tm)," will introduce its new line of competition suits
incorporating turbulators to the swimming world today (Jan. 30,
2004) at the FINA World Cup Swimming meet. The competition is being
held at the Nassau (N.Y.) Aquatics Center.
The team of UB inventors who developed the technology will be at
the launch of the new suit to discuss the underlying science and
the performance trials conducted in the UB center's facilities.
The turbulator's science is grounded in the research team's
earlier work in fluid dynamics and its
success in decomposing drag, breaking it into its component
forces. "No one else had done that before," Pendergast said.
"We discovered there are three types of drag. Friction drag, the
force of water molecules as they pass over the body, is dependent
on how long the body is. Pressure drag, the strongest force,
results from pushing the water out of the way. Wave drag occurs at
relatively high speeds and is the force exerted by waves
When the researchers broke drag into its three components, they
found that pressure and friction drag exerted the highest
influences, said Pendergast. Their next question was: How can drag
Their first inclination was to change the surface of the
swimsuit fabric, but that approach didn't reduce drag
significantly. Enter the turbulator, a strategically placed
fabric-encased flexible tube that introduces a raised ridge on the
suit. Pendergast describes how this element improves the fluid
dynamics of a swimmer.
"When water hits the shoulders of a swimmer, it separates from
the body, which creates drag. By adding a turbulator, we cause
water to follow the body instead of separating from it. This change
increases friction drag, but reduces pressure drag. We found that
placing a turbulator on the front and back of a suit significantly
reduced pressure drag, overcoming the increased friction drag and
adding a competitive advantage"
Meanwhile, TYR had approached Albert (Budd) Termin, II, UB's
swimming coach, whose swimmers compete in the company's suits,
about working on reducing drag. Termin has collaborated extensively
with Pendergast and Mollendorf on improving swimming
Over a two-year period, the team tested 20 suit models
incorporating the turbulator for TYR at the Center for Research and
Education in Special Environments. The trials took place in the
center's special annular (doughnut-shaped) pool designed for
conducting a variety of specialized research, including measuring
drag and other hydrodynamic properties, and in UB's competition
"The work was part theory and part practice," said Pendergast.
"It turned out the size of the turbulator was crucial. We'd predict
how a certain size and placement would respond, TYR would build the
suit, and we tested and retested."
The final design incorporates a series of turbulators positioned
on the suit front, across the shoulders and across the hips. (UB
research on suit design had shown that suits that cover the swimmer
from shoulder to knee or ankle produce less drag than suits with
Yana Klochkova, who won two gold medals for Ukraine in the 2000
Olympics and is sponsored by TYR, will model the new suit at the
Jan. 30 unveiling.