Petar Stoychev is the epitome of how truly flexible and amazingly adaptable open water swimmers are.
Not only did Stoychev win the 2011 FINA World Championships in Shanghai, China in incredibly warm and miserably humid conditions (over 31°C or 88°F+), but he is also one of today’s pre-race favorites at the Ice Swimming Aqua Sphere World Championships in Burghausen, Germany where the surface water temperature is nearly 0°C and the water below is no more than 3.7°C (38°F) in air temperatures that have dipped below 0°C (32°F).
How an individual can acclimate to such miserably warm conditions during China’s summer as well as mind-boggling cold conditions in Germany’s winter is an example of how malleable open water swimmers are and can be.
Such duality in being able handle both such extremes on the temperature scale (both air and water) is a testament to Stoychev’s physical and mental talents and a result of his commitment to training. While he is among history’s most successful open water swimmers, other athletes have demonstrated this ability to adapt their training and talents to the water conditions, from Christof Wandratsch to Rostislav Vitek.
FINA enacted new rules about its allowable competition swimwear on January 1st. The FINA Bureau in move towards increased safety under cold-water conditions completely changed its rules on swimwear – opening its door wide open to the use of wetsuits and neoprene in its competitions.
FINA’s new rules state the following:
BL 8.4 For open water swimming competitions with water temperature from 20°C [68°F], swimsuits for both men and women shall not cover the neck, nor extend past the shoulder, nor extend below the ankle. Subject to these specific shape specifications, swimsuits for open water swimming competitions shall further comply with all other requirements applicable to swimsuits for pool swimming competition.
BL 8.5 From January 1, 2017, for open water swimming competitions in water with temperature below 20°C, men and women may use either swimsuits (BL 8.4) or wetsuits. When the water temperature is below 18°C, the use of wetsuits is compulsory. For the purpose of these rules, wetsuits are swimsuits made of material providing thermal insulation. Wetsuits for both men and women shall completely cover torso, back, shoulders and knees. They shall not extend beyond the neck, wrists and ankles.
The new rules were instituted due to concerns that the FINA Bureau has regarding conducting events in low temperatures (defined at 20°C or below). “FINA…will take all necessary measures to ensure the maximum possible levels of security and safety for all athletes in [its] races,” stated FINA.
So for all FINA open water swimming events (Olympic 10K Marathon Swim, FINA 10K Marathon Swimming World Cup, FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix, FINA Junior Open Water Swimming Championships), the new rules will apply (including the FINA’s existing rule that the lowest possible water temperature allowable in FINA races is 16°C or 60.8°F).
The elite echelon of open water swimmers are undoubtedly shopping for the most buoyant and flexible wetsuits in order to be competitive in sub-20°C temperatures.
“On one hand, the new FINA rules allow for competitive swimmers in warm-weather countries to feel comfortable in competing in sub-20°C temperatures,” says Steven Munatones.
“For those athletes from tropical countries (i.e., Torrid Zone that covers nearly 40% of the Earth’s surface), there is a distinct disadvantage because their ability and opportunities to train in sub-20°C temperatures ranges from non-existent to extremely limited. Even those individuals in the southern reaches of the North Temperate Zone or the northern reaches of the South Temperate Zone have limited opportunities to experience and acclimate in water below 20°C. So, from this perspective, use of wetsuits opens up swims to these athletes.
That is a good decision that is undoubtedly welcomed by those athletes and their coaches.”
On the other hand, FINA’s decision on wetsuits is a misplaced decision for several reasons.
1. Traditions in competitive open water swimming and solo swims over the past century and previous millennia have dictated that minimal swimwear without the protection of neoprene is used.
2. Nearly 100% of the professional marathon swimmers already wear tech suits in FINA races – and in most competitions where they participate – that almost completely cover their body with the exceptions of their arms.
These tech suits offer a significant level of skin protection and even a level of warmth that is not available if the swimmers swam in traditional porous swimsuits. These tech suits provide sufficient protection against the cold for professional athletes who train and acclimate specifically for different conditions (both warm and cold).
3. Swimmers can also wear ear plugs and swim caps for additional level of cold water protection in the open water competitions.
4. Just as athletes in colder climates must acclimate to warm-water conditions, athletes have the opportunity (least we say obligation) to acclimate themselves to the chosen venue.
5. Open water swimmers are not triathletes. Open water swimmers – unlike triathletes whose majority of racing is done on a bicycle and with running shoes – are entirely focused on handling the various conditions of open water venues. While 20ºC is considered cold by triathletes, but 20ºC is – and should not be – considered outside the capabilities of committed world-class open water swimmers.
6. FINA’s currently allowable water temperature ranges are 16ºC – 31ºC. Professional marathon swimmers have been competing in cold water competitions for generations in all kinds of conditions. Why should FINA change now? Does FINA’s decision imply that the previously held FINA races held in water under 20ºC were dangerous and risky?
7. The addition of wetsuits changes the nature of open water swimming in profound ways, especially in salt water. The buoyancy coefficient changes dramatically. For those with a lesser ability to kick well and efficiently use their legs, the additional buoyancy changes their body position in the water. Arm strength becomes more important and body mass index becomes less a factor to one’s competitive success.
8. Athletes and coaches are now searching for the most optimal fabric to enhance buoyancy and flexibility around the shoulders. Open water swimming will become more technical in that forward-looking coaches and athletes will start experimenting with wetsuits thickness, panel construction, and material compounds. Like cyclists with their bicycles, attention will shift towards equipment benefits.
9. Professional marathon swimmers compete for money, have sponsorships, and are supported by their teams and/or national governing bodies and benefit from the guidance of full-time coaches, experienced trainers and sports scientists. Their team of supporters can easily educate the athletes on how best to acclimate and how to swim fast in water temperatures below 20ºC.
Based on the wetsuit decision by the FINA Bureau, swimmers, coaches and national teams are considering a number of factors:
* can a tech suit be defined as a wetsuit?
* if a tech suit is not included in FINA’s definition of a wetsuit, what is the definition of a wetsuit? What percentage of neoprene or thickness is acceptable?
* is the best and fastest tech suit is faster or slower than a wetsuit?
* are compression panels acceptable?
* what kind of changes in the swimming technique are optimal? Because the body will be riding higher in the water, swimmers may kick differently and may swim at a different arm rotation pace due to the increased buoyancy. Will further changes make sense if swims are in freshwater in a lake versus a saltwater competition in the ocean?
* confirm with FINA if wetsuits can be customized [note: FINA has previously determined that tech suits cannot be customized for each swimmer, but a similar ruling has not yet been made for open water swimming]
* can the neoprene thickness can be thicker in the torso and legs and less thick around the shoulders [for optimal range of mobility]? Will compression panels in key locations [upper legs and upper arms] and less constriction around the chest area be allowed?
The can of worms that FINA just opened by approving and encouraging use of wetsuits in its competitions has just begun…
Upper photo shows Olympic 10K marathon swimming gold medalist Maarten van der Weijden in a TYR tech suit at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Middle photo shows Team Russia at the FINA World Swimming Championships. Lower photo shows Olympic champion Ian Thorpe in an early version of a tech suit.
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