As the second week of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games gets underway, breakthrough innovation consultant Innovia Technology talks to Lingerie Insight about a ground-breaking new swimsuit developed in partnership with Arena.

Arena’s record-breaking carbon technology suit has gone to yet another level with the new ‘Powerskin’ Carbon-Ultra suit, the result of the company’s work with Cambridge-based Innovia Technology.

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The suit incorporates an outer ‘carbon cage’ shell to maximise hydrodynamics with a revolutionary inner ‘Ultra-Link System’ to optimise the athlete’s physiology.

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The ‘power inside’ concept was inspired by Arena’s work with Innovia Technology, a global breakthrough innovation consultancy that has brought cutting-edge science to swimwear.

Innovia has been working with Arena since 2008, providing new levels of theoretical understanding into how a swimsuit can be designed to maximise the effectiveness of the swimmer’s actions in the water.

Their first collaborative innovation was the Arena X-Glide, a high-tech swimsuit that outraced Michael Phelps and made Time magazine’s top 50 inventions of 2009.

It was because of its record-breaking abilities that the suit was the subject of controversy and was banned from international swimming events in 2010.

But the partners refused to throw in the towel. Instead, they’ve come up with a new generation of swimsuits designed to support athletes as they swim, rather than reducing drag.

Supersuit controversy

Anyone who followed the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the World Swimming Championships that took place a year later will remember the controversy surrounding the high-tech swimsuits that helped break more than 100 world records.

We are used to technical improvements being made to sports equipment like snowboards and tennis rackets to improve performance, but these whole-body polyurethane swimsuits went a stroke further, with some products even being accused of ‘technology doping’.

The suits were made from a thin layer of foam-like material that enclosed tiny pockets of gas that made the swimmer wearing the suit to be far more buoyant.

As a result, swimmers floated higher in the water and were subject to less drag, according to British physicist and mathematician, John D. Barrow.

The LZR Racer suit by Speedo was one of the most discussed suits accused of technology doping. At the 2008 Olympics, 23 out of the 25 world records broken were broken by swimmers wearing this suit.

But the controversy didn’t end with the LZR. During the World Swimming Championships in 2009, Michael Phelps was beaten by Paul Biedermann, a German athlete wearing the Arena X-glide suit.

As a result, Phelps announced through his coach, Bob Bowman, that he would boycott all future international competitions where the new supersuits were allowed because they were distorting the sport.

Not surprisingly, in 2010, FINA, the international governing body of swimming, placed a ban on full-body polyurethane swimsuits.

FINA stipulated that future swimsuits should be cut above the knee, must be made of a “textile” and could not feature any fastening devices like zips.

Next generation

Today, the Innovia team admits that although they are proud of the X-Glide supersuit, the garment stole the limelight from athletes at the time.

“The suits were a bit of a distraction,” says Dr Robert Moir, an innovation consultant at Innovia. “It was an exciting time for us, but the emphasis was shifted towards the suits away from the swimmers.”

“We’ve now got the situation where the suits are targeted at supporting the athletes as they swim,” he adds.

“The suits were always about supporting the swimmers, but they are now very much focussed on supporting the way the swimmer moves rather than focussing on the interaction with the water, and reducing drag.”

In 2012, Arena and Innovia revolutionised the design and manufacture of racing swimwear with the launch of Powerskin Carbon-Pro.

The partners integrated a carbon cage into the suit’s woven fabric, adding a whole new dimension to the concept of compression by maximising support and control when and where it’s needed.

“One of the things that Carbon Pro did was to introduce a next-generation compression system,” says Dr Moir.

“So all of these suits are pretty tight and can be quite difficult to put on. I think my head would pop off if I tried to put one on,” he jokes.

“They are really quite tight, and swimmers like that because it helps them with things like body positioning. Basically, [Arena] placed these carbon threads in the suit and these threads act to lockdown – it’s a little bit like wearing a seat belt, supporting the person when it’s required. It offers compression without restriction.”

This concept of intelligent compression was the bedrock on which the new Powerskin Carbon series was built, and subsequent releases retained it as a fundamental feature, adapting the technology to the needs of every swimmer with the Carbon-Flex in 2014, and the fabric and carbon configuration in the case of the Carbon-Air last year.

Following unparalleled success of the carbon suits at the world’s biggest swimming competitions, Arena’s R&D team, along with Innovia and other scientific contacts in its international network, decided it was time to pursue another quantum leap in swimsuit design.

To do so, they turned their attention from external to internal considerations, to the core of carbon technology, analysing how the makeup of the inner components of the suit could maximise the effectiveness of the swimmer’s actions in the water.

The result of these efforts is the Powerskin Carbon-Ultra, which incorporates a new level of support and movement management with an internal structure – the Ultra Link System – designed to
optimise the athlete’s physiology.

The carbon cage system that was introduced in 2012 has also evolved, with three times more carbon than before, to create a more even compression system.

“If you imagine the suit is in two pieces, you’ve got the carbon outer, which is the outer shell of the suit, and on the inside there is the Ultra-Link system, which is fulfilling a different function to what the cage on the outside is doing,” explains Daniel Ward, a senior designer, project manager and innovation consultant at Innovia.

“This links together different muscle groups as you swim and isolates the upper body from the lower body, aiding in more efficient swimming.”

“What you’ve got in practice is a series of panels and seams that are arranged in a way that connects muscle groups to allow you to move freely,” Dr Moir adds.

“The high-performance functions are all hidden beneath the surface,” he continues.

“And that’s where the terminology ‘the power inside’ ties in. That also refers to the psychology of the athlete,” adds Ward.

The Powerskin Carbon-Ultra takes swimwear technology to another level, but it shouldn’t be seen as the ultimate suit in the range, insists Ward.

“It actually works in combination with the other suits – it just offers something different. So the Carbon Air is a very lightweight, which some swimmers prefer, Flex is all about freedom of movement and Ultra is all about muscle groups and the Ultra-Link system.

“So when we were working on the Powerskin swimsuit with Arena, we talked about it as another tool in the swimmer’s armoury and not the ultimate suit that encapsulates the other technologies.”

Preparing for Rio

In four years, Arena has built a legacy with its series of Powerskin Carbon suits.

During that time, the company has worked closely with athletes to build garments they can feel confident in, from their first dive to the final touch on the pool wall.

“If an athlete puts on a suit and doesn’t feel confident then their performance can be hindered. That is the biggest kind of win for Arena – for athletes to put on the suit and say, ‘I feel great in this and it’s going to make me faster’,” explains Ward.

“I’ve worked with Arena on a couple of projects now and the thing I was surprised about is how much Arena is a family,” he adds.

“It’s really great, from my perspective, to see a client that I’ve been working with know all the swimmers by their first names, give them a hug and talk to them about their performances. They just really care about their athletes and they are a lovely company to work for.”

So which swimmers will be wearing the Powerskin Carbon-Ultra for the Rio 2016 Olympics?

“It just depends on preference,” says Moir. “These swimmers have trained for a very long time for the Rio Olympics and so it’s important that they get the best technology, but that they are also really
familiar with the suit.”

Ward agrees and adds: “Even though Arena sponsors the American swim team, the swimmers don’t have to wear it. They can wear whatever suit they want – what they wear could be made by another big manufacturer and that’s the case for any of the teams.”

But after a successful 2012 Olympics, when swimmers wearing the Powerskin Carbon-Pro suit won 35 medals, including 10 gold medals, the Innovia and Arena must be secretly hoping to beat this record.

When asked how many Olympic medals they hope swimmers will when wearing the Carbon-Ultra suit, Ward quipped: “All of them!”

“Including the ones that aren’t in swimming!,” joked Dr Moir.

“I hope it will have pretty significant success,” added Ward, more seriously.

“It’s difficult to predict though. I think the Arena suits in general have good success. In the European Swimming Championships last month, the Arena-sponsored athletes did fantastically. There’s Adam Peaty, who’s a really strong British contender and Francesca Halsall, who’s also British, and they did fantastically well,” he explains.

“So I think it will be all eyes on them in Rio. It will be a really exciting time. I don’t know if they will be wearing the Arena suits yet, but it will be great to see them wearing anything by Arena and winning some medals.”

About Innovia

Innovia Technology is a breakthrough innovation consultancy, which works with clients to solve extremely challenging problems. The team is made up of specialists with a whole host of different skills, from physics and biochemistry to engineering and manufacturing, and they work together to come up with business solutions.

No stranger to apparel, Innovia worked with Wonderbra in 2009 to create its best-selling Ultimate Strapless bra. It started by systematically reviewing how a strapless bra performs and identifying inherent limitations. By applying engineering and design principles, Innovia identified a range of opportunities for integrating improved support into the bra.

The company has also worked with Shock Absorber to create new sports bras tailored to different activities like running, football and tennis. Innovia interviewed sportswomen, sports scientists and physiotherapists to understand the specific biomechanical, comfort-related and psychological benefits required for each sport.

For each benefit, Innovia systematically explored technical enablers and created specific product features to deliver targeted, sport-specific performance. But Innovia’s knowledge doesn’t end with apparel; the team also works with clients in the energy, medical, automotive and even aerospace sectors.