The Effects of Friction on Swimmers

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Competitive swimmers work for years to hone their skills in the water in pursuit of faster and faster performances. Despite that, certain obstacles remain, even for the most accomplished swimmers. Among these is the friction created by the constant flow of water over the body. The drag that results from this friction can make the difference between victory and defeat in a sport where races are frequently decided by fractions of a second.

How Friction Occurs

Although it seems as though water flows easily over any surface, creating no resistance, this is not the case. Even air, which is 773 times less dense than water, creates friction when passing over a surface, according to the website Top End Sports. For swimmers, water meets resistance along the skin, suit and hair. Regardless of the efficiency of your stroke, water will be in constant contact with the body, leading to drag, which diminishes the speed generated by your effort.

Other Types of Resistance

The USA Swimming website points out that friction is the least significant type of resistance that a swimmer encounters. Both form resistance and wave resistance present greater obstacles. Form resistance has to do with the frontal surface area trying to make its way through the water. Wave resistance is caused by turbulence at the water's surface from the motion of the swimmer.

Reducing the Effect of Friction

Cornell University reports on the use of technology in swimwear to reduce the impact of friction on swimmers. From the silicon-coated fabric of Nike's products to the Adidas approach for creating body suits coated in Teflon, a variety of materials are being employed to take friction out of the equation. Even Speedo, with its creation of a material it calls Flexskin, based on the properties of shark skin, has applied inventive ways to diminish the physical realities of moving through water.


USA Swimming reports that the technologically advanced swimwear isn't enough for some athletes. The practice of shaving body hair before important meets to further eliminate friction has become a common practice. Despite the fact that swim caps designed to be low-friction are available, some swimmers carry this practice as far as shaving their heads before competing.