London 2012: Swimming Pool Physics

The era of the LZR suit may be over in swimming, but technology is still making an impact when it comes to making swimmers faster. One thing you’ll often hear from commentators is how the London Aquatic Center boasts one of the world’s fastest pools. When swimmers compete, they have to contend with all the turbulence created in the pool by eight people trying to direct as much water behind them as possible as quickly as possible. Like ripples spreading on a pond, these waves travel, reflect, and interfere, ultimately disrupting the swimmers and causing extra drag. In a fast pool, engineers have made adjustments to reduce the impact of these waves on swimmers. Firstly, the pool is 3 meters deep, meaning that vertical disruptions are mostly damped out before they reach the bottom, so any wave reflected off the bottom of the pool will be extremely weak. Along the sides and ends of the pool, a special trough captures surface waves, preventing them from reflecting back out into the pool. The lane lines are also designed to soak up wave energy so that it does not propagate as much between lanes. When waves hit the lines, their links spin, dissipating some of the wave’s energy.

Despite these advances, the outermost lanes–those against the walls–are not used in competition. This helps to equalize the turbulence between lanes. Whether there is any fluid mechanical advantage to being in a particular lane is debatable. The outer lanes have the advantage of only one competitor’s wake to contend with, but they isolate the swimmer so he or she cannot see their competition as well. In the inner lanes, you’ll sometimes see swimmers try to swim close to the lane line if their competition is ahead of them, the idea being that they may be able to draft on their competitor’s bow wave to reduce drag. Generally speaking, the lane positions are determined by seeding going into the event, where the faster swimmers are given the innermost lanes. This is why it’s rare to see gold medals coming from the outermost lanes. For more, check out NBC’s video on designing fast pools (US only, unfortunately). (Photo credits: Associated Press, Reuters, Geoff Caddick)

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