Drag suits can offer several benefits to competitive swimmers. But they can also lead to many questions about them. Mainly, what is a drag suit, and who should use them?
For those new to the sport, they’re perhaps looked at a little strangely. But for those who are familiar with them, we question where they went! Back in the 2000s when I swam, nearly every male swimmer would wear one.
Nowadays, they exist and swimmers wear them, but not nearly as much. So what is a drag suit?
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What is a Drag Suit?
In short, a drag suit is a secondary, baggy suit that is designed to create resistance (or drag) while swimming.
Drag suits are typically made of a mesh outer lining and are designed to be worn over the main practice suit. They usually come with a drawstring for extra hold while swimming.
While in swimming, part of the sport is spent avoiding drag while racing or training, the drag suit actively encourages it.
Why Do Swimmers Wear Drag Suits?
Resistance and Strength Training
So if the point of swimming is to reduce drag, then why do swimmers actively encourage it?
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And when you work harder, you tend to get stronger. Resistance training for swimmers is like dragging a weight behind you as you swim. How can you not get strong from that?
However, resistance tools aren’t used for entire practices in the same way that drag suits can be worn for full practices. Or for longer sets.
One of the larger benefits of drag suits is that it makes for a harder workout with the intention of developing strength and speed along the way.
In the arsenal of training material and resistance training, drag suits are another form of swim gear that’s used to build strength.
Say what you like, but drag suits have some mental component to them.
Nothing made me feel faster swimming in practice than when I took off my drag suit. I felt like I was zooming through the water and it felt amazing! My hips felt higher in the water, I had less force holding me back, and I could pull water easier.
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And while the times did show that I swam faster than with the drag suit off, some of that speed also came from how good I felt in the water.
In many ways, it’s very similar to how a technical racing suit makes a swimmer feel fast in the water. The same applies to making a swimmer feel fast when they take off a drag suit.
Do Drag Suits Work?
Again, yes and no.
One negative is that wearing a drag suit can impact your stroke and technique.
Although a great training aid, a drag suit tends to make your hips sink as it weighs them down. Especially if you’re wearing a much larger and baggy suit that’s catching a ton of water.
When your hips sink and you start swimming low in the water, your body falls out of alignment. From there, your stroke starts to fall apart on you and you’re fighting to go forward.
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And yes, I speak from experience! When I returned from ‘retirement’ I tried swimming in my old drag suit and it was awful. I couldn’t rotate correctly, my pull and catch were off, and I stopped kicking.
That’s not to say that my experience would be the same for someone else.
Instead, I would encourage swimmers to start with a smaller drag suit and only wear it in small intervals. Get a feel for the drag suit and pay careful attention to your stroke technique.
On the other hand, drag suits can increase strength in the water when used correctly.
It also has the mental effect of making a swimmer feel faster and stronger. Just as, when used correctly, drag suits can help swimmers build up their strength and become stronger.
Again, we suggest that when opting to start wearing a drag suit, you start with a smaller size. One that doesn’t offer a ton of resistance so you can build into resistance gradually. Just as you wouldn’t max out your weights right away, you shouldn’t try to pull the most resistance immediately.
Do Swimmers Still Use Drag Suits?
I’ll date myself a bit, but up through the early 2000s most swimmers trained with drag suits at practice and would even wear them to warm up at meets.
It wasn’t uncommon to see which swimmer could train with a drag suit nearly twice their suit size. Just as it wasn’t uncommon for female swimmers to wear a male drag suit because it offered better resistance. And because they didn’t really make drag suits for women.
Nowadays, they’re still used, just not as frequently.
One reason comes in how coaches approach training now compared to nearly a decade ago. The idea that pulling a drag suit through the water to build up strength still exists, but it’s more scaled back now.
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Instead, drag suits are used a bit more sparingly and during short spurts at practices. Some of this hinges on the understanding that drag suits, while great at strength and resistance training, can negatively impact technique.
When Should I Use a Drag Suit?
A 2012 research study evaluated the effects of drag suit training with 18 swimmers. Half of the swimmers trained with a drag suit and the other half didn’t. Throughout the 5-week study, all 18 swimmers performed 3 different sprint sets.
Their performance was evaluated and researchers observed that those swimmers wearing a drag suit experienced a decrease in stroke rate. While those not wearing a drag suit had an increase in stroke rate.
The research suggests that swimmers should wear a drag suit during short sets performed at high intensity. This allows for enough rest so that swimmers can still hold good stroke technique.
While you can wear a drag suit whenever you want, I highly encourage swimmers to do what works best for them.
Discuss various options with your coach and have them watch your stroke as you swim. Make sure that you’re not sacrificing your technique for strength.
Can Females Wear a Drag Suit?
Some females will wear a second, baggy swimsuit over their main practice suit. While others will use a male or unisex drag suit. It’s not as common now to see female wearing drag suits, but it doesn’t mean you can’t try it for yourself.
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I’ve personally never worn any type of tights for swimming, so I can’t speak to their effectiveness. But I know they can be a bit more restricting on flip turns and the material may make you too warm while swimming.
However, I did wear a male drag suit from my high school through college swimming career. When fitting for a male drag suit, I wore the same size as I would for my practice suit. Some swimmers may need to go up or down one size.
The one time I tried to go two sizes over my regular suit size, my technique suffered so badly, that I never wore the suit again. Plus it was too loose on my hips!
For this reason, I recommend that you try to find a size/fit that fits close to your body and isn’t super baggy. Even if it fits tight, like your practice suit, the mesh on the drag suit will do its job and provide resistance.
Can Lap Swimmers Wear Drag Suits?
If they want! However, we will tack on a but to this answer.
Drag suits should really only be worn by experienced and strong swimmers. If you’re new to swimming, aren’t a strong swimmer (can’t swim more than a few laps at a time), and/or have poor technique, a drag suit isn’t for you. And you really shouldn’t wear one.
Not only will the drag suit not do anything for you, but it can also increase your risk of injury. And potentially it could lead to drowning.
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Pulling a drag suit or any type of resistance is exhausting. Especially if you haven’t trained with it before or you’re not in ‘swimming shape’. And most people don’t realize how tired they are in the pool until it you’re wanting to stop halfway in the pool and can’t.
Drag suits pull down your hips and once you start getting tired in the pool, you go vertical that much quicker.
Instead, it’s better to focus on your stroke and technique, and building strength as you go. In the long run, these will serve you far better than trying to use a drag suit.
If you’re still on the fence about drag suits, see if anyone on your team uses them or has used them. Because a drag suit goes over the primary suit, ask if you can borrow one for a set or practice.
Drag suits aren’t for everyone and it’s an individual choice to wear one. Much like picking which style cap, suit, or goggles you wear, it comes down to your preference. Some swimmers like training with drag suits and others don’t.
Whatever you decide though, pick what will work best for you!
As always, happy swimming!
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Chevron is a current competitive swimmer with almost 20 years of experience in the pool. And although she fell into the sport by accident in her high school years, she still trains daily and competes throughout the year. She’s committed to providing guidance to all levels of swimmers and believes that everyone should know how to swim.