Fiona Fairhurst made a unique contribution to sport science through the combination of her expertise in textiles and her background as a competitive swimmer. As the director of Research and Development for the Speedo, the multinational swimwear manufacturer, Fairhurst made an ongoing contribution to the development of the Speedo Fastskin models of racing swimsuits.
Fairhurst is either the sole or co-patent holder on a series of full body swimsuit designs that incorporate both modern computer simulation research and the hydrodynamic properties of sharkskin.
Using a computer simulation technology known as computational fluid dynamics, or CFD, a process first developed by American aerospace engineer Barry Bixler in 2000 to assist the United States Olympic swim team in their training, Speedo was able to test various designs and fabrics to determine which would be most the effective in reducing the drag forces created when a swimmer moves through the water. Fairhurst combined the results generated by the CFD technology with her own textiles research to develop the revolutionary Speedo Fastskin, a full body suit that provides a benefit of up to 3% greater efficiency in the water to the athlete.
Fairhurst's research lead her to conclude that a fabric that could be manipulated to mimic the function of sharkskin would be most effective. A shark possesses skin that has a pattern of ridges known as denticles that reduce the amount of water actually brought into contact with the skin, thus reducing the drag force on the shark.
The second purpose in the tight-fitting Fastskin suits is the prevention of water from entering into the space between the swimmer's skin and the inside surface of the suit, so as to make the suit as hydrodynamic as possible. The extremely snug fit was intended by Fairhurst to reduce the amount of extraneous muscle movement in the swimmer's body, especially in the abdominal and gluteal regions, in order that the swimmer's profile remain unchanged as the swimmer moves through the water. For this reason, the Fastskin takes a number of minutes to be properly positioned once it is on the swimmer's body.
In addition to the results of the CFD technology used to test the suits, Fairhurst arranged for the suit to be tested by world class American swimmer Michael Phelps in early 2004 at a flume built at New Zealand's University of Otago. The flume is a small pool of water where strong artificial currents can be generated for the purpose of assessing the performance characteristics of both a swimmer and swimsuit technology. The Phelps tests served to confirm the results predicted by the CFD simulations.