The efficiency of athletes improves as sports clothing becomes more intelligent

Olympic champion Jessica Ennis wears Adidas, a leading name in hi-tech gear. Picture: Getty
Olympic champion Jessica Ennis wears Adidas, a leading name in hi-tech gear. Picture: Getty
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THERE was a time, in this reporter’s living memory, when sports clothing meant navy knickers and a pair of black plimsolls.

Yes, kids, gym in the old days really was pants. Some fitness fans might have progressed on to something a little more appropriate – such as tracksuit bottoms and baggy T-shirt. Then, in an era we’d rather forget, DayGlo G-string leotards and legwarmers.

I doubt back then we could have imagined a future where space-age fabrics can actually suck the sweat away from the body; where they can sense the temperature outside and regulate the body’s temperature within; where shoes can harness technology to make us run faster; or where clothing could help us work out for longer and recover sooner.

“I’ve worked in the industry for 25 years and it’s changed dramatically in that time,” says David Ayers, who heads up the product team at Under Armour’s HQ in Baltimore in the US. “There have been some radical transformations and these have been very technologically fuelled.”

It may all sound complicated – and it is – but what these changes boil down to is just six simple requirements: lighter, drier, faster, stronger, cooler or warmer. “Those basic needs haven’t changed dramatically but how those needs are addressed is what in constant motion,” explains Ayers.

Consider Usain Bolt’s record-breaking 100m sprint at the London 2012 Olympics, which he completed in 9.63 seconds. In 1936 the fastest man on earth was Jesse Owens, and he could only manage that distance in a sluggish 10.2 seconds. In all sports our athletes are getting better all the time. Could those improvements be attributed to their clothing?

“There’s no question,” says Ayers. And as science has been systematically shaving off vital milliseconds from professional athletes’ times, so recreational runners and Sunday leaguers are reaping the benefits.

Let’s start with compression clothing. “The basic benefits of compression are around power and recovery,” he explains. “There’s one aspect that reduces muscle vibration, so it’s actually keeping the muscle groups in place and making them more efficient. Then there’s the recovery aspect, where the pressure means your body can recover more efficiently. To boil it down to a simple phrase, it keeps you stronger for longer.” The independent evidence on performance may be inconclusive, but compression has been proven to help prevent post-workout muscle stiffness.

Temperature control, too, plays a huge part in an athlete’s comfort and, so their ability to play for extended periods. “It’s about being cool and dry or warm and dry,” says Ayers. “You pick the conditions and your clothing can adjust to keep you stable no matter what the weather. One of the biggest changes in the industry has been in the materials we use. The technology behind fabric manufacturing is actually staggering; it’s incredible how advanced the weaving and the knitting has become.” So, in a garment designed to keep you warmer, you could brush the back of the fabric and it will trap body heat to keep you warm, but at the same time the fibres touching your body – the ones on the inside – are smaller so are able to suck moisture off the body. “By sheer mechanics, almost like rain gutters on your roof, it works to create these highways that move moisture to the outside of the garment where it can evaporate.”

He calls it moisture transport, because the system works in different ways depending on your needs. “In a warming garment it is about wicking, actually sucking it up and moving it. But in garments designed for very hot weather, we want to spread the moisture out so your skin can feel the evaporation. If you were to take an alcohol swab and wipe it on your skin, there’s a reason it feels very cool and refreshing. It isn’t because the swab is cold; it’s because it evaporates so quickly, and that evaporation is what cools you off. That’s how sweat works.

“In the case of our compression base layer for hot weather, you want to feel that evaporation. It doesn’t make you sweat more but it makes your sweat work more for you. That’s pretty amazing – that you can actually stay cooler wearing a shirt than not wearing one.”

Looking ahead, our gym gear could actually be set to get minds of its own. “I think you’re going to see fabrics that are more intuitive about how they react to the environment around you,” says Ayers. “We have a launch this autumn of a technology called Infrared, which is a material that can sense the cold on the outside and trap the warmth of your body for storage and return to keep you warmer at a later time.”

Which all sounds pretty cool.

Twitter: @Ruth_Lesley