When thinking about innovation, it is important to remember that it is not limited to the world of computers and smartphones, and sports clothing is one of those areas where breakthroughs in technology have proven to be of enormous benefit to athletes, amateur and professional alike.
Technology in sports clothing is typically about the type of fabric used. Sports clothing needs to aid performance, and this is reflected in the fabrics used – fabrics that are both breathable and comfortable. The idea behind sports clothes technology is that the clothing should work in tandem with our bodies as we exercise, rather than merely sit on them. With that in mind, sportswear companies are turning to so-called smart textiles.
If you want an easy understanding of what smart textiles can offer an athlete, then it makes sense to break them down into broad categories: performance enhancing and aesthetic. When it comes to the aesthetic in smart textiles, the focus is on fabrics that change color during the performance, or fabrics that light up. In some cases, these fabrics are absorbing the environment around them – sound, heat, and vibrations – to change color. Performance enhancing fabrics have the ability to regulate the temperature of an athlete’s body as they perform. They can also have the effect of cutting down on wind resistance – perfect for an athletic performance outdoors. An additional function of performance enhancing fabrics can be the control of muscle vibration, which helps to improve athletic performance.
Wearable computing devices are something that athletes have been using for some time now, but smart clothing that accesses similar functions is different because the technology is integrated into the clothing itself. The seamless integration of sensors and microprocessors into clothing is an exciting development, but work is still ongoing at a research level to develop materials that integrate technology yet can be safely washed. Laboratory research is also showing advances in such technologies as organic fiber transistors, which contain absolutely no metals, and the integration of organic solar cells into fibers.
Of course, innovation in sportswear does not just mean high-tech. Fabric technology has come a long way since the 1970s when polyester – perhaps the best known of the synthetic fibers developed – was associated with clingy, sweaty clothes, completely unsuitable for working out. Developments in polyester fiber technology have resulted in items of sportswear that allow moisture to pass through the material, drawing it away from the body. Another positive development, from an athletic point of view, has been the development of materials that are both breathable and waterproof at the same time – great for exercising outdoors in inclement weather. Innovations in sports clothing have also drawn on natural materials. Incredible as it might sound, bamboo can be turned into a rayon or viscose fiber that is durable, soft, and antimicrobial. That is far from the image of bamboo as something that pandas like to eat. Merino wool, which is less scratchy than other types of wool, can be used in items of clothing suitable for cold or warm weather training and exercise, and can be combined with spandex.
Another category of sports clothing that is benefiting from breakthroughs in technology is compression clothing. The selection of compression clothes available ranges from back braces and tops to compression socks for men and women. These items offer support to athletes either recovering from or trying to prevent injury. Also, the type of material used provides additional comfort by keeping moisture away from the skin. Anything that helps to cool an athlete during exercise is of enormous benefit. Compression socks apply gentle pressure to the leg, and help blood to move upward. This has the effect of preventing your legs from swelling. An added and perhaps overlooked the benefit of compression socks is that, because they are long, they prevent scratches and cuts, making them ideal for those of us who like to run in the great outdoors, especially on cross-country trails. Compression clothing can be targeted to fight pain and aches wherever you feel them, with sleeves for wrists, arms, and elbows all available to purchase. Full and half-finger compression gloves help support injury recovery and injury prevention for hands.
So the next time you are exercising or working out, in the gym or outdoors, take a moment to think about what you are wearing and how the science of sports clothing is helping to facilitate and boost your performance, as well as aid recovery from and prevention of injuries.