An elite level sports competition is now as much of a battle for technological expertise among sports manufacturers as it is of human endeavour. Most of the big names are cagey about how much they invest in the research and development of clothing and equipment – but Adidas and Nike admit they employ more than 30 designers and scientists, many of whom spend each four-year Olympic cycle working on an individual shoe or fabric.
Much of what the companies produce is too specific for the mass market. But that doesn’t mean that exercise-conscious consumers have to go without. On the horizon are ‘Smart’ gym clothes – think iPods incorporated into fabric, T-shirts that talk to a computer and tops that measure blood pressure. “The potential in this area is huge,” says Jane McCann director of wearable technology research at the University of Wales. Check out what top athletes have in their wardrobes for 2008.
It looks more like a space suit than something you would wear to do front crawl, but the latest LZR Racer swimsuit developed by Speedo has already taken the swimming world by storm.
A host of world records have been toppled in the last eight weeks by swimmers wearing the hi-tech bodysuit, which manufacturer Speedo claims can carve as much as two per cent off race times.
But the LZR, developed with the help of space agency Nasa, has plunged the sport into uncharted waters, with swimmers breaching lucrative kit contracts to wear it and rows over the legality of the materials used.
The fabric used in the LZR is ultra-light weight and, crucially, this latest suit is “welded” together to create a seam-free surface that is streamline in the water. A ‘hydro form compression system’ – tight-fitting fabric- acts like a corset to hold a swimmer’s body in an even more aerodynamic shape. “When I hit the water [while wearing the LZR Racer] I feel like a rocket,” says Michael Phelps, right, who was involved in the development of the suit.
What you can wear: Speedo is producing a toned-down consumer range of the suit including a women’s swimsuit all with streamline technology. Failing that, you could just shave off your body hair and wear a swimsuit a size too small – both thought to reduce drag.
In football, the must-have item of the season is Nike’s Mercurial Vapour IV, the world’s lightest football boot weighing just 200 grams. Launched recently, it has already graced the feet of Christiano Ronaldo. It is the latest incarnation of the Mercurial Vapour, the boot worn by the top scorer in the English Premier League for the last six seasons and features a special coating on the upper to help players dribble the ball. At Loughborough University in the UK Dr Mike Caine director of the sports technology research, has worked with footballer’s to create personalised footwear that corrects imbalances and alignment problems. “Everybody’s feet are different and one size doesn’t fit all. We use laser beams to fuse together particles of nylon to make a shoe that is tailored to an athlete’s needs.”
What you can wear: Replica versions of football shirts don’t always feature the technological advances that are added to the top players’ clothing ranges. Choose a shirt made from a fabric such as ‘dri-fti’ or ‘clima-fit’ that gets rid of sweat and provides simulated air-conditioning. If you fancy yourself as a Ronaldo, then the Mercurial Vapour IV is available online at www.nike.com
Research by sports scientists has shown that, in order for sprinters to reach top speed on the running track, exposed skin and body hair should be kept under wraps. Nike’s aerodynamic solution is the head-to-ankle Swift Suit, the latest version of which will be worn by Australian and American sprinters at this year’s Olympics. Wearing an all-in-one running suit has been shown to produce 1lb [454g] less drag and give a 10cm advantage in a 100m sprint, enough to make the difference between first and nowhere.
Many elite runners choose to train with a clothing range created by Polar, the leading manufacturer of heart rate monitors. Special fibres that work with Polar technology have been bonded on to T-shirts, shoes, running vests and sports bras so that the need for the separate chest strap is eliminated. In the sizzling temperatures of Beijing this summer, many athletes will be preparing for their events using a ‘precool vest’, which discreetly holds ice packs in its lining to reduce core body temperature by 19 per cent and minimise heat injury risk.
What you can wear: The running shoe of the moment is the Nike Pegaus which has ‘crash pads’ in the sole to protect joints as you run. It also features a Nike+ sensor in the arch of the shoe and technology that can link to an iPod Nano and provide feedback about training.
Justin Rose, inset, is among the many top golfers who wears a ‘TechFit’ vest to aid his performance. Shown to enhance muscle endurance, the golf-specific top has extra support where golfers need it most – in the back and shoulders where muscles are vulnerable to straining and over-use as a result of the repetitive swing. Other popular fabrics, such as the Sphere Macro worn by Paul Casey, focus on ventilation with the Macro top featuring fish-scale-style flaps that open up or roll back when they come into contact with sweat. Golfing footwear has evolved in recent years to include anti-clogging spikes (that prevent clumps of grass sticking to your feet as you walk) and “technology that allows feet to be positioned closer to the ground,” says Nick Robbie a golf designer for Taylormade.
What you can wear: There is no end to the amount you could spend on high tech accessories for golf, regardless of your handicap. A TechFit vest can be bought from www.adidas.com.
The race to be first in sportswear