Back in the day, a runner hit the pavement wearing cotton shorts and a cotton T-shirt, and when things got hot, sweat turned those clothes into a big, wet, stinky mess.
Today, fitness clothing is all about nanoparticles that suspend moisture, compression garments that give muscles a boost and super-thin insulation that keeps even Mt. Everest climbers too warm.
Thanks to nanotechnology and other innovations, textiles are becoming more sophisticated, enabling engineers, scientists and manufacturers to move way beyond microfiber and Thinsulate, synthetic insulation introduced decades ago. Fancy new materials are showing up in gear marketed to elite and weekend athletes alike. "We're on the very beginning of that journey," says Yoel Fink, principal investigator at the Research Lab of Electronics at MIT, who develops high-tech fibers.
The development of "smart" clothes — sports bras and T-shirts made with special fibers that can detect heart rates, eliminating the need for a separate heart rate monitor — created a buzz a few years ago. But those products never flooded the market, perhaps because they were prohibitively expensive and not much different from wearing a standard monitor.
Most of today's innovations are geared toward making the wearer feel more comfortable and move more freely, which, in turn, may help an athlete run faster, climb higher, cycle longer. Many of the sophisticated fabrics available today evolved from industrial materials, the medical field or from clothing made for the military or NASA. Read on for a few innovations — a mere taste, engineers promise, of what may come.
Outlier, a Brooklyn-based clothing company, produces cycling clothes that look more like street clothes. Its Blazed Cotton Pivot Sleeve shirt looks like any ordinary men's tailored shirt. The innovation comes in how the all-cotton shirt handles dirt and moisture, i.e., sweat. The fabric is treated with NanoSphere, a high-tech finish that creates tiny spikes that suspend droplets and dirt particles away from the shirt until they can be evaporated or blown away.
It's an advance on the older, "wicking" approach, in which moisture is dispersed throughout the fabric so it evaporates more quickly. Wicking doesn't eliminate wet spots, says Outlier founder Abe Burmeister — no-nos for shirts meant to double as casual and athletic wear.
"If it's raining or hot out or there's dirt from the road, we need the clothing to stay clean so it can also function in a social environment," Outlier co-founder Tyler Clemens says. The fabric also needed to be comfortable, he adds: "A lot of technical fabrics tend to be clammy and have an artificial feel."
After much searching, Outlier found a 140-year-old Swiss-based company called Schoeller Textil AG, which added its NanoSphere technology to the shirts.
Schoeller often looks to nature for inspiration, and that's what inspired NanoSphere, says Shannon Walton, the company's public relations and marketing rep. "There is a very fine structure on some leaves and insect wings that keeps water, dirt and oil from adhering to the surface. We thought: How could we copy that?"
Another choice for athletes and fitness buffs used to wearing man-made fibers (but who would prefer to wear cotton) is Polarmax TransDRY. The shirt promises to wick away moisture, something cotton hasn't excelled in. Through a process developed by Cotton Inc., involving a special weave and surface treatment, moisture is drawn from the inside of the fabric out, allowing it to evaporate faster.
"In the sports world, cotton has been pooh-poohed because it soaks up moisture," says Roger Maxey, the company's national sales manager. But this shirt, which he says is extremely comfortable, "wicks moisture on a par with most polyester fabrics."
Technology is also addressing prevention of odor from sweat. The science is moving beyond treating textiles with the substances nanosilver or triclosan. Nanosilver is a nanotechnology-based antimicrobial that some studies suggest may be toxic and may leach from the fabrics into the body (and when they're washed, the water table). Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical that might promote the increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and may be toxic to wildlife. (The FDA is looking into triclosan's safety.)
The Missouri-based company Dead Down Wind already produces ScentPrevent, a line of soap and detergent products that use enzymes to break down odor-producing molecules. Marketed mostly to hunters, it can also be used for stinky gym clothes. General Manager Gary Reed says the company is working on a product that could enable consumers to coat their clothes in this odor-preventing formula.
Garments that compress the body have their roots in physical therapy and are supposed to improve athletic performance, training and recovery by purportedly reducing fatigue and increasing power. Studies are mixed on whether the tight-fitting pieces actually do anything — some show that they might aid performance but others suggest the garments may have no advantages other than psychological. Still, since many pro athletes wear them, amateurs have adopted them enthusiastically, donning compression shorts, shirts, sleeves and leggings for basketball, baseball and more — even yoga.
Early versions squeezed body parts uniformly, but newer iterations claim to do more. Adidas claims its Techfit line enhances stability and posture and reduces muscle vibration with strategically placed compression bands.
Under Armour says its new CoreShort, which has X-shaped panels in front and back, helps stabilize the body while it's moving. "The more you move, the more it works," says David Ayers, director of men's apparel for the company. As muscle tension increases, he adds, the compression in the shorts helps to make movements more efficient, "so there's no wasted motion."
The idea came from a Canadian sports physiotherapist, Ayers says, and pays more attention to anatomy, building in sections that provide support and compression for body parts that drive motion.
Down jackets are a must for hikers and skiers in cold climates. But those Michelin-man puffy coats may soon be a thing of the past now that companies are experimenting with Zero-Loft, a super-thin insulation created via nanotechnology and derived from silicate. The material was originally used to insulate oil and gas pipelines.
Element 21 Sports, which produces Zero-Loft, claims that the material's nanoparticles are 3,000 times less dense than glass but chemically the same and that they don't flatten out when squeezed, like down. When put into clothing, the result may have been too effective — a prototype jacket from Champion, called the Supersuit, resembled a slim windbreaker and reportedly kept a climber too warm on a trek up Mt. Everest. The four-layer construction consisted of a moisture-wicking inner lining, radiant foil to keep in heat and a wind-proof outer shell in addition to the insulating layer.
Ultimately, Champion decided not to produce the jackets. "The general consensus was that we made a large advancement in real-world conditions, but we think it still remains to be seen if there's a commercial market for it," says Matthew Hall, a spokesman for Hanesbrands Inc., the parent company.
A spokesman for Toronto-based Element 21 Sports said the company is in talks with clothing manufacturers who want to use the insulation in items such as hats, shoes and gloves. CamelBak already has it in its Podium water bottle.
Cooling an athlete is more challenging than keeping one warm, says Fink of MIT: "It's easier to generate heat than it is to remove it." At the moment, cooling is typically achieved via lightweight clothing that efficiently wicks away moisture so that sweat doesn't build up in the fabric. An example is a shirt developed by Polarmax used by special-ops personnel that's made from a man-made open-weave textile that feels like silk.
But clothing like that may be obsolete soon, Fink says. "Maybe evaporative cooling is the way to go. Maybe we build water into the fibers and those evaporate, cooling your shirt off. Maybe it doesn't have to be soaking wet, but it would be embedded in particular areas."
Fink believes scientists are well on the way to creating such high-tech fibers, though whether such items would ever be available for the mass market — as opposed, say, to special forces operating in hot climes — is anyone's guess, he says.
Last month Fink and his colleagues released a paper in the journal Nature Materials about the development of fibers that can detect and produce sound. Soon, perhaps, runners won't have to haul their iPods around anymore: They can listen to their shirts instead.
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