Equipment technology can vary wildly from sport to sport, but there’s one thing every athlete needs: clothes. Over the past century, a tremendous amount of scientific research has been poured into finding fabrics that improve performance – which is why, unfortunately for spectators, most athletes aren’t competing in tiger suits.
So, what have the researchers found out? A lot of their discoveries are on show at the Winter Olympics.
The first thing to take into account is the sport. Optimum clothing depends on what it’s going to be used for – whether it’s a few intense minutes of luge, or several hours of cross-country skiing.
For faster sports, like luge, skeleton and speed skating, aerodynamics is key. Reducing the permeability of clothing is generally an advantage here. The more air and water repelled by the clothing, the easier it is to speed up. Some sports, like ski jumping, have rules limiting how permeable clothing must be.
According to Professor Paul Collins, a researcher in design and product development at Deakin University’s School of Engineering, coating fabrics is a good way to do this.
“You can get a base-level fabric, and then you can put polymers or natural fibres or substances on top of that to augment the properties to do one thing or another.”
Adding a water-repelling, or hydrophobic, layer – as you would with a raincoat or an outdoor canvas – is a good way to do this. These coatings are made from molecules that repel water, and can be less than a micrometre thick.
But for sports that demand more cardiovascular work, permeability becomes an advantage.
“Something like snowboarding – the halfpipe, for example – needs a lot of athleticism, a lot of movement. You actually want fabrics that breathe because you’re going to get very hot,” says Collins.
While natural fabrics are generally hailed as more breathable, there’s no inherent property of artificial fibres that makes them less permeable. Researchers have developed plastic-based textiles that can cool people down as effectively as cotton or linen.
Much of the research on sport textiles has been aimed at Olympians, but amateur sportspeople have benefited from these discoveries too. When you’re picking out your next ski suit, you should be thinking about aerodynamics, breathability, and warmth as well.
“The physiological function of the human body doesn’t change just because you’re an elite athlete,” says Collins. “We all sweat when we get our heart rate up. It just the elite athletes do it way better.”
And there’s one more crucial attribute you should consider: durability. This is better for you and your clothing, but – more importantly – it’s also better for the environment.
The fashion and clothing industry is one of the world’s largest polluters, with tens of millions of tonnes of textiles added to landfill each year (the average Australian disposes of 23kg of clothing annually).
While researchers are finding ways to recycle and re-use textiles, the industry is still in its nascency. Producing less in the first place is always going to be more sustainable than finding ways to recycle fabrics.
“Buy the best thing you can, and use it for longer,” recommends Collins.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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