Performance is the topic for all athletes – at the Olympics as well as at any other contest or challenge. Professional athletes are definitely the leaders and promoters for technical developments regarding active sportswear and ambitious hobby sportsmen take advantage, reports our Special Correspondent Claudia Ollenhauer-Ries from Germany.
Instead of “active sportswear,” this type of clothing should be called “clothing for professional athletes”, because it is developed for and with the elite sportsmen and sportswomen worldwide. Nevertheless, the name “active sportswear” has been established in the worldwide market as a generic name for all outfits which serve everybody doing sports. The companies have created special looks and types of garments for every type of sports.
Usually, an interdisciplinary group elaborates the clothes from fibre to fabric, from design to production. Literally, the whole textile chain works for a type of new product, which is meant to enhance the performance of the athletes beyond any physical training.
Five basic textile structures adopted for the activewear are: conventional fabrics, non crimp fabrics (laid fibres), 3D-fabrics, overbraiding and tailored fibre placement
Members from this development team come from the big sport brands like adidas, puma, Nike, who sponsor the whole venture.
Other highly-qualified persons join in from textile mills, fibre producers and textile institutes. Also medics, designer and – last but not least – athletes are members of the team.
After a due development time with testing and evaluating, the high-end outfits go for Olympia and other renowned championships.
A gold winner, athlete or team, means a high reputation for the sponsoring brand and an increase of sales to the “normal” people.
A phenomenon is also the challenge between the developing teams, as we easily can see in the running, biking and swimming disciplines, where ultimate velocity is requested: The suits look more or less alike at first sight and work with ultra sleek materials which compress the muscles.
There is a huge amount to technical development inside, which is handled as top secret, in order to keep the advantage.
As the high-end outfits, often produced individually made-to-measure, will be too expensive for the public, the technology will be broken down to a moderate level. The shapes will be standard, the size specs fit to the normal human body. Then, the large quantity of garments will scale down the price even further.
The First Intervention
The outfits for teams like the national Olympic teams
Proven functional materials and fittings are combined with a special design for this event.
The aim is to promote the brand nationally and internationally and to push the sales of these styles in the national public.
For example Hudson’s Bay Company (Hbc), Brampton/Canada, developed an eco-friendly (bamboo and organic cotton) collection designed with athletes’ input to ensure the Canadian team has ideal clothing to excel in Beijing’s hot summer temperatures.
Hbc’s Olympic design team worked with Canadian Olympic athletes from across the country to design the collection. Over 50 former and current summer Olympians participated in focus groups in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal and provided feedback and suggestions that contributed to the goal of creating a team uniform package that exceeds the athletes’ fashion and functional needs.
Many athletes were unprepared for the heat they experienced in Athens and asked that clothing be appropriate for the expected high temperatures in Beijing.
In response, the clothing incorporates performance fabrics that provide UV protection, four-way stretch, odour resistance, and wicking and cooling properties for ultimate comfort. The clothing is also eco-friendly, using materials such as bamboo, cotton blends, cacona and organic cotton.
Canada’s Olympic team members in Beijing will each receive 25 items, as part of the 2008 Team package, including leisure wear, jackets, pants and shorts, hoodies, T-shirts, shoes and luggage.
For circular knits, the blends are 47% bamboo, 47% cotton and 6% spandex jersey, respectively or 50% bamboo and 50% cotton jersey. Bamboo is quite in fashion right now, as it has ecological advantages at the stage of crop and of recycling as well as good wicking and temperature management performances due to its fibre structure, soft handle and its proper antibacterial function. Cacona is again a natural fibre extracted from coconuts. It also is said to have antibacterial function.
Four-way-stretch is a marketing gimmick for fabrics which are elastic in any direction from warp to weft. Mostly, these are circular knits with a rather high (over 10%) amount of elastane. As a knit construction, this could be core spun yarns with elastane core or plated with elastane. Others are bi-elastic woven fabrics, some using core spun elastic yarns and/or yarns like XFit Lycra, T 400 (both Invista) or Xpand (Trevira) for denims.
UV-protection comes with special additives in the finishing process of the fabric. Odour resistance could come from the yarns with silver ions or other bacteriostatic substances in the spinning process as well as from special additives (silver ions, bacteriostatic substances or cyclodextrines) applied to the fabric.
While silver ions naturally prevent the proliferation of bacteria on the skin (these cause the smell from sweating), bacteriostatic need a precise recipe in order to be useful against odour and harmless to the normal bacteria on the skin. Cyclodextrines will absorb the odour into their cavities when wearing the apparel. During the washing process, the odorous molecules will be released and washed off. The superficial treatments of the fabrics will last some 20 to 40 household washes, while the substances and ions embedded in the fibre itself will last far longer (indefinitely, as some fibre producers claim).
The clue to temperature and moisture management is the structure of the fabric and the wicking properties of the fibres. Sleek fibres with low hairiness values feel cool as they don’t trap the air. Open structures like piqué knit allow the air to pass easily through the fabric. Many man-made fibres are hydrophobic and won’t take up moisture; others – like cotton, viscose, modal or wool – are hydrophilic and will take up moisture. Usually, the knits and wovens will have a reverse side with hydrophobic yarns and a right side with hydrophilic yarns – thus pulling the moisture away from the skin to the outside, where it can evaporate and cool the wearer.
The temperature and moisture management can be enhanced by the use of different qualities of fabrics on the chest, back and armpits. This could be done by traditional cut & sew technology, cut & bond technologies (gluing, ultrasonic welding) or seamless circular knitting respectively warp knitting.
The Second Intervention
The outfits developed with selected elite athletes
The idea is to find out new types of garments, which will enhance the performance of the athlete. New materials and technologies will be combined and tested. Often medics and scientists as well as textile institutes are involved. The aim is to gain a technologic advantage in the market for highly functional active sportswear worn by professional, semi-professional and ambitious sportsmen and sportswomen.
adidas TechFit Powerweb Technology
The adidas Innovation Team (ait) studies the athletes’ muscles and how they move. ait has developed, as they say, “a breakthrough that can be applied to almost any sport.”
Compression is a widely used technology for improving athletic performance; in simplest terms, it involves wrapping muscles in tight-fitting fabric. The base material used in adidas TechFit with Powerweb (74% polyester/26% elastane) is Lycra Power, launched during the 1990s as a high-tech version of Lycra for compression shorts which help reduce athletes’ muscle fatigue. In addition, the ait group uses a combination of silhouettes and mesh inserts that allows for maximum range of motion, breathability and comfort.
Basically, the Powerweb is a highly elastic tubular circular knit which fits in diameter to legs, chest and arms; it’s the seamless compression part. The elastic mesh construction is inserted by flat lock seams at the back, where it helps the moisture management and breathability. Flat lock seams are found at the armholes, neckline, waistline and crotch. The TPU (Thermoplastic Urethane) tapes are cut in shape and laminated onto the Powerweb material before the sewing. The TPU material provides the elasticity and return stretch needed, with a simple application to fabric that wouldn’t be detrimental to the garment’s fit or comfort.
Legal doping with clothing needs a few years of severe testing and a close cooperation between elite athletes and designers. Obviously, this costs a considerable amount of money. The big players in this market can afford it by all means of finance and human resources. Niche suppliers must rely on their network of suppliers, partners, developers and designers
The bands are anchored at key points, such as around the waist or above the knees and are focused on key muscle groups (such as upper legs or shoulders). Working in unison with muscles, they function like springs.
When an athlete moves, one set of muscles contracts while an opposite set extends; the bands mimic this, stretching on the extension side to store elastic energy. When the process is reversed and the extended muscles contract, the bands snap back to their shorter length, providing an athlete with more power.
Compression has a number of proven benefits including:
- Enhanced proprioception and body awareness, which means better form and technique.
- Reduced muscle vibration, which lessens the wasted energy that comes from muscles that wobble or shake during sport.
- Improved muscle recovery, and less wear and tear during workouts.
Compression was introduced by adidas in 1998 in the swimming category. It was used in the first full-body swimsuit, and created a new standard in performance apparel, with athletes including Ian Thorpe swimming to gold wearing it. Since then, many athletes in many different sports have found the benefits of compression.
TechFit with Powerweb went also to the scientific labs. In controlled laboratory tests, conducted together with the University of Calgary/Canada, an average 5.3% improvement in power output and 1.1% faster sprint time was measured over 30 metres. Even more impressive, the testers registered a 1.3% reduction in oxygen consumption while wearing TechFit with Powerweb – a clear indication that the onset of fatigue is delayed and that performance is enhanced.
The Nike Swift Suit
Nike, Beverton/USA, has further developed its Swift Suit. Mr Scott Williams, designer at Nike, points out that aerodynamics, materials “faster than skin” and special cuts led to the new generation of Swift Suits. Both the US and the Chinese Olympic running athletes wear these suits. To create its premium Nike Swift Track and Field apparel, Nike designers have tested and catalogued more than 200 fabrics. Now the designers can break fabrics down by specifics, like the speed of a sprinter’s hands, to determine which material works best with turbulence in specific events. This encyclopaedic knowledge led to the new Nike Swift Suit. Totally reworked with all new fabrics the suit needed an entirely new pattern. Nike won’t disclose more details on the materials. Getting it right required more than a dozen fittings on male and female athletes. Seams were removed or else relocated to the back of the suit and those that remained were entirely flat to prevent abrasion.
Another innovation for the Nike Swift Suit was Aerographics; Nike’s engineered mesh system that was added at the back to increase cooling. Now the suit has a 7% drag reduction over the Nike Swift Suit for Athens, which translates to .02 seconds in the 100 m. Nike Swift might help a sprinter make the difference between first and fourth place, but the suit is making another difference in the world. The new version is made with 100% recycled polyester yarns, fitting into Nike’s considered design ethos. Now, Nike has combined its fastest ever Nike Swift technology with an environmentally – preferred material.
Inspiration for the new Nike Swift singlet and short came from watching powerful track athletes fly over the hurdles. Nike designers noticed that athletes were wearing split-leg shorts and singlets, which billowed behind them and caused extra drag. Nike design created a new singlet and short that kept the silhouette that athletes were comfortable in and that fit almost like a second skin. Now, Nike’s Track and Field singlet and short uses the Nike Swift technology. The seams are at the back to cut drag, and the short was made with an entirely flat front. All bindings and hems were removed at the neck and armholes to prevent chafing, and Aerographics at the back allow for passive cooling. The singlet even takes into account sprinters’ and hurdlers’ broad shoulders and narrower waists with a racer back that anchors the shirt firmly between the shoulder blades. It won’t move, so there’s no distraction while allowing a full range of movement.
If a sprinter’s running 40 km per hour, their hands and feet are going 80. At speeds that fast, it is important to cut the drag. An entire system of dress was developed, so sprinters would not be slowed. Long gloves and socks were created to prevent drag and when athletes wear the full body system it can help them go faster. The gloves have dimpled fabrics like a golf ball to cut wind resistance and allow arms to slice through the air faster without slowing down.
When running long distances, athletes need to stay cool, sweat needs to evaporate, and clothing can’t be a distraction. For Beijing, Nike created a unique singlet for distance runners. The singlet cuts weight and increases cooling with Aerographics on the back and fewer seams throughout. Aerographics changes the game by putting mesh directly into the apparel without using any extra materials. The new technique cuts weight while adding comfort and cooling. No Sew technology around the neckline and armholes reduces extra material that could scrape and chafe – an important consideration for distance runners where even the smallest distraction can impede performance.
Speedo, Nottingham/UK, a world’s leading swimwear brand, unveiled the special Olympic edition Team USA LZR (spoken: laser) RACER suit in national colours.
An unprecedented 38 world records have been broken by swimmers wearing the LZR Racer since its launch in February 2008. Speedo harnessed the expertise of NASA and a number of international research institutes to create the suit which is said to have 10% less passive drag than Speedo’s FASTSKIN FSII launched in 2004 and 5% less passive drag than Speedo’s FASTSKIN FS-PRO, which was launched in March 2007 and swimmers wearing it broke 21 world records.
Made from an ultra lightweight, low drag, water repellent, and fast-drying fabric unique to Speedo called LZR PULSE, the LZR RACER suit is, may be, the world’s first fully bonded competition swimsuit, Mr Jason Rance, Head of Speedo’s Aqualab Research and Development Group, said the LZR Racer is made of a material that weighs just 104 gramme per square metre – compared with several hundred grams for most fabrics. The material is a warp knit construction with 70% polyamide micro fibre and 30% elastane, provided by the Stretchline Group, headquartered in Hong Kong. Stretchline’s UK branch developed the LZR Pulse material from Bondelast, a special elastic fabric made using bondable adhesive called Sewfree film. This film allows to bond several components together and allows a considerable reduction in labour with an ultrasonic welding machine AT700 designed by Sew Systems, Leicester/UK, in a single operation method for most garments.
The ultrasonic welding gives the effect of no seams at all. Ultra low drag LZR panels, made from an ultra-thin PU membrane, are laminated onto the base fabric to create a Hydro Form Compression System helping to compress the entire swimmer’s body into a more streamlined shape and enabling them to cut through the water with more power and agility.
The shapes are being cut according to the body scans of the athletes. The 3D shapes are run into 2D pattern. The LZR Racer uses just three pieces of fabric, bonded together with the heat of ultrasound. It is the world’s first seamless swimsuit. The Fastskin used 30 pieces, which needed to be stitched together.
The patent GB 2 4444 803 A say: “[…] an inner core layer of stretchable elasticized fabric is bonded to the inner surface of the base layer to extend around the abdomen and lower back regions of the garment. By providing a double layer of stretchable elasticized fabric in this manner, more compression is applied to the abdomen of the person (e.g., swimmer) wearing the suit, bringing about improvements in form drag. The additional support provided to the lower back and abdomen also improves core stability, which is of benefit in many sporting activities, including swimming. […]”
Others have come up with their own versions of the sleek racing suit:
Tracer Line from Tyr Huntington
Tyr, Huntington Beach/USA, boasts that its new “Tracer” line comes with a unique set of compression panels, heavier material woven into the suit that provides extra support at key points such as the thighs and buttocks. They’re designed to keep the blood flowing, which provides more oxygen to the swimmer, who doesn’t feel quite so tired at the end of a gruelling race.
Arena, France, which has more of a presence in Europe, will send its stable of swimmers to Beijing wearing the “Powerskin R-evolution”, which is billed on the company Website as “The Fastest. The Lightest. The Smoothest.” The company claims that its suit provides a 54-hundredths of a second advantage in a 50-metre race over its previous outfit, reduces drag by 20%, allows a swimmer to maintain top speed for 24% longer, is even lighter than the LZR Racer (99 gramme per square metre), is made from one piece of fabric, has no seams on the front and is 100% stitchless. The company already picked up the first world record for its new suit when Italy’s Federica Pellegrini lowered the mark in the 400-metre freestyle at the European championships.
Synthetic Rubber Coated Fabric from Yamamoto Yamamoto’s, Japan, fabric is coated with synthetic rubber that absorbs water molecules into its honeycomb surface, unlike most other materials which repel them. Its surface is smoothed out with water molecules to minimize frictional resistance. Other suit makers, including Xterra of the United States, Australia’s 2XU, Aquaman of France and New Zealand’s Orca have also adopted the material, Yamamoto said.