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 Mount 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."