Latest materials improve sportswear performance

Making waves

31 July 2008 11:34  [Source: ICB]

The current generation of sportswear uses a host of advanced materials to enhance performance in ways that simply could not have been imagined just a few years ago

Elaine Burridge/London

IF YOU want to swim like a fish or run like the wind, the sportswear you choose could be critical to your performance.

High-performance sportswear is big business now, and major advances are being made in fabric engineering as sportsmen and women strive to set new records.

Take, for example, UK-based Speedo's LZR Racer - its groundbreaking swimwear that launched in February. Since then, 44 out of 48 world records have been smashed by athletes wearing the revolutionary suit.

Jason Rance, head of Aqualab, Speedo's research and development group, says: "We believe we have produced the world's fastest swimsuit."

So, what makes this swimsuit so different? Well, Speedo claims it is the world's first fully bonded swimsuit that is ultra-sonically welded, resulting in no seams and no overlapping material. "A material overlap is like a speed bump on the body," Rance explains.

Very thin, polyurethane (PU) panels are embedded in the nylon/elastane fabric at strategic parts of the body where drag builds up.

Passive drag, where the body creates friction as it moves through the water, causes the swimmer to move less smoothly and efficiently. So, less drag means more speed.

The panels help to compress the swimmer's entire body into a more streamlined shape, making them cut through the water with more power and agility. "We have taken compression to a whole new level, and are taking this learning to other areas of the business," says Rance.

The fabric for the LZR Racer provides compressive power of 1,200gm, versus about 400gm for its earlier Fastskin swimsuits. "The LZR Racer is a huge step from Fastskin," he says.

Fastskin made waves in the swimming world when it launched in 2000 as it emulated the structure of sharkskin. Developed in conjunction with experts from the UK's Natural History Museum, the suit was based on a knitted 80:20 polyester/Lycra fabric.

Since then, huge advances in fiber engineering have enabled Speedo to use a woven, very lightweight, water-repellent fabric for the LZR Racer giving a perfect three-dimensional fit, something that was not possible before.


Speedo's claims about the new suit are backed up with extensive testing. The company scanned the bodies of more than 400 elite swimmers and carried out tests on more than 100 different fabrics and fabric combinations, and suit designs, in the world's leading flume and test centers.

The global quest involved the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), New Zealand's University of Otago, US aeronautical research facility NASA Langley Research Center and US-based ANSYS' computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software, a technology used in Formula 1 motorsport.

Rance says that Speedo is the first company to use CFD in developing swimsuits. The software's predictions of friction and flow around a swimmer's body helped to identify the key drag spots.

Pool tests at the AIS showed that swimmers wearing the LZR Racer saw an average 4% increase in speed. In flume tests, the suit also contributed to a 5% improvement in the swimmer's oxygen use compared with other swimwear.

Rival firms are already unveiling competing products. Japanese sportswear manufacturers Mizuno, Asics and Descente launched high-tech suits in May, while US sportswear giant Nike, Germany's Adidas and Italian brand DIANA are also reported to be working on designs to compete with the LZR Racer.

But Speedo's development work continues, too, as it looks ahead to the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Rance says that enhancing core stability, reducing skin friction, and proprioception (eye and body coordination/perception) are all areas of focus for the future.

Away from the pool and out on the track, Nike's latest developments are in sports shoe technology, namely Flywire and Lunar Foam.

Once again, NASA was involved, having already done some research on a super-lightweight bouncy foam. The foam was adapted by Nike for its performance footwear range. A foam core is encased in a carrier made from Phylon or Phylite. Phylon is moulded from ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) foam pellets, while Phylite is a combination of 60% phylon and 40% rubber.

Tests have show that as the foam is soft, it spreads out force evenly, protecting the foot's fragile bones and giving quicker recovery times. Flywire technology uses high-performance nylon threads, mimicking cables on a suspension bridge, to produce a paper-thin shoe but with support engineered where the foot needs it. This innovation has led to the lightest track spikes ever.

Nike says that its Zoom Victory Spike weighs a record-breaking 93g, and is the first time a racing shoe has broken the 100g barrier. It compares the shoe with the weight of a Snickers chocolate bar with a bite taken out. There is no mention of how big or small the bite is, though.

However, you do not have to be a professional athlete to want or benefit from high-performance sportswear. Saskia Ruehmer, project manager for Bayer MaterialScience's sports and leisure new business unit, says that there is a growing trend for people to embrace a more active and outdoor lifestyle.

"Sports behavior is shifting from formal competition to personal wellbeing. We are transferring this consumer trend to material solutions. Materials are expected to be lightweight, comfortable, fashionable, and of course environmentally friendly," she says.

Germany's Bayer MaterialScience produces thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) under the brand name Desmopan. It is used in ski boots, skates, ice hockey boots, hiking and climbing boots, and ski/snowboard surfaces.

Sustainability and environmentally friendly products are the big drivers for research work at Bayer MaterialScience. It is developing a TPU based on renewable feedstocks that has been applied on a standard grade sports shoe and is currently being tested by manufacturers.

Another important area of development for Bayer MaterialScience is solvent-free PU dispersions. Ruehmer says that PU dispersions are very important for textile coatings in the sports market and the solvent-free product contains no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that diffuse into the atmosphere.

She says that consumers and sportswear manufacturers are seeking lighter, more transparent and environmentally conscious products and Bayer MaterialScience is striving to identify solutions.

Its polycarbonate (PC) division is developing new safety caps made of Makrolon that are lighter and have improved break resistance. They may be used for sports shoes and climbing boots.

Bayer MaterialScience's Makrolon PC is also used in protective eyewear for sports, as it is exceptionally break-resistant and virtually splinter-proof. Dirk Wurster, head of consumer products and the medical business segment for Bayer MaterialScience's advanced resins division Europe, Middle East and Africa, says that consumers are now mostly interested in thinner, colored, and more fashionable sports eyewear.

This trend has led to the development of special lens materials that bend differently compared with conventional plastic lenses, offering greater design opportunities together with the possibility of 100% ultraviolet (UV) protection and tinting exactly as desired.

Wurster says that another area of interest for Makrolon is in headgear for equestrian sports. German sports and workwear manufacturer UVEX is launching two lines for safety helmets at Equitana, the equestrian sports world fair in 2009, in Essen, Germany, one of which is made from Makrolon.

Less well known, or developed, is the potential for Makrolon fibers to be woven into textiles to make them "intelligent." Bayer MaterialScience says pioneers talk of underwear that monitors the pulse and other body functions and can even make an emergency call if needed.

Another vision involves t-shirts fitted with search data programmed to seek a partner with the appropriate personality profile. So, while you are running, your sportswear could be scanning for the man or woman of your dreams too.

Discuss this or any topic in this issue in our online forums at ICIS connect

By: Elaine Burridge
+44 20 8652 3214

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