From Lab to Olympics: Scientists Work to Improve Athletic Gear

The Wall Street Journal

March 11, 2020

Researchers are developing sports apparel and equipment that aims to boost performance and prevent injuries

Olympic champion Michael Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, teamed up with a company called Aqua Lung to design swimsuits meant to enable faster swims.

Football helmets that wobble upon impact, protecting the player’s head. Spacecraft-inspired material that could make sneakers lighter and runners faster. Sensor stickers that could alert athletes to potential diseases. At labs across the country, researchers are hard at work developing sports apparel and equipment to improve athletic performance and prevent injuries.

“We’ll see more performance gear that passively adapts to environmental conditions while keeping people comfortable,” says Anette “Peko” Hosoi, co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sports Lab, a sports engineering program created to improve athletic performance and safety through science. “People thinking creatively in this space always figure out how to go around the rules.”

Here, a look at the technology that may one day show up at a track, field or pool near you.

Adding Innovation to Injury
Injuries can curtail athletes’ careers, so researchers are developing new materials to make gear like helmets and shoes better at preventing them.

After several University of California, Berkeley, students received head injuries from bicycle accidents, Robert Knight and Ram Gurumoorthy, the founders of the startup BrainGuard designed a helmet for cyclists and football players that they say offers extra protection against rotational forces or impacts that quickly twist the head.

The two-layered design has an outer shell that wobbles when hit, like a bobblehead. It is connected to an interior shell with rubber-band-like materials that absorb and diminish force before it reaches the brain. The helmet reduced impact force by 25% to 45% when compared with the top four current National Football League helmets, according to their impact tests. BrainGuard is waiting to receive a certification that would allow high-school and college teams to use the helmet, says Mr. Knight, also a neuroscience and psychology professor at UC Berkeley.

Redwood City, Calif.-based Carbon Inc. and Riddell, a football equipment manufacturer based in Elyria, Ohio, are 3D-printing inner paddings for helmets that are customized to individual athletes. Others are experimenting with different kinds of plastic shells.

Out-of-this-world innovations are also coming to shoes—literally. Julian Rimoli, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has developed a three-dimensional lattice material that could replace traditional, heavier foams in the soles of shoes, based on his studies of spacecraft—specifically planetary landers.

Dr. Rimoli found that the structure of a lander—made of connecting bars and cables that interact with each other to maintain extreme stability—recovered its form after impact without getting damaged. His research showed that a lattice material with the same structure is 10 times more efficient at absorbing energy compared with today’s soles, potentially helping athletes run more efficiently while lessening their risks of knee and ankle injuries. The material could also provide impact protection for helmets and car bumpers.

Performance Enhancing DudsThe personalization of clothing and technology, down to their atomic structure, is helping companies and trainers enhance athletes’ performance.

Swimmers need tight clothing to reduce friction in the water, but too much compression over time can cause a buildup of lactic acid that makes muscles burn with fatigue. Olympic champion Michael Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman teamed up with Aqua Lung, a California-based aquatic-sports equipment company, to design highly customized swimsuits that aim to do a better job than current compression wear to preserve muscle energy and reduce weight and drag in the water for faster swims. The suits will be used by about a dozen athletes at the Tokyo Olympics in July.

The designers developed an adaptive compression fabric technology for the suit with several panels that stretch in three dimensions, depending on the athlete and the body part. Hip, glute and stomach areas get tighter compression to keep the body as parallel to the water’s surface as possible. The fabric, held together with specially placed, rigid seams, has textured panels that break water tension, similar to the effect of dimples on a golf ball. The new suit saw a 1% glide improvement compared with fabrics in current suits, which matters in a sport that measures time differences in hundredths of a second, the designers say.

Customized fabrics can also protect athletes from overheating. MIT’s Jeffrey Grossman, Zhengmao Lu and Nicola Ferralis developed a material—originally designed for chocolate packaging—that is capable of cooling contents up to 5 degrees Celsius for weeks at a time. So far, they have studied its application only for packaging, but they believe that one day it could be embedded in clothing fibers to regulate the body temperatures of athletes, firefighters and soldiers, especially when outdoors.

The secret is in the atomic structure and layering of three types of materials that can collect water from the air, store it and then use controlled evaporation to release heat when the fabric detects excess warmth from the body. The passive cooling technology “makes the material itself intelligent,” says Dr. Grossman, a materials scientist.

Made to MeasureLess intrusive, AI-enabled sensors could soon collect even more sports and health-related data from the human body than current wearables.

A Boston-based company called Figur8 has developed single-use sensors that stick to an athlete’s skin or clothing. They can quantify the angles of joints and the timing and intensity of muscle activation in response to movements, and then translate that data to an app for analysis. The aim is to help athletes move more efficiently, recover faster and train smarter. The sensors are currently available for use by trainers and therapists. Eventually, the technology could help predict injuries and early signs of potential diseases.

Other sensors, like those made by Nix, measure hydration levels during training. The stickers have a digital interface that, with the help of an algorithm, informs athletes when, what and how much to drink for optimal performance based on biomarkers in sweat. Instead of guessing their hydration needs, athletes would be told when to drink water, a sports drink or nothing at all to reduce risks of overhydration.

Athletes have been slow to adopt sensors en masse because of their bulkiness, so some researchers are working to shrink and embed them in fabric.

Yoel Fink’s ‘fabric computer’ starts as a 10-inch rod made of glass or plastic, filled with microscopic computer chips, microphones and batteries. The rod is then heated in a specialized furnace and stretched to make a fiber slightly thicker than a strand of hair.
PHOTO: RESEARCH LAB OF ELECTRONICS/MIT
“Fabrics are the new AI frontier,” says Yoel Fink, former director of MIT’s Research Lab of Electronics and founder of Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, who has designed a “fabric computer.”

It starts as a 10-inch rod made of glass or plastic, filled with microscopic computer chips, microphones and batteries. The rod is then heated in a specialized furnace and stretched to make a fiber slightly thicker than a strand of hair. Today, the technology is confined to the lab, but eventually Dr. Fink hopes to make the fibers even smaller and to produce them in mass quantities. Woven together, the fibers would create clothing capable of storing energy, sensing temperature and measuring sweat salinity and heart rate. AI would then assess this data, giving athletes detailed information about how their activity affects their bodies.

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