By Carl Valle
Every year, I trial the latest in sports apparel for months, experimenting with some great solutions for training and recovery. This past year was the strongest group of smart fabrics for the body I have experienced, all of them providing great help in getting athletes better. I don’t ever review and recommend something I feel is mediocre; I only suggest something that makes coaches call me with either thanks or enthusiasm for the results.
If you are looking for the best of the best, I have done the work for you and will explain why these five apparel options are game changers in the world of sports performance.
Smart Clothes: Not Just About Collecting Data
You will notice that all but one of the apparel products on the list don’t collect any data at all. While this may sound surprising, I believe that most products that collect data are not needed, as it’s better to have objective indication of applying actionable interventions than to just get numbers. The application of interventions should be based on objective or sometimes subjective data, but there are times that everyone simply needs to receive a solution.
Sports apparel is big business, but all of the wearable options here are more “microbreweries” than major brands. The reason the smaller companies seem to have more pinpointed solutions is because they are smaller and more agile, and therefore able to execute better.Products that do small things well are worth more than products that solve many problems weakly. Click To Tweet
What I found testing the products is that athletes working with a coach are the best evaluators of equipment. Coaches may have the vision of what they are looking for, while athletes who end up using the products give such sophisticated feedback on the little nuances it’s a perfect combination. Here are the factors that we considered to come up with our picks for 2017:
Usefulness – Does the product have a needed function or was it conjured up in a marketing brainstorming meeting? Does the product actually solve a problem or is it merely something nice to have? The difference between needs and wants might be a gray area, but I consider anything that prevents headaches for sports training professionals as worth it. Sometimes the small things done well are worth more than a product that solves a lot of things with subpar ability.
Design – My biggest pet peeve is shoddy design. When good ideas are rushed to production and are not refined, I get frustrated. Design is one part creativity, one part engineering, and one final part pure art. Products must perform well, look beautiful, and have something that stands out as clever. With sports apparel, it’s difficult for designers to solve problems under the conventional constraints of making something comfortable, light, and attractive.
Durability – The sturdiness of sports apparel means it can take the wear and tear of athletes, along with handling the rigors of repeated washing. Some products are designed to last forever, and some are designed to last through a reasonable amount of washes and use. Durability is simply reduced to how many wears an item can last, and most of the time it’s about a year. It’s unlikely that any product endures beyond a sports season, so it’s accepted that something lasting only 50-100 uses is normal. When looking at the cost of a product, calculate for how many uses it will have rather than buying a set for a season. The key to value is how long a garment lasts, not how much it costs up front.
Scientific Efficacy – The difference between a product working and it being significant enough to make a real-life impact is a whole different ball of wax. I look at efficacy based on two essential perspectives. One is the simple value of having it, compared to having nothing at all. Does it make a real difference and is it worth getting? The other is the way that the product compares to similar sports apparel options, if they exist. Most products that claim a sports benefit are eventually reviewed by sport science, such the controversial Altitude Mask and many of the compression garments. Athletes want to know the type of benefits they will get and the magnitude of those benefits.
All of the listed characteristics needed a rating of four out of five stars for inclusion here, not just do well in one area. A great product is strong everywhere, and all of the products passed the four key tests. The reason I usually don’t review a product after just a few months is I care about the seasonal perspective. This means taking a full year to really test the product and ensure it’s not just giving me a great experience early, with the potential for the honeymoon period to wear off in weeks. I have used all of these products for at least six months, with some of them used more than a year.
Protection in the Weight Room With SkinTech
Perhaps the most direct need is protecting joint areas when performing heavy and explosive lifts in the weight room. The Apollo SS shirt is an essential part of training, no different than good shoes or properly designed medicine balls. I have used the Apollo SS shirts with athletes and the benefits are clear: train hard without unnecessary wear and tear to the upper spine and clavicles when catching cleans or doing front squats. Once you have a few athletes use these shirts while training, they will never go back to traditional options again.
I believe that the SkinTech shirt is not getting more traction simply because of the macho attitude in weightlifting. Many coaches don’t like admitting that sometimes certain parts of the lifts are not comfortable, and the gut response is to just “toughen up.” While I don’t like treating athletes like porcelain myself, there needs to be some respect to the body when you want it to perform and recover properly, so a serious decision must be made. That choice is doing what is necessary to win and get an advantage, not feed an unnecessary culture.
Most athletes are not in need of mental toughness; they just need positive reinforcement and smart training. The same coaches that preach toughness by dismissing ergonomic lifting and comfort are, strangely, the same people who are experts in recovery drinks and sleep science.
Some coaches say that they would rather use a Squat Sponge or similar product. I think these are great for some popular options like a hip thrust. Pads don’t work for a clean, and groups of athletes working together seem to always find barbell pads an intermediate option, missing that finishing touch. Safety squat bars are always popular, but many coaches forget why, besides the design of the barbell. The Safety Squat bar has padding, no matter what brand you use. Other training options, like popular machines, use padding, so the irony is tough athletes are exposed to some creature comforts more often than we admit.
The Apollo SS shirt has made me a believer and, because of it, we are doing things that simply were not happening last year. Higher rep or longer duration front squats with soccer athletes are great for teaching deep range of motion, but they were never comfortable. The upper body development with soccer players is never as muscular as with rugby and American football players, so the change was a welcome and essential one to us. I highly recommend teams invest in the shirt every year: It’s not just padding, it’s the best shirt for lifting, bar none.
Measure Vitals Anywhere With Hexoskin
The Hexoskin wearable shirt is the only product featured in this article that collects physiological data. The main reason I included this shirt was its ability to measure respiration rate. Breathing is a popular topic, but very few coaches or therapists quantify the simple metric. Hexoskin includes conductive fabric to capture heart rate HRV, and also includes accelerometers for raw work rates. However, its ability to get respiratory rates is what sets it apart from other wearables.
Hexoskin biometric shirts are best used to discover information that is difficult to acquire, such as in extreme training or competition. The company boasts professional teams, research labs, and even the Canadian Space Agency as customers. I have used the shirt to gauge some activities that are less extreme than the acrobatics of the Cirque du Soleil, such as meditation and sleep.
Use of the Hexoskin shirt is not about a short evaluation process, but about longer and deeper analysis for an entire day, not just a moment in time. The shirt can connect to smartphones and has an API, meaning it’s possible to send data directly to web software. While other options exist, I find breathing data is the most exciting data because rate and volume are two excellent metrics that have been lab-validated.
Hexoskin uses respiratory inductance plethysmography (RIP) to get breathing indices. Simply stated, two bands around the abdomen estimate the breathing pattern, based on circumference changes over time. The top band sits near the rib cage and the bottom one near the belly, both measuring individually at a high frequency. I have used this to analyze lifting approaches, relaxation patterns during downtime, and meditation for athletes who are adrenaline junkies. What I have found is that measuring breathing might be the most applied way to get athletes mindful, and keep therapists accountable.
Even with all of the PRI and other breathing discussions, I have yet to see anyone give me capnography or RIP data to support their claims. Using the Hexoskin biometric shirt is the most direct way of auditing the training process, and I suggest getting a few to extract more out of small experiments.
Enerskin: The Formula One of Compression Garments
Competition in the compression garment space is pretty tough, since the technology isn’t new and differentiation is nearly impossible. I accidently came across Enerskin when a few athletes tried the products after seeing a social media advertisement. I was skeptical at first, as I have seen the research simply fail to live up to expectations for compression garments for years. To me, compression garments were always a “nice to have,” as the research never seemed to deliver anything concrete.
With all of the options available, and the fact the research doesn’t seem to show anything potent, why the affection for Enerskin? My response is simple: Try it and do your own investigation with the attire. I was curious myself, especially since the price tag was more expensive than your typical products, but elite sport is won by any means necessary.
Spanish meta-analysis and the British meta-analysis on compression garments and recovery stated that compression garments are effective in enhancing recovery from muscle damage. It’s not that I don’t agree with the findings, it’s just the findings are not clear in the precise methodology of use and the deep cellular mechanisms or even molecular pathways of the way they help athletes. What we do know is that both studies support the use of these garments, and that’s strong enough evidence to give it a try for now.
The recent studies on travel and compression options are very important, as stated in my EMS article on how the PowerDot can help with flight fatigue. For some reason, except with some unconventional teams, coaches see travel as a restricted and stuffy period when athletes should dress up instead of dress smart. Instead, athletes should be allowed to wear relaxed and comfortable attire. The evidence of travel strain is not a mystery, and any attempts to exploit recovery during a heavy season in the NBA or any sport is a wise strategy.
I like the Enerskin options for athletes because of their form-fitting details instead of just conventional elastic. At first, I was very surprised that the products stayed the same as when I first received them, even after a dozen washes. Most of the time, lighter materials break down and the pressure (compression) slowly decreases after a few months. While the differences in the different brands are unknown with peer-reviewed studies, the main thing I see is that the product is slightly resilient to vibration.
I am not a proponent of the medical tape (embedded in the fabric) offerings so I don’t see value that way, but from a structural standpoint the strips keep the firmness of the compression, so I believe that’s why the consistency over time is solid. Overall, the athletes like wearing them, so it’s likely just a very refined cut and fit. Again, the Enerskin product is high-end compression, so don’t expect garments that are much different than the research. However, do expect tactical execution that is worth the investment.
Better General Preparation With Physiclo
Nearly all the sports attire companies claim performance enhancement; Physiclo is about training. The pants are a combination of spandex-like material and woven resistance fibers that are so thin, you can feel the resistance like a “gravity skin.” Most of the resistance is felt during hip flexion, but some lateral motion is resisted as well. Coaches have tried ankle weights and weighted pants for years, and those options didn’t resonate with me or the athletes I worked with. I was uneasy trying the Physiclo product at first, but became very happy within a few weeks because its resistance was perfect for base training, meaning General Preparation Phase workouts like circuits, drills, and mobility routines.The resistance of Physiclo pants is perfect for base training: circuits, drills, mobility routines. Click To Tweet
At first I considered the product great for fitness enthusiasts that wanted to burn a few more calories in their workouts, but after three months of seeing noticeable changes with different athletes, I am a fan. The pants are for running or lighter athletes only, as American football and rugby athletes will find them very binding. Soccer players crave them because they like using them in the off-season to build their muscles around the hip joint in a natural way.
I like them for coaching because I can wear them under sweatpants as a way to challenge myself for a few hours without being overwhelmed. While doing tempo runs in them, we noticed about a 10-15% increase in heart rate going the same velocities, and far more DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) in the anterior thighs from the lower abdominals about halfway down the quads.
To summarize the experience, the pants are like weighted vests for the legs, but think therapeutic dose, not overdose. The resistance is something I have no research on, but the internal forces are likely somewhere around 5-10% beyond normal. Anything past that and athletes typically start to report pinching or irritation, but the pants felt comfortable and nobody had the slightest complaint. My favorite time to use them is with warmup drills and hurdle mobility, as they really challenge the athlete and remove the need for assistance exercises for the psoas and flexors of the hip.
Get Sub Zero With the Cryohelmet
This past summer, a few athletes tried the Cryohelmet and Cryoscarf, as the temperatures were record-breaking in a bad way. During the months of June, July, and August, athletes were getting heat-related injuries like heat exhaustion, and some athletes here in the U.S. died. While the Cryohelmet is not a medical device, it is being researched for concussions and other brain injuries and symptoms.
My main reason for using it was to help athletes cool down between doubles. Heat stress is something many of us neglect, as we think of hydration as the solution for managing heat and player safety. The use of a cooling collar was researched in a few journals, but the difficulty is blinding the subjects because cold is not an easy thing to mask or replicate.
Two important factors are at play with external thermoregulation garments: the perception of recovery and the actual physiological influences. Cooling the brain perceptually may create a positive change with fatigue and volitional effort, but playing mind tricks with perception (placebo) and not with reality (physiological) is a dangerous game of human roulette. Masking symptoms and alleviating them are not the same, and it’s up to coaches and medical professionals to know when that line is crossed.
I have used the Cryohelmet and Cryoscarf to manage heat stress after the first session of a double, and the results with parasympathetic activation and the second workout intensity were staggering. The athletes who didn’t use the cooling options and just went inside for air conditioning showed a markedly smaller recovery profile than those that invested in the Cryo system. I was surprised but not shocked, as cooling is not new, but it’s more convenient with a turnkey option.
Some coaches will ask if cooling the head and neck will decrease adaptations like icing does. This is a very simplistic and linear question because the most important adaptations are skills in motor learning, not just satellite cells or gene activations. General cooling is not the same as cold water immersion (CWI) and if an athlete is doing two workouts, why not let the second one create the adaptations physiologically in order to balance the need for tactical time and recovery? It’s not a perfect solution, but training is usually a compromise or best choice when theory is not ideal.
I have found that frequent training doesn’t impair the cellular mechanisms from recovery adaptations. When you are getting multiple sessions per day, rotating in recovery options doesn’t blunt the responses because not all sessions are artificially manipulated. I have used heat training and sauna work to raise plasma volumes in the past with noticeable changes, but have yet to see some sort of interference when cooling morning sessions with the cooling garments. The use of cooling with heavy loads reaps the benefits without any of the baggage of signal interference if the body temperature is cooled via the circulatory system and not directly by the tissues. While cooler blood will permeate into the muscles, it’s not making the same impact as icing the body directly.
What Is Coming Down the Road
Some coaches will always wait for the next big thing and not invest in anything, perpetually waiting in vain for something better. I suggest that you never wait for something better to come along because, while something always will, athletes can benefit now with the advancements in fabric manufacturing and innovation. Wearable options that can acquire useful data are invaluable. Investing in a solution will pay off now, and in the future, provided the efforts don’t interfere with training.Don’t wait for something better to come along. Athletes can benefit now from data and innovation. Click To Tweet
I chose not to include many current products here, such as Athos and Hyperice. While they are valuable, they are merely iterations of a previous design and therefore not novel. Myontec was capturing EMG more than six years ago, and cooling solutions have been around for decades.
The evolution of technology will make products cheaper, smaller, and more versatile. Instead of having one feature, the new products will have multiple solutions and be more attractive. I am excited to see what comes down the line and I am already working on the best solutions for 2018. The stuff I have now continues to be very exciting for coaches.