How Smart Textiles Could Change Your Athletic Wear

Man in athletic wear.

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The athletic clothing your dad or grandfather might have worn looks a lot different than the comfortable and moisture-wicking fabrics that you find in a sporting goods store today.

Most athletic gear used to be made of cotton or other lightweight, breathable fabrics. While those are still useful and comfortable today, the introduction of synthetic materials changed the game. Synthetic materials can wick sweat away from the skin and keep athletes cooler and more comfortable. These abilities pushed the use of cotton to the metaphorical back burner.

Smart textiles may be the next step in the evolution of athletic clothing. What are smart textiles, and how could they change what we wear to work out?

What Are Smart Textiles?

First, before we can understand how smart textiles could affect athleticwear, we need to learn what these materials are. A 2009 study defined them as “intelligent textile structures or fabrics that can sense and react to environmental stimuli, which may be mechanical, thermal, chemical, biological or magnetic in nature.” For the average user, this might seem pretty complex, so let’s break it down.

Smart textiles use all sorts of different methods to detect and even interact with the world around them. Carbon nanotubes, graphene interfaces and microscopic chips act as sensors that can collect information on everything from the wearer’s heart rate and other vitals to the ambient temperature and humidity around them.

There are a variety of different applications for this technology. Doctors and surgeons can use smart fabric for wound covers, designed to detect infections in surgical incisions or other wound treatment. In military settings, smart textiles could be used as lightweight body armor that can harden on demand. This armor can protect the wearer from firearm projectiles and blades.

The technology is new, but the possibilities are endless. What are the benefits of smart textiles?

Benefits of Smart Textiles

Smart textiles can turn any clothing article into a valuable tool — often without changing the appearance of the fabric. The material may appear to be slightly higher quality than the average athletic wear you have in your wardrobe, but it otherwise would be indistinguishable from regular textiles. You could theoretically wear a smart shirt or pair of shorts that look normal. But underneath, they are connected to your phone via Bluetooth, feeding it information about your health, your activity and more.

Depending on the way you’re using smart fabric, it could also be used for aesthetic purposes. For example, you can trigger color changes on the fabric’s surface or use heating/cooling settings. In athletic applications, this could be used to add player numbers or identify information or maintain consistent body temperatures.

Right now, most accessible wearable technology is limited to things like watches and heart rate monitors. Some wearables, like the Apple Watch, can also serve as a single-lead ECG. However, that functionality isn’t always accessible, especially for anyone who can’t afford the newest Apple Watch.

Smart textiles could provide the same sort of benefit in the clothes on your back — and even more. Smart textiles can monitor everything from body temperature and heart rate to the amount of salt in your sweat to alert you when you need to stop an activity or consume more electrolytes. They may also be able to analyze your performance and use a related program or app to suggest training changes.

Potential Uses For Smart Textiles in Men’s Athletic Wear

Wearable technologies are already starting to change the way we look at athletic training and performance. Watch any rugby match and you’ll see a small box that fits in a pocket in the player’s jersey, just between their shoulder blades. This is attached to a heart rate monitor and after a match or a practice session, coaches and players can download the information and use it to figure out what is working, what needs work and what the player is capable of.

The potential applications for smart textiles are limitless. Cyclists rely on compression shorts to improve their performance, but what if your shorts could monitor your performance in real time? What if they could increase or decrease compression depending on what you need to succeed? These materials could detect the early signs of fatigue or exhaustion, helping athletes learn their limits and avoid injuries.

Looking At the Future of Smart Textiles

The future of smart textiles is limited only by our imagination. We can turn these materials into just about anything, from a headband that detects when you’re too tired to safely operate a motor vehicle, to a t-shirt that can monitor all your biometric information. These metrics determine the best way for you to train for an upcoming athletic event. We’re just seeing the beginning of what will likely be an era of smart textiles and their endless applications.

Zachary Amos is a tech enthusiast and the Features Editor at ReHack, where he covers AI, gadgets and the latest tech innovations.

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