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April 19th, 2014

Outdoor sports gear for world-class athletes – and the rest of us

If you tuned into the games this summer, you saw all sorts of sophisticated new gear to help the athletes perform their best. These elite competitors relied on the most up-to-date, cutting-edge equipment and clothing to help them swim, bike and run faster – even if it was only to shave off a mere thousandth of a second.

What if that gear was available to everyone?

In many ways, it already is. The advanced gear developed for premiere athletes in world competitions and professional sports quickly trickles down to the rest of us. You may not be able to buy exactly the same swimsuit as Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt’s running shoes. But today’s amateur sports gear takes advantage of innovations created for elite athletes. So today you can choose similar gear that helps you perform at your best.

For example, the sleek bicycles used in world-class cycling events are made largely from carbon fiber-reinforced plastics – it’s the material of choice due to its combination of low weight, high strength, durability and reliability. This material has made its way to high-performance bikes now widely available at sporting goods stores. Bike makers today use it for frames, handlebars, stems, seat posts, rims, cranks – even the intricate derailleur responsible for quickly and precisely shifting the gears. Although developed for top-tier athletes, this technology now benefits amateur cyclists.

For runners, it’s all about finding shoes that help protect feet without impeding performance. Elite runners often seek out shoes that behave more like socks; in fact, some runners wear shoes that weigh less than 5.5 ounces, about the same weight as a cellphone.

How does this translate into today’s amateur running shoe? High-performance shoemakers continue to cut back on weight, using durable plastic foams and fabrics to create low-profile, super-lightweight shoes that still provide cushioning and support. If you’re a runner, you likely have noticed that today’s running shoes weigh a fraction of those made just a few years ago.

Fast-paced, demanding sports such as cycling and BMX can result in unexpected crashes, whether you’re peddling competitively or a weekend warrior. Fortunately, helmets are becoming more and more sophisticated, and safety designs keep improving, too.

Years ago, helmets were made of leather and basically protected against cuts and abrasions. Compare that to the helmets used in today’s competitions: sleek, aerodynamic shapes with built in “goggles” for cyclists or the wraparound helmets that envelope BMX bikers’ heads. Similar to these advanced designs, most of today’s consumer helmets – from biking to football and skateboarding to skiing – are made with hard, puncture-resistant plastic shells lined with shock-absorbing plastic foams that continue to evolve to provide greater protection and aerodynamics. Added in are some tough but super-lightweight goggles or visors made of polycarbonate plastic – the same material used to make “bulletproof glass” – resulting in the same protective eyewear as top athletes.

What about those sleek bodysuits worn by the U.S. track and field athletes? Now, you may never wear (or even want to wear) these bodysuits, but they are part of a growing trend: recycled plastics in fabrics. Many outdoor enthusiasts and athletes are concerned about their impact on the environment – and sports equipment companies have responded.

Athletes at the 2012 Olympics sported numerous jerseys, shorts and uniforms – including the U.S. tracksuits – made with recycled plastics. That’s right: World-class athletes are wearing old plastic bottles that have been recycled and spun into fibers and fabrics that combine performance and sustainability. You don’t even have to wait to take advantage of this innovation: You already can find athletic clothing made with recycled plastics in retail shops today.

So while you may not be breaking any world records, you can choose sports gear that’s been influenced by the best of the best. And who knows – maybe you’ll even shave off a thousandth of a second from your personal best.

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