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Could Infrared sportswear be the key to unlocking your best performance yet? A deep dive into high tech sports apparel

Could what you wear during and after training have an impact on how well you can perform and recover? We take a dive in the world of high tech sports apparel. From infrared sportswear that delivers red light therapy without disrupting your routine. To vitamin-infused activewear and compression garments. Looking at how the tech works, and what the research says about the benefits for endurance sport performance.

Writer & Long Course Triathlete
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In recent years, sports apparel and activewear has become increasingly high tech. From the latest tri suits which go through the sort of aero testing protocols you’d expect for a Formula 1 car – not a stretchy Lycra race suit. To wearable sports recovery garments, loaded with tech designed to speed up your recovery by improving the repair of muscle damage.

So how does this high tech apparel work, and should you be considering your sartorial choices as part of your recovery protocol after training? We dive into the world of technical sports recovery clothing to find out if what you wear, can have an impact on your performance and recovery.

Infrared sports apparel

The use of infrared has grown in popularity across multiple use cases in recent years. From the beauty industry, to medical settings. Infrared is said to penetrate below the skin’s surface layer, stimulating energy production in muscle cells which can help to improve muscular function and repair. Research has shown benefits in using infrared; from treating skin concerns and hair loss to reducing pain and inflammation.

Typically the use of infrared involves some form of electrical device which emits light at the appropriate spectrum. But some sports apparel brands have now found a way to integrate infrared technology into the fibres of the clothing. Allowing the wearer to benefit from the effects of the infrared light, without having to actively take time out of their day.

How can clothing emit infrared light?

If you’re picturing some sort of red glow-stick adorned ensemble, you may be disappointed (or relieved) to find that the reality of infrared sportswear is a little more subtle. KYMIRA for example, who first developed the technology in the context of medical applications, use fibres embedded with a bio-ceramic composite. This is able to absorb energy both from the wearer, and the surrounding light, which would otherwise have been ‘wasted’. Then convert that energy into a targeted infrared light spectrum which penetrates into the muscle fibres.

What are the benefits of infrared in the context of sports performance and recovery?

That all sounds fairly futuristic and exciting. But can infrared actually improve your sports performance? Let’s take a look at how it works – and the potential benefits for endurance athletes.

Fast-tracks recovery

The light spectrum generated by infrared sports apparel, is said to boost the production of nitric oxide. This prompts vasodilation – increasing blood flow, and therefore delivering more oxygen to the muscles.

This improved oxygenation of muscle tissue speeds up the delivery of repair agents, and the removal of waste. Helping the muscles to recover faster from exercise-induced damage. Alongside improving oxygen levels in the muscle cells. The infrared also helps to activate cellular repair and regeneration, stimulating the molecule responsible for generating Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP).

KYMIRA Infrared performance running apparel
Research has found infrared technology in sports clothing can help to fast track recovery and muscular repair.

ATP is responsible for providing the energy for muscle contractions – think of it as the battery pack for your muscles. After training, your ATP stores are depleted. To recover from this state of fatigue i.e. to get some ‘power’ back in your muscles, your body needs to replenish them. By stimulating the molecule (Cytochrome C-Oxidase) which generates ATP, infrared helps to re-energise your muscles so you’re ready to perform again, sooner.

Speeds up muscle repair

Because infrared can activate cellular repair and regeneration, it can help to speed up cellular healing. Studies have shown that using the infrared light spectrum can increase cellular healing by 140% – sometimes more.

For endurance athletes, this means speeding up the repair of exercise-induced muscle damage – so you have less soreness and return to a recovered state ready to train again, faster. And it can help to speed up the healing process should you experience an injury.

Primes muscles for peak performance and boosts capacity

Infrared isn’t just a recovery protocol. It can also be used prior to exercise, to help your muscles prepare for the effort ahead. The increase in nitric oxide production stimulated by the infrared spectrum increases circulation, enhances tissue oxygen levels and boosts muscle elasticity. In the same way we perform physical warm up exercises to avoid soft tissue injury, the infrared tech in the apparel “warms up” the muscles. KYMIRA reference a Tier 1 International Rugby Programme which made use of their apparel, and found an 80% reduction in soft tissue injuries over 5 years.

“One of the many benefits of infrared, is that is boosts production of Nitric Oxide. Plenty of people will drink beetroot shots to achieve a similar effect. But by integrating infrared technology into our clothing at KYMIRA, we’ve created an alternative which achieves the same effect, quicker with more potency. Without the foul taste!”

Tim Brownstone CEO KYMIRA

Additionally, when the infrared apparel is worn during activity – the increased blood flow and nitric oxide production gives a physiological advantage which enables the muscles to perform at a higher intensity, for longer.

Improves sleep

Alongside sports apparel, many brands are now adding sleepwear to their ranges. Sleep is the often overlooked pillar of recovery, and something that many amateur endurance athletes end up sacrificing first to find enough hours in the day to balance training with work and other life commitments. So making sure the hours you do spend asleep are high quality becomes even more important. Sleepwear with infrared technology carries the benefits of improved circulation and oxygenation, facilitating better muscle repair while you sleep. But a sleep study with students of University of Texas also noted that when wearing KYMIRA infrared sleep products, there was also a 15.9% improvement in sleep quality.

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Does infrared actually work to improve sports performance and recovery?

A study* published in the Journal of Athletic Training examined the use of near infrared light to reduce the loss of muscular strength after strenuous resistance training. It concluded that using the infrared light therapy before exercise enhanced muscular function by attenuating strength loss. And suggested that since in the instance of injury, enhancing muscle function during rehabilitation is beneficial to patients, infrared can have a positive impact on recovery.

So there’s evidence to suggest that infrared itself is an effective tool to boost recovery and improve muscle function. But what about incorporating it into clothing? In the case of KYMIRA, the products are borne out of extensive research by a biochemist for use in a clinical setting. Using the technology to develop biomedical sensor garments and contributing to the body of clinical evidence for the medical applications of wearable technology.

“I started studying the impact of infrared on wound healing after getting injured at an international sprint meet. I wanted to find a way to get back on the track, sooner. Alongside the application in a medical context, the benefit of infrared on athletic performance and recovery was recognised which led to creating a wearable technology – KYMIRA was born.”

Tim Brownstone, CEO KYMIRA

In the context of sport, a randomised double blind repeated measure study found an increase in oxygen tissue levels of 20% on average while wearing KYMIRA’s infrared apparel. That’s compared to the 10-15% increase that can be achieved by using a Hyperbaric chamber. A multitude of sport bodies are now using the infrared clothing as part of their performance and injury prevention strategy, including NCAA, NFL, British Cycling, NBA & WBNA, Premier League, International Rugby and Athletics teams – and many more.

*Near-Infrared Light Therapy to Attenuate Strength Loss After Strenuous Resistance Exercise, Larkin-Kaiser et al. 2015

Verdict

There’s a body of research around the use of infrared light spectrum to boost recovery and muscle repair – in both a medical and sporting context. Suggesting there are tangible benefits for athletes in using infrared technology to improve performance and recover faster. But any recovery protocol is only effective if you can easily and consistently implement it. It’s unrealistic for most of us to find the time to sit and use an infrared device. But integrating the technology into apparel makes it easier to get the benefits. You’ve just got to get dressed!

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Vitamin-infused activewear

You are what you eat. But can what you wear supplement what you eat? Vitamin-infused activewear has become more prevalent among some fitness-come-wellness brands. Promising a slow-release of antioxidants such as vitamin E and C, skin moisturising agents such as Aloe, and even CBD oil, from fabric while you wear it.

Feeling sceptical? Us too. But let’s take a look at how infused apparel actually functions, and what the potential benefits are.

How does infused activewear function?

Apparel promising the slow release of vitamins (or other skincare/wellbeing agents) usually use ‘microencapsulation’ to do so. The vitamins are held in microcapsules and woven into the fabrics. When the wearer moves, friction is created causing these tiny capsules to burst and therefore slowly releasing the infused contents to be absorbed by the wearer’s skin.

What are the benefits?

The potential benefits really depend on what the activewear has been infused with. But for example, vitamin E is said to help maintain healthy skin, hair and eyes while also bolstering the immune system to fight off infection. Wearing infused clothing is essentially a ‘hands-off’ way of applying these vitamins like you would a topical cream.

Does it actually work?

We’ve seen a boom in the beauty industry of ingredient-led marketing. And while the skin is the body’s largest organ, the evidence around how much of an active ingredient, or a vitamin, can be absorbed through the skin isn’t resoundingly positive. In an article by the BBC investigating how much can actually be absorbed through your skin, Zoe Draelos, clinical and research dermatologist at Duke University in North Carolina, highlights that “skin is designed to keep things out,” acting as a barrier. Ingredients in topical creams and lotions usually sit on top of the skin. And as you might expect, Draelos also states “”Vitamins are much more effectively absorbed from the inside.”

Verdict

You’re probably better off eating your vitamins and minerals, rather than wearing them. There could be a very slight benefit, particularly where the apparel contains vitamins or ingredients designed to look after your skin. But focusing on a balanced diet will most likely yield far more tangible results.

Compression wear

Compression wear originates from a medical context, developed in the 1950s as a method of managing varicose veins. But a decade or two later, the use of compression in a sporting context was explored. A study in the American Journal of Physical Medicine found a positive correlation between the use of compression and sporting performance.

These days compression is widely used in sports apparel – from calf guards to tights and arm sleeves.

How compression works and the benefits for sports recovery and performance

There’s a parallel between compression wear and infrared apparel, in that both come down to stimulating blood flow. But compression does so by applying graduated pressure. That ‘squeezing’ is said to help accelerate the movement of blood around the body, helping to direct blood back to the heart from your extremities faster so that it can be re-oxygenated and deliver that oxygen back to the muscles faster.

Improved performance when worn during activity

Compression wear is said to improve performance during exercise. First up is the benefits of improved blood flow and muscle oxygenation. Particularly in endurance sport when your body will be utilising the aerobic energy system – using oxygen to generate energy. Improving oxygen availability means you can perform for longer before the anaerobic system kicks in and you begin to experience the burning and fatigue that occurs as lactate accumulates. It’s thought that compression can also help to reduce muscle cramps, by staving off fatigue.

Another advantage of compression wear is the reduction in muscle oscillation. This is believed to help the wearer improve proprioception and maintain better form.

Enhanced recovery

Wearing compression sportswear during training could help to pre-emptively improve your recovery time. By reducing muscle oscillation, the amount of exercise-induced muscle damage (the cause of muscle soreness post-workout) is reduced. Essentially acting as damage limitation, so your body has less to repair after training and therefore you feel better, sooner.

Riixo Recovery

While compression doesn’t actively stimulating cellular repair and regeneration in the same way that infrared does. It can help to speed up the recovery process, by enhancing blood flow. Repair agents are delivered to the muscles more efficiently, and waste products – such as lactate – can be removed faster.

What does the evidence say?

There have been multiple research studies into the benefits of compression in a sporting context. A study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine measured muscle metabolites to establish the impact of compression garments on recovery from eccentric exercise. The conclusion found that compression aided faster cellular repair. Similarly, a study in Sports Medicine New Zealand noted reduced markers for muscle damage and inflammation when compression was used.

Interestingly, there was also a study in the European Journal of Applied physiology which found that runners wearing compression garments reported a lower rate of perceived exertion. Given that performance is often limited by our mentality, this reduction in perceived effort could help us to push ourselves harder.

But in order to truly get the benefits of compression, it’s essential to ensure the pressure is in the correct range says Cam Johnston, physiotherapist and founder of Riixo Recovery. “If the garment is too tight, those post-exercise metabolites become trapped. Too loose and the sleeves do nothing to aid blood flow. At the correct pressure the sleeves aid your body by helping to flush waste and bringing nutrients to boost recovery.”

Verdict

Compression garments can be an easy way to support your recovery, and since they’ve boomed in popularity – you have plenty of options to choose from. However it’s important to opt for compression garments with graduated compression and that fit you correctly. Brands such as Riixo offer cuffs and sleeves in different sizes, designed to offer compression at the appropriate level.

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Can your clothing improve your performance and recovery?

When it comes to things like upgrading to an aero tri suit or getting the best wetsuit to suit your swim style. The performance benefits are fairly clear cut – just take a look at our deep dive into how much faster your tri suit can make you.

But there’s also research to support that what you wear during training, and after your workouts during recovery. Can help to reduce soreness, boost muscular repair and even help you to sleep better. All of which is going to add up to better consistency in training, improved adaptation to the training stimulus – and so increased scope for improved performance.

Of course, your apparel alone can’t do all the heavy lifting. You’ll need to consider other lifestyle factors such as your nutrition and ensuring you get adequate rest. But if you’re investing time and effort into training hard. Choosing apparel that’s designed to improve sports performance and recovery seems like an easy win compared to more involved, time consuming recovery protocols. All you’ve got to do is get dressed!

Jenny Lucas-Hill
Written by
Jenny Lucas-Hill
Jenny Lucas-Hill is a writer, content creator and communications professional. A long-distance triathlon enthusiast, she has four full Iron-distance finishes to date & also loves watching the sport.
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