Sports have been an integral part of the human experience as long as history has been recorded. We’ve constantly been inventing new games and new ways to play the oldest of games. In recent years engineers have been directing their industrious creativity towards this growing field. These engineers have played such a major role in the sporting world that regulations have been put in place to keep athleticism and not technology at the forefront of sporting competitions, especially international ones. For example, advances in fluid dynamics have led to the creation of new swim suits and FINA, the Olympic swimwear regulator.
The base of most sports is the act of running, therefore if running could be made more efficient a huge number of sports could be impacted. There are three main factors that can limit a runner: heat dissipation, drag reduction, and impact absorption. In the next few paragraphs we’ll look into a few approaches to address these issues and make running more efficient.
First off is heat dissipation, or cooling off. Humans are historically good at this because our ancestors were persistence hunters, meaning we’d chase down animals until they were so tired they just gave up. For this to happen we’d have to be way better at staying cool then the animals were. In fact occasionally humans can beat horses in long distance races due to our superior cooling bodies. This just goes to show how important cooling is to distance running. Current running attire is designed to be light and breathable, two very important features. There are also the additions of reflective surfaces to prevent heat absorbed from the sun, like the shiny sunshades that protect cars from getting too hot. This in addition to moisture absorption and evaporative cooling could make running clothes into wearable swamp coolers.
Next is drag reduction. If a jogger is running and the air is still, there really isn’t much drag to consider. However the air is rarely ever stationary for the entirety of a race. If you’ve ever stood up in a strong wind you understand how much it can push you. There are ways to reduce this. The human body when running is not very streamlined, the runner presents the full width of the torso to the oncoming wind. When engineers are reducing drag for objects like this they tend to add textures and dents to the surface, like the surface of a golf ball. This creates turbulence to reduce flow separation and therefore reduce drag. This technology could be added to runner’s apparel and reduce the overall drag they would experience.
Finally impact reduction is key for any athletic event because impact causes injuries and takes players out of the game. Here we can delve a bit into shear thinning fluids. These are liquids like hair gel that don’t flow easily when they’re just sitting there but when they are moved they become more fluid. Imagine adding a little pocket of this kind of fluid to the heel of a shoe, on impact the fluid would thin and reduce the striking force. The synovial fluid in the knee is another example of a shear thinning fluid and it is used to lubricate the knee and absorb some impact. Traditional impact reduction using soft rubberized soles work well, this fluid would only help in addition to those soles.
The field of sports engineering is getting more and more publicity as technology increases. These are just three directions that research could go. The future of sports will be quite different and safer with the introduction of the engineering mindset.