Sports Tech: Back to the Future, Pt. 1

The Build-Up:

For all its rage, wearable technology is still a relatively new concept in fitness and sports performance. That doesn’t mean it’s new new. Wearables have actually been around for a while, but mainstream use is still beginning to take shape. In just the last decade, we’ve seen the general public slowly embrace the idea of technology as a training and fitness tool, as wearables have become more affordable and applicable for the casual consumer.

With that said, the future of wearables – or any technology, really – is exciting to imagine, but also difficult to predict. Will they really change the fitness industry? Will they keep us healthier? Make us faster? Or, for the technological determinists out there, will they hold us hostage and alter our interaction with the universe around us?

Just kidding. If you believe that last one, you’re probably on the wrong website. But grab your tinfoil hat and come with me anyway if you want to live, because in this blog, we aren’t going to imagine the future as some scary, technological dystopia. We’re going to envision something a little happier, just as they did in one of the seminal trilogies of the previous century. That’s right – we may not have made much progress on the hoverbelt, Jaws 19, or floating rubbish cans, but our hoverboards are about to turn the corner and the Cubs just won the damn World Series!

If you’re lost on those references, you probably didn’t have a childhood, but you’ll catch up.

To explore the future, however, we have to break down the path we’ve taken to get here. So let’s hop in the DeLorean and gun it back to the start, back to a time even before Doc Brown corrupted a certain hipster schoolboy. We need to understand the past before we head… BACK TO THE FUTURE!!

1970s:

Passion for sport and fitness reaches new heights. In the 1960s and ‘70s, many factors led to heightened interest in sport – including the running boom, Title IX, the rise of professionalism, nationalistic competition, and revenue potential, to name a few. As consumer interest went up, so too did participation. Enrollment in high school girls sports spiked tremendously thanks to Title IX, and so did boys sports, albeit to a lesser extent. People everywhere were jumping on the train, whether it was team sports, solo sports, or just casual fitness.

All of that is warm and fuzzy in its own right, but why should you care? Because, believe it or not, it influenced how we train and exercise to this day!

The increased attention became a boon to developments in sports science. As athletes got better and shattered the supposed ceiling on athletic potential, coaches and trainers increasingly sought out ways to optimize performance. It was no longer enough to train harder. Yes, grit is always critical in realizing potential, but hard work alone comes with diminishing returns – and everyone was already doing that anyway. No, now they needed to train smarter – and sports science was the way forward.

Athletes therefore began drawing further on science-backed insights. Endurance athletes started hitting the lab to measure key training metrics (namely lactate-threshold, work economy, and VO2 Max); strength and conditioning programs began targeting proven movement patterns and sport-specific energy systems; coaches and specialists harnessed more control over their athletes’ training with closed environments. In 1978 alone, Boyd Epley founded the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) to standardize safe and effective strength training methods, and the first Olympic Training Center opened its doors to optimize training for elite American athletes.

**Sidenote: one offshoot of sports science was the rise of doping in athletics, which is of course an answer for some of the more ridiculous spikes in performance. That said, I digress.**

Back to 1978:

An upstart named after a certain winged goddess rocks the footwear industry. The release of the Nike Air Tailwind, a running shoe with oxygen-infused cushioning, brought R&D from NASA into the sporting world to produce a more injury resistant shoe. Talk about bringing a gun to a knife fight, too. The Tailwind’s softer cushioning riled runners into obsession and the technology became a Nike staple by the ‘80s. While not exactly within our wheelhouse of wearable tech, the shoe nevertheless marked a new level of sophistication in products geared for sports performance. Nike’s maverick approach to innovation forced the entire industry to step up its game on athletic gear.

P.S. – Back in good old 2017, you can now buy Nike Air shoes in their full-on ‘Back to the Future’, self-tying version. What a future we live in.

Anyway, it was a great time for anyone entering the field. Sports and fitness were on fire and the development of athletic gear progressed in tandem with sports science, with more focus being placed on technology that promoted injury resistance and performance improvement.

For those directly involved in sports, the training movement was essentially a shift from sweat equity and inconsistent methodologies to the intelligent, proven training that exists today. If athletes wanted to succeed, they now had access to more standardized training principles. They also had access to better training equipment. At the end of the ‘70s, what in Hell Valley could be next?

Glam Metal?

Unfortunately yes, but also: insight-generating tools for training!

By: Rob Finerty
Volt Athletics