Can Clothes Make the Man?

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head Trainer, Mid Age Man

Does sports gear make a difference in performance? I've recently begun experimenting with compression gear, which appears to have certain benefits, not least to your brain.

I recently lost 30 lbs when I started my fitness kick. It all happened over the course of about 2 months, thanks to a switch to a better diet and daily exercise.

I have had a lot of questions about that process, which was surprisingly easy. If you’re discouraged in your efforts to lose weight or get “fit,” fear not. You can achieve the same results, given the same effort. I’ll explain how in these blog posts, and feel free to contact me on it as well.

One piece of good/bad news is that my transition required an entirely new wardrobe. It wasn’t good for my bank balance, but it was definitely very good for my self-esteem.

I’d like to know your thoughts and experience with fitness gear.

  • Do the sports clothes you wear help improve your performance?
  • Do they make you feel more comfortable while exercising?
  • Is your aim to fit into your clothes better?
  • Does it motivate you to get out there and look good in sports clothes?
  • All of the above?

Answers on a postcard, please. Or you can email or WhatsApp like the youngsters do these days! That new-fangled technology.

With the NBA season kicking off (can you kick off, in basketball?), the players are looking sharp. Nike somehow swung the contract to design all the uniforms for all the teams. It’s an eight-year contract, according to ESPN, that’s costing the clothing maker $1 billion.

Here’s a fascinating five-minute video from The New York Times explaining how Nike designs its equipment for its athletes, at its Nike Design Lab, including those b-ball singlets and of course their kicks.

Sportswear companies certainly spend a lot of time and effort building better clothes. And for good reason. “Athleisure” is basically the savior of the apparel industry. Global activewear sales are around US$270 billion. Last year, sportswear sales rose almost 7%, almost double the overall rate of 3.8% for the US$1.67 trillion clothing market as a whole.

Of course, a lot of NBA jerseys and jogging pants go nowhere near a court or Zumba class. You’ve got collections such as that from Puma from Rihanna, who rather ridiculously “imagined Marie Antoinette at the gym” to inspire her fitness wear. Marie lost a lot of weight rather precipitously of course when beheaded during the French Revolution in part for her excess.

I look for function, fit and form.

The likes of Climacool material from Adidas and Dri-Fit material from Nike were certainly game changers when I was playing a lot of soccer. Suddenly your clothes remained light and cool throughout a workout. Mine still weighed what seemed like 10 lbs when I was done (I sweat a lot!) but the sweat at least fed through the clothes, and some of it evaporated.

I’ve recently been experimenting with compression gear. It’s how the brand Under Armour got its start, making skin-tight shirts to go underneath the outer jerseys and pads of American-football players. Kevin Plank, the company’s founder, was a football player at the University of Maryland, noticed his compression shorts stayed dry during practice unlike his soaked T-shirt, and invented a moisture-wicking undershirt.

Compression gear is supposed to improve performance and recovery. One scientific “study of studies” published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found “small to moderate” improvement in how fast you build back maximum strength, particularly in your vertical leap. NBA players take note!

There was also less muscle swelling and perceived muscle pain. Lactic acid came out of the body a little faster. And bodies regulated their own temperature better.

Compression gear seems to aid performance to a degree, but the biggest benefit may be mental.

Athletes who sprint a lot, then rest, or run then jump feel they can do so when called upon better when wearing compression gear. Weight lifters say their muscles recover quicker and get less sore. But how any of this actually works is baffling.

When scientists tested runners wearing compression socks, they found little evidence of better oxygen efficiency or even muscle movement, findings published earlier this year. “Energetic” performance didn’t really improve.

Another study of compression shorts showed they didn’t increase blood flow to leg muscles, something that’s supposed to make your legs recover quicker. In fact, super-tight undershorts seemed to prevent blood reaching the deepest leg muscles.

It doesn’t make sense to me that wearing super-super-tight clothing increases blood flow. Personally, I have felt that my muscles stay warm longer when wearing compression gear. I’m betting it holds the blood in your muscles longer, keeping them better “fed” and making it easier for them to function when called upon.

I can see how it helps American footballers, who sit around a lot, then suddenly have to act. It may even help us rec tennis players keep our shoulders warm for serving, or standing around between points.

Compression clothing likely improves “proprioception,” your ability to feel where and how your body is positioned. You are more aware of your movements. This should help you use the right muscles, and not waste energy operating those you don’t need.

And that gets to a key point with compression gear. It may well work because you think it does. As I noted above, there’s less perceived muscle pain when wearing those clothes.

That’s nothing to scoff at. If you think you’re stronger, you are stronger. “Since beliefs are strong performance enhancers, I would recommend compression clothing to persons who believe in the performance-enhancing effect,” Billy Sperlich, a professor of exercise science in Germany, said.

The good news is, no one has found a negative impact from wearing compression gear. So it’s not doing you any harm. Around 50% of people like wearing compression gear, whereas 20% don’t like it, and the other 30% don’t really care.

I do feel stronger and ready for the gym in my new Under Armour compression shirt. There may be some small physical benefit, but I get a hefty jolt to my mind that now it’s time to exercise by putting this “uniform” on.

Fitness is as much mental strength as good nutrition and regular exercise, in my “fit” philosophy. So, wear what makes you feel good when you exercise, and ready to go. There are two main exceptions, that I will explain.

Personally, I like to wear workout clothes to work out. That’s it. I wear “normal” clothes the rest of the time. It wasn’t until recently, after I acquired a beautiful and light pair of On running shoes, that I would ever consider wearing sneakers for anything other than sports.

But perhaps the most important piece of sports gear is your footwear. In college, I developed both “jumper’s knee” (over-stretching of the knee tendon) and chondromalacia (misalignment of the patella kneecap so it runs out of its groove and against your bone) from repeatedly running in tennis shoes.

There was a shooting, sharp pain in my knee just walking up stairs. Only rest could cure the problems. I’m not going to make that mistake again – I sport tennis shoes for tennis, running shoes for the gym, and soccer flats on the rare occasions I still make it out on the pitch. Your choice of footwear is vital not just for performance but for your long-term health.

Unfortunately, here in Hong Kong sports shoes are sold for their looks, not their performance. There’s none of the foot-mapping software that’s becoming popular in sports stores in other parts of the world, showing you exactly how your foot moves when running and moving from side to side. I have wide feet and a very high arch, so I have to search far and wide to find the right pair. Now I have figured out K-Swiss tennis shoes work for me, I’m sold, and order online. I can’t get the shoes I need in my hometown.

So don’t skimp on shoes. They’re a vital part of your sports closet.

But there’s another piece of equipment that has produced an even bigger transformation.

This is the 40th anniversary of the creation of the sports bra. It was invented in 1977 as the “Jogbra” at the University of Vermont by two theater-costume designers and their jogging friend. They crafted something to stop their breasts swinging around while running by sewing two jockstraps together.

Americans took notice of that particular piece of equipment when soccer player Brandi Chastain kicked the winning penalty in the women’s World Cup in 1999, sank to her knees, and whipped off her shirt to celebrate.

She had on a black Nike sports bra. There was plenty of speculation at the time that she had been put up to the stunt by Nike, to gain exposure ahead of the release of a new sportsbra. That struck me as ridiculous, and sexist – male soccer players whip off their shirts to celebrate goals all the time, and no one says they’re being sponsored by their compression-shirt brand or the salon that waxes their chests.  There’s also the little fact that Chastain was a defender, and no one knew she would take the winning penalty.

Good on Brandi Chastain. “”I had no idea that would be my reaction,” she says. “It was truly genuine and it was insane and it was a relief and it was joy and it was gratitude all wrapped into one.” I believe her.

She felt great, had just won a World Cup with a kick of the boot for God’s sake, and wasn’t afraid to celebrate with her body. She had been mentally strong, having missed a penalty against exactly the same keeper earlier that year, focused, and had prepared intensely in training to get where she was. The work paid off, and there was joy and relief.

She was – still is, in fact – fit.

I don’t think you can call yourself truly “fit” unless you have combined three superpowers that any ordinary mortal can deploy: physical exercise, healthy nutrition, and the positive attitude that comes from mental strength.

But you can equip yourself correctly, in a way that prepares you in body and mind to exercise. And you might as well look good doing it! Pushing that confidence button in the brain never hurts.

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About the author

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head trainer at Mid Age Man. Alex believes there are four pillars to being healthy: physical fitness, sensible nutrition, mental strength, and wellbeing for your body and soul.

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