Do high tech cooling fabrics work?

Studies find the effect of modern sports fabrics on body temperature and performance is less than convincing.

Cool runnings

High tech sportswear may look good and even feel good, but does it do good? Surprisingly, it seems the answer is not really – or, at best, maybe a bit.

Various studies over the years have failed to find much difference between ye olde faithful cotton exercise gear and modern synthetic fabrics which promise moisture wicking to enhance sweat evaporation. Yes, the new fabrics serve a little better, especially when exercising under conditions where sweat builds up and can make cotton heavy. But for the average exerciser doing mild- to moderate-level activity, wearing shorts and a t-shirt and leaving a large area of skin exposed puts them at little – if any – disadvantage.

Could wearable tech help your performance? See our Fitness tracker review, including models from Fitbit, Sony and Garmin.

The sweat test

But what about the latest new fabrics – the ones that make specific claims for keeping you cool? Unfortunately they may not be any better – at least according to a recently published study sponsored by a manufacturer of such a fabric.

Using volunteers who were extremely fit, testers compared performance when wearing long-sleeved, full leg length sports gear made from regular synthetic or the cooling fabric. The athletes cycled hard and fast on an indoor exercise bike for as long as they could. Apart from timing how long they kept going, researchers also recorded sweat output, internal and external body temperature and other cardiorespiratory measures.

There were no differences on any of the physiological measures, and the cooling fabric didn't help performance.

However, when asked which outfit they preferred, most chose the cooling fabric, saying it was lighter and felt more cooling. This could simply come down to the weight of the fabric, which at 160g per square metre was indeed lighter and thinner than the regular fabric (195g/m2).

There are some limitations to the study. It took place in typical indoor conditions, with low humidity, no wind and an ideal temperature (24.5°C), so the same results may not be achieved outdoors under different conditions. And this was only one type of fabric – there are various brands of cooling fabrics available, and some may have a better performance than others.

Tips to stay cool when exercising

Science aside, if you like the cooling fabrics and feel they help you, even if it's down to the weight of the fabric, then by all means go for it.

If you can't avoid exercising in warm conditions, rather than rely on clothes for sports performance, make sure you're well hydrated when you start. Drinking very cold drinks or even an ice slushy before and during exercise can help reduce core temperature and improve exercise endurance.

How about other sportswear?