There are some items that simply have to have some weight to them in order to convey a certain quality. Good cutlery, for example: regardless of how stylish it looks, if it is too light it gives the impression of being of poor quality. A silver watch that does not have the appropriate weight will quickly be taken for a cheap replica, while a wooden cabinet that doesn't take at least four people to move can easily be labelled as cheap. It is in this context, for example, that the major automotive corporations specifically employ sound engineers. For while every weight reduction brings important benefits in terms of fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, the full, heavy noise when closing a car door conveys class and quality.
The ambivalent relationship of weight and function in the sporting goods industry
So – heavy things are good, too. Well, not always. The more function and weight are placed in an ambivalent relationship with one another, the less the “Weight = Quality” principle applies. A prime example of this is the sporting goods industry, with its highly functional products. Fierce competition broke out just a few years ago as to who has the lightest football boots, basketball shoes or running spikes.
In May 2013, adidas underscored its leading position in this regard in London, when the company presented the 99 gram football boot and a complete football kit (including shirt, shorts, socks, shin guards and football boots) that weighed just 630 grams. Both will be available in stores from 2015. And the football strips in which the national teams – equipped by adidas – will step out onto the field at the World Cup in Brazil are also 50% lighter than their predecessors.
Watch the following video to learn how the adidas innovation team made this happen.
Bringing an old concept to perfection
The goal to manufacture sporting products with as low a weight as possible has a long tradition. It was back in 1953 that Adi Dassler developed the “Argentinia” football boot. Up to that point, football boots had served a primarily protective function. For the first time ever, the boot developed for the German national side fulfilled all the requirements that are placed on a football boot to this day: flexibility, good contact with the ball, good grip and – most importantly – they were lightweight. At the time, 355 grams and the considerably improved resistance against the absorption of rainwater represented a genuine quantum leap forward. The success of the German national team in the rain-soaked battle in Bern in the final of the 1954 World Cup, wearing these very football boots, speaks for itself.
The thinking behind all of this is therefore clear:
Only the best for the athlete.
It's all about giving athletes a crucial advantage by providing them with particularly light products. And about getting to the ball that split-second faster in order to score the winning goal, having your nose just in front in the photo finish or jumping higher than your competitor in order to get that important rebound in the final seconds.
THE EFFECTS OF LIGHTWEIGHT PRODUCTS
But how exactly does it work? What effect does reducing the weight of a football boot by 10 grams have? Does it make a difference if I make the boots lighter, or even the shorts or shirt? Or is this really just a placebo effect?
Today, the specialists in the adidas Innovation Team are working on these issues, also drawing on the help of high-tech studies. As is so often the case, the scientific reality here is highly complicated and complex. When developing lightweight products with the goal of improving athletes' performance, a number of different aspects have to be considered, as well as the interplay that occurs between these aspects.
THE PHYSICAL EFFECT
Physical aspects play a central role here, or to be more precise – physiology and biomechanics.
For example, the adidas scientists measure how the athlete's need for oxygen changes when reducing the weight of products and which muscles in the body are primarily responsible for this change. To this end, test persons were equipped with breathing apparatus and sensors to measure muscle activity in the climate chamber of the adidas Test Centre and were loaded with varying additional weights while running on a treadmill.
The results show, for example, that reducing the weight of a running shoe by 100 grams results in a reduction in the athlete's oxygen requirement by 1%, with this effect increasing considerably with increasing running speed. When sprinting, the oxygen requirement is reduced by as much as 2%. Or to put it another way:
Mathematically calculated, a runner who completes a marathon in three hours, completely exhausted, will reach the finish line 1 minute and 48 seconds earlier if wearing a shoe that is 100 grams lighter, and will even have sufficient energy for a strong final sprint.
Similarly, for a footballer this would mean that he or she could complete around ten more sprints per game and could acquire an approximately 20 centimetre advantage over opponents over distances of 10 metres. At first glance, this may not seem that impressive, however, in high-performance sport, this makes a huge difference in the battle for millimetres and tenths of seconds.
In order to examine how varying weight affects various parts of the body, the adidas Innovation Team has developed a "musculo-skeletal" computer model. This is a virtual body with realistic joints and muscles, which is taught to run like a real human being. By means of computer simulation, the weight at various points on the body can be increased or reduced and, with the help of the model, it can be determined how the energy requirements change at different speeds. The kinematic effects are also observed – for example, the length of stride or the swing time of the lower leg.
The result of these studies:
It is the shoes that offer the greatest potential to achieve metabolic effects through weight reduction – around three times higher when compared to the calf, knee or thigh.
In some sports such as football or running, which the scientists have been intensively studying for some time, the level of research is already extremely advanced. Here it is becoming increasingly difficult to make major advances in the area of weight minimisation without having a negative impact on other important aspects such as stability and protective function. In the case of a football boot that weighs 99 grams, it is impossible to make a further 100 gram reduction. Smaller changes do indeed also have noticeable physiological and biomechanical effects on the performance of an athlete, however, another aspect is playing an increasingly important role in this regard – the psychological aspect.
The psychological effect
The majority of athletes have now learnt and internalised the fact that they can achieve better performance with a lighter shoe. And as is so often the case, here too the psyche can have a major influence on physical performance.
Scientific tests have proven that athletes who believe they have a better, lighter shoe also deliver considerably better performance, even if the shoe in reality is only slightly or not at all different to a comparable product. The positive effect of a shoe that is indeed considerably lighter is thus reinforced by the psychological perception in the mind of the athlete.
Design and communication also therefore play a key role for the Innovation Team and the product developers at adidas! A sports product not only has to be light, it has to look light as well. Before the athlete even picks it up, it must make the right impression: “Yes, the shoe is super-light, and therefore I can run faster”. For example, a light-coloured shoe is subconsciously perceived as being lighter than a dark one. The graphics used can also convey a sense of speed.
For the same reasons, communication regarding a product can have an impact on the athlete's performance. This places the original question as to whether lightweight products are really just a case of marketing in an entirely different light. Because the important psychological aspect can only come into play if athletes actually know that their football boots or basketball shoes are very light and will therefore make them perform better. Marketing or product communication are therefore much more than simply advertising, but in fact have an impact on the performance of the athlete that should not be underestimated. And ultimately, the prime focus is on making the athlete better.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Will we soon reach the limit with regard to weight minimisation in the sporting goods industry or is there still potential to make sports products even lighter? In sports that are already highly advanced, such as basketball, running or football, the steps taken are definitely becoming smaller, with the focus now beginning to be placed on other aspects.
Nonetheless: through innovation, primarily in the area of materials, there is still more to be achieved here. And other sports will also benefit from the lessons learned in the more advanced categories. In the case of golf, for example, clubs and balls have been at the forefront of innovation research for many years.
In 2013, adidas Golf highlighted its role as a pioneer here as well, by introducing a very successful lightweight product family in the form of its adizero golf shoe collection. An average round of golf, with 18 holes, amounts to a distance of approx. 10 to 11 kilometres, with the average length of stride of a golfer being approximately 60 to 70 cm. So if a golfer has already made 14,000 to 18,000 strides when s/he comes to play the decisive putt on the 18th green, then it is easy to imagine that, here too, lightweight shoes will have a significant impact on the golfer's freshness and therefore his/her ability to concentrate.