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Skiing and Snowboarding : Gear

Cabin Vardehaugen

Rocky slopes. Powerful winds. Mercurial weather. Those are some of the challenges architects face when designing a home on the wild shore of Fosen, Norway’s outer coast. The upside? This is some of the most beautiful real estate on the planet.

Fantastic Norway architects took advantage of the views and the terrain to build this family’s 800-square-foot summer getaway. Massive windows in the two bedrooms and the bath look out toward the often-stormy sea.   

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To protect residents from the wind, architects designed a tiny separate cabin positioned in such a way to create a sheltered courtyard. The blackened timber structures curve inward, nestling into rocks to also help minimize gusts. Recessed notches in the façades—all cut on angles and painted white—act as coves sheltered from both the sun and the wind.

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For sunny, warm days, four wooden decks of varying sizes (from reading nook to dining area) offer stunning views. When the weather turns sour, head inside to the bright-white, simple space. The cabin’s galley kitchen hides the two bedrooms and the bath, while the open living and dining area bends to accommodate the rocks outside. There are naturally lit reading areas tucked into the sloping walls. 

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Is Gear a Performance-Enhancing Drug?

Cycling’s most prestigious record—the distance an athlete can ride in an hour—is about to get smashed, and it’s not because the riders are training harder or doping smarter. In this case, it’s all about the bikes.

The Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s governing body, announced last week that it will allow aero bars, disc wheels, and aero helmets in hour-record attempts. It’s a complete reversal of its restrictive ruling in 2000, which stated that all attempts at the record would only count if riders used a bike similar to the one ridden by Eddy Merckx.

Merckx rode 30.7 miles in one hour back in 1972, a record that stood for 12 years until Francesco Moser beat that distance by almost a mile. The difference? Moser was on a full aero set-up, which was far more technologically advanced than the bike Merckx rode. That record kept improving thanks to new technology up until 1996 when Chris Boardman set it at 35 miles, nearly five miles longer than Merckx’s original ride. Then the UCI changed the rules. Today, the hour record stands at 30.72 miles—a mere 883 feet farther than the record Merckx set in 1972.

The UCI’s recent ruling marks a significant victory for the use of technology in all sports, and it touches on one of the key questions all competitors face: where will the next big performance gains come from? New technology, new training, or some combination of both?

The Sports Gene author David Epstein aimed to answer at least part of that question in a TED talk this past March. He pointed to three main ingredients that have led to record-breaking changes in sports: technology; genetic makeup (the Kalingen runners of Kenya, for example, are genetically predisposed to excel at running) and changes in body type; and an athlete’s mindset. But while fitness and nutrition have made a difference in some sports at some times, technology has made a difference in all sports, said Epstein.

Take track surface advancements for professional runners. If 1932 Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens were to run against current 100-meter world-record holder Usain Bolt on today’s synthetic track—not cinders—and with the use of the now-standard specially designed starting blocks, the separation between the two would come down to just one stride, said Epstein.

{%{"quote":"Where will the next big performance gains come from? New technology, new training, or some combination of both?"}%}

The fourth element making us faster, though, might be a mix of technology and training. The real performance gains will probably come from increased data and sensors that can quantify information for athletes. That’s right. Wearable tech might be the next big breakthrough for human fitness. 

“Equipment is always improving—in cycling’s aerodynamic parts, special skin suits, and helmets, in faster skis and waxes in skiing, and in lighter shoes for running,” says Scott Schnitzspahn, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s director of high performance. But it's the new techno-training tools that might offer the most promise: monitors for activity and sleep, GPS, biofeedback, cryotherapy, targeted compression devices, and sports psychology. “We’re not only enhancing training,” adds Schnitzspahn, “but allowing athletes to have more training days uninterrupted by injury.”

Those new tools and smarter training have also prolonged the careers of record-breaking athletes. “The fact that we have swimmers competing into their 30s now is evidence that we understand how to train better,” says Scott McLean, chair of the department of kinesiology at Georgetown, Texas' Southwestern University.

“In the old days it was all volume, but now quality is understood to be more important. Michael Phelps will try to qualify for his fifth Olympic games in 2016. He will be 30 when he does this. That would have been unheard of 20 years ago.”

And while the record-breaking potential of wearable tech remains to be proven, other records—in swimming, skiing, cycling, and ultrarunning—are sure to fall thanks to some less-heralded technological tweaks. Already, swimming has benefitted from suit design (despite the ban on the world-record-breaking full-coverage, low-drag suits of the 2008 Olympics), as well as improvements in deeper pools and better gutter designs.

The latest breakthrough may be the new backstroke start device (a kind of wedge like the one used by track sprinters) that gives backstrokers a small ledge to stand on. Although it hasn't yet been introduced (there’s talk we’ll see it by the next Olympics) it “may be,” says McLean, “where you’ll see some big drops.”

And while significant records in the shorter distances have probably plateaued, the role of footwear for long-distance running records could hinge on shoes with greater cushioning. There’s attention being paid right now to new foams for foot beds, for one, and because many track shoes have energy return plates, “perhaps this may assist longer distance road runners as well,” says Dr. Wendi Weimar, director of Auburn University’s Sport Biomechanics Laboratory. “The trick here is to find the shoe that encourages you to run with an optimal stride.”

It’ll also be hard to break the records in women’s running, many of which were set during the questionable 1980s—an era of virtually undetectable doping. Whereas the doping police were always a step or more behind the dopers in the past, that’s not so much the case anymore.

“The rationale here is that these records were set by athletes who were taking illegal substances but were undetected, a situation that will not occur in the future,” says Professor Matthew Curtner-Smith, head of the University of Alabama’s department of kinesiology. “On the other hand, if the rules are changed or relaxed regarding drugs, and some substances that are currently deemed illegal by governing bodies are approved, that could lead to breakthroughs.”

Similarly, for skiing and cycling, advances in suits, lightweight materials, and aerodynamics should lead to new standards. “Skiing is essentially limited by friction, so there’s not much to be gained there, but cycling is always a good sport for equipment gains, specifically individual events against the clock,” says Senior Sports Scientist Eleanor Jones of England’s University of Birmingham. “Anything that reduces air resistance is advantageous. But I don’t think you can really get a substantial improvement from kit—if you work within the equipment rules set by the UCI.”

Unless, of course, a sport’s governing body embraces changes in technology—the way the UCI has with the hour record. Then you’ll see records falling left and right. “The exciting thing is,” says USOC’s Schnitzspahn, “we can all use these same devices and improve our own performance—within sport and in our general lifestyle.”

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Putting Your Fitness Tech Data to Work

Every day, as hundreds of thousands of athletes around the world fire up their Strava apps, Nike+ FuelBands, Fitbit Flexes, and other wearable-tech devices, they produce a mind-boggling amount of data.

In 2013, Strava users recorded 53.3 million runs and rides totaling 905,408,836 miles. In the Fuel-Band’s first year on the market, Nike claims that users generated enough kinetic energy to light up more than 6,700 homes. Even bike-sharing services are amassing data. B-cycle, which runs programs in 31 cities, reports that, in 2013, its 3,813 bikes clocked 1,532,836 miles over 719,641 trips. And the International Mountain Bike Association’s (IMBA) crowdsourced trail-finder site, MTBproject.com, contains 21,328 miles of GPS-mapped trails, with hundreds of miles of new routes being added each month.

Now that vast amount of back-end data is being used to effect real-world change. It’s already driving policy innovation: Oregon’s department of transportation has purchased Strava usage stats to improve its cycling infrastructure, right down to considering how often street cleaners should sweep bike routes in cities like Corvallis. In Arizona, IMBA tapped trail-use data to work with the Forest Service to allow bikes on several formerly illegal but well-known singletrack routes around Sedona. And the Outdoor Alliance’s exhaustive visitation stats helped federal land managers expand the 2012 Colorado Roadless Ruling from an initial 500,000 acres to 1.2 million.

But perhaps the greatest impact is happening in the health and fitness world, as researchers leverage all those bits that chronicle our routes, distances, times, and heart rates to fine-tune formulas for peak performance. Jawbone, the maker of the Up activity tracker, has found that among its thousands of users worldwide, jet lag from a coast-to-coast trip usually upsets sleep patterns for at least five days. Basis, maker of a wristwatch-style fitness and sleep tracker, is working with the University of California at San Francisco and others on sleep studies, including one that mined user info to prove that one of the most effective predictors of quality sleep is a consistent bedtime.

{%{"quote":"A vast amount of back-end data is being used to effect real-world change. And it’s already driving policy innovation."}%}

Companies are also using the data on daily habits to make concrete training prescriptions. Jawbone has found that Monday is the most popular day for workouts. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sunday is the least.) Strava users seem to go hardest and fastest on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. The takeaway? Don’t plan your high-intensity interval rides for a Thursday when, for whatever reason, the data tells us you won’t be as into it.

Colorado Springs–based Carmichael Training System regularly draws on data points culled from its work with thousands of cyclists, runners, and triathletes to guide its coaching strategies. Among the nuggets learned from years of GPS, heart-rate, and power-meter data files: Contrary to popular assumptions, mountain biking is as effective at building competition-level fitness as road riding. Those who follow its training programs closely experience fewer injuries than those who don’t. And athletes can put up maximum power numbers for as many as three consecutive days with no loss of output—despite their own perceptions that they’re losing strength.

Ten years ago, this type of data was the exclusive domain of elite athletes and a smattering of bioscience labs. “But no one looked at the data to learn from it,” says Gear Fisher, founder of TrainingPeaks, a Boulder, Colorado, online coaching platform. (TrainingPeaks’ integrative training plans are also published on Outside Online.) “They used the technology to chart real-time performance, and then they forgot about it.”

That’s why this summer, Fisher’s company is rolling out an update of its WKO+ software, which Fisher believes is one of the most accurate exercise-modeling programs ever. “We’ll be able to predict performance based on as little as one workout,” he says. The data comes from numbers collected through TrainingPeaks.com, which is used by thousands of coaches to manage tens of thousands of runners, triathletes, and cyclists.

Looking at all those past performances, the company will predict results for new customers. “You’ll be able to see what you’re capable of at your current level of fitness,” says Fisher, “and soon you’ll also see what you need to do to reach a specific goal, like a 13-hour finish at Ironman Florida.” That’s right—not just any Ironman, but that particular Ironman. “You may not want to do what’s required to get there,” Fisher concedes. “But we can tell you if you can.”

Looking ahead, Strava cofounder Michael Horvath sees a day when user data can help race directors design courses that challenge—but don’t destroy—participants. “We’d be able to tell how much climbing is too much from completion rates and where people quit a race,” says Horvath. He even sees it helping gear manufacturers. “Users can track the number of miles they’ve put on their running shoes before they swap in a new pair,” he says, “and from the aggregate data, we’d know how many miles runners can get from that specific model.”

The rub, of course, is that people have to actually wear the devices and upload their results. In addition, the sample size, while enormous in scientific terms, is nonetheless self-selecting: active users of wearable tech. “The best you can say about the data is that it can be used to draw useful conclusions about the people who are using each app, like Strava,” says Yuri Feito, an assistant professor of exercise science at Kennesaw State University in Maryland. Still, says Feito, “Statistically, the level of information involved with Strava dwarfs anything that a research lab could pull together on a survey of cyclists. That shouldn’t be ignored.”

Increased likelihood of achieving a fitness goal when logging training and following a plan: 100 percent.
—TrainingPeaks
Fitness-program success rate among participants who shared their workouts 
via social media: 
85 percent.
—411Fit
Extra weight lost in a month when logging an additional three days of food-diary entries: a third of a pound.
—411Fit
Most common cross-training exercise for runners: swimming.
—Jawbone
Most popular activity among females in Los Angeles: hiking.
—Jawbone 
Improvement in performance when working out with a coach: 10 to 20 percent.
—TrainingPeaks
Average length of bike rides in 2013: 20.5 miles.
—Strava 
Average length of runs in 2013: 4.7 miles.
—Strava 
 
Additional sleep per night enjoyed by climbers versus other Jawbone users: 8 minutes.
—Jawbone
Most active week in 2013 for cycling and running: August 25 to 31.
—Strav

Stats from the Data Revolution:

  • Increased likelihood of achieving a fitness goal when logging training and following a plan: 100 percent. (TrainingPeaks)
  • Fitness-program success rate among participants who shared their workouts 
via social media: 
85 percent. (411Fit)
  • Extra weight lost in a month when logging an additional three days of food-diary entries: a third of a pound. (411Fit)
  • Most common cross-training exercise for runners: swimming. (Jawbone)
  • Most popular activity among females in Los Angeles: hiking. (Jawbone) 
  • Improvement in performance when working out with a coach: 10 to 20 percent. (TrainingPeaks)
  • Average length of bike rides in 2013: 20.5 miles. (Strava)
  • Average length of runs in 2013: 4.7 miles. (Strava)
  • Additional sleep per night enjoyed by climbers versus other Jawbone users: 8 minutes. (Jawbone)
  • Most active week in 2013 for cycling and running: August 25 to 31. (Strava)

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Building a Bionic Athlete

“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology.” Even people who weren't yet born when it first aired on T.V. in 1974 know those iconic sci-fi words from the Six Million Dollar Man's opening sequence. And today, we really do “have the capability to make the world's first bionic man.” In fact, we already have. We're still working out the “better, stronger, faster” bit, but when it comes to rebuilding humans, we're kicking ass, and that's good news for outdoor athletes.

Let's start with a definition. The word bionic is sort of a portmanteau. It's basically the melding of bio- from biology, and onic from electronic. People tend to play a little fast and loose with the definition, often stretching it to mean technologically enhanced, rather than strictly electronically enhanced, but however you definite it, it's a field that’s progressing at an incredible rate right now.

Say you wipe out on your mountain bike and come away with a broken forearm. Tradition would have us wrap it in layers of fabric and heavy, bulky plaster, where your arm would basically suffocate while it healed for a month or two. Got an itch? Want to go for a dip in the pool? Too bad.

In the near future, though, your bum arm may simply be scanned and a breathable, lightweight 3-D printed plastic cast could be made in two pieces that snap together. Not only would it give you the most badass tan-lines ever, but the porous design allows for the attachment of an ultrasonic pulse generator (impossible with plaster casts) that may help to “reduce the healing process up to 38 percent and increase the heal rate up to 80 percent in non-union fractures,” according to the description. Plus, it looks way cooler and would be much less susceptible to rancid funkiness.

Or say you managed to seriously screw up your knee on the slopes. Relearning how to walk (or even just regaining basic mobility) is extremely difficult during rehab, which is why the AlterG Bionic Leg offers so much promise. I actually got to try it myself last year. It's essentially a full-leg brace with lots of motors and servos inside it that provide motorized assistance with both extension and flexion.  

The amazing part is that the bionic leg can sense what you're trying to do through a pressure sensor under your foot, and react instantly. It provides lift when climbing stairs and resistance when you're sitting down so you don't fall into a heap. Plus, it's fully adjustable, so you can slowly take more weight as you progress in your recovery. No, it doesn't let you run at supersonic speeds (or run at all, yet), but it allows you to move without having to compensate in ways that could hinder your rehab. So you can slowly build up your strength by doing things you normally do, while still maintaining good form.

{%{"quote":"While we're not yet at the point of using these systems to leap tall buildings, you can bet that people are looking beyond restoring function and on to adding super-human capabilities."}%}

But what if something even more extreme happens? What if, say, you lose a limb? The way tech is now that doesn't have to be the end of your athletic career. Take this incredible, thought-controlled bionic limb developed by researchers at the Rehab Institute of Chicago. Not only does it allow a man to walk and go up and down stairs, it also allows him to do it at normal walking speed. If you watch him from the waist up, you'd never even notice a limp.

Or how about Case Western's FINE system, which intertwines with nerves left intact on a limb. This allows for direct sensory feedback for amputees (think Luke Skywalker's hand), so users can sense resistance and pressure when they’re gripping or manipulating objects—something we thought was impossible less than a decade ago.

Perhaps most impressively, take the example of Amanda Boxtel, a skier who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1992 accident. Now, for the first time, she's walking again, thanks to a 3-D printed robotic exoskeleton that was molded to fit her body.

So while we're not yet at the point of using these systems to leap tall buildings in a single bound, you can bet that people (especially the military) are looking beyond just restoring function and on to adding super-human capabilities. We may not get to Elysium within our lifetimes, but don't be too surprised if you live to see the world record for the 100-meter dash get smashed by a pudgy guy in an exoskeleton.

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Eton Rugged Rukus

As long as you have sunlight, the Eton Rugged Rukus will blast your music by the pool, on a hike, or around the fire.

The solar-powered music player has two full-range speakers that connect to your phone via Bluetooth. Set it up at the campfire or use the carabiner loop to hook it onto your backpack. The speaker can be charged with an USB port, but it also has an internal lithium battery that lasts up to eight hours for when it gets dark. The gadget can charge your smartphone, too.

And don’t worry about getting a little rowdy around the campfire—the speaker is drop-proof and water-resistant.

$100, etoncorp.com

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