For U.S. Olympic champion and decathlon world record holder Ashton Eaton, every perceivable advantage counts. In a competition that extends two days, Eaton seeks to maximize each break between the 10 events to ultimately speed up his recovery time.
“A perfect scenario would be to feel like you’ve just started on every event. The more you do, the more attrition you experience. Rather than realizing immediate physiological gain, the challenge is more about reducing the mental attrition from the two days to maximize each event,” explains Eaton. “After asking questions about current recovery techniques, the conversation prompted me to ask myself: Why does it feel good, after running, to pour a bottle of water over your head? I don’t know the physiological answer, but the fact that it does feel better makes me perform better. ”
After assessing his personal needs and following continual conversations with Nike, Eaton thought critically about thermoregulation. Reflecting on the Nike PreCool Vest — designed in 2004 to cool core temperature — the athlete queried whether a product could reduce heat around the face and head, a problem he experienced when competing in hot and humid conditions.
Simultaneously, the Nike Sports Research Lab (NSRL) was exploring the performance benefits of cooling the face. Conclusive evidence of physiological gains emerged; specifically, the examinations solidified an understanding of the face’s consciousness and recognition of temperature — it is two to five times more sensitive than other body surface areas. Eaton’s thoughts on recovery in hot conditions (and his desire for an “ice hat”) spurred collaboration between the athlete, the NSRL and the Nike Apparel Innovation Team, who together advanced research to include head and neck coverage. From there, the cooling hood prototype was born.
“Nike’s culture is one of invention and this is invention with purpose: making athletes better,” says Sandy Bodecker, VP of Special Projects, Nike Innovation. “Working collaboratively with the best athletes means faster problem solving and allows us to bring the future, faster.”
“The insight Ashton gave us was that overheating was a challenge, especially during the high jump and pole vault when there was so much time spent on the field, and he asked how we could speed up his recovery between his short, explosive action. It was an interesting challenge coming directly from one of the world’s greatest athletes so we, literally, took the challenge head-on,” adds Bodecker.
Inner layers are designed to retain cool water without leaking. At the same time, a structural frame around the eyes keeps cold portions in place and close to the face while maintaining a secure fit.
“Simply put, the hood concentrates a cold mass out of an icebox, covering the face, head and neck, and allows a gradual and effective cooling of the head,” explains Bodecker.
Initial testing focused on establishing a fabric weight and calculating the optimal length of use for each hood. The data derived examines both the physiological and psychological benefits of the design. And Eaton’s trial of the prototype will advance research around the physiological advantages of head cooling.
Additionally, prototypes of the mask have also been created for Canada’s Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who will test the design during her summer training.
“This is innovation in the making. We continue to work with Ashton on each iteration of the hood, and we plan to perfect this idea as we approach the next 18 months of elite track and field competition,” adds Bodecker.