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The Thermoregulation Frontier

Listen to "The Science of Just Right," a podcast on thermoregulation by Nike News.

Nike AeroReact, shown here in the AeroReact Pullover Top, is a new apparel technology that supports the body’s existing thermoregulation capabilities by sensing moisture vapor and opening its structure to maximize breathability.

For most people, unless you’re sick, a thermometer will register an internal body temperature of approximately 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s your core temperature; thermoregulation keeps it constant.

Body temperature can serve as a baseline health metric. And for athletes – alongside lap times or box scores – it can be one of the most critical performance indicators. It’s a number that has the power to determine the fate of an athlete’s endurance, strength, and ultimately, their competitive success or failure. 

Human Climate Control

Thermoregulation sounds fancy, and it is. It’s incredibly sophisticated (especially in human beings), but it breaks down pretty easily: “thermo” is anything temperature related; “regulation,” of course, is the act of regulating. So, thermoregulation is what happens when the temperature around an organism changes and the organism responds to that change, maintaining the same core temperature.

“Essentially, thermoregulation is the body’s version of a house’s central heating and cooling system,” says Barry Spiering, the Nike Explore Team Sport Research Lab’s director of applied apparel research. He explains that when the thermostat is set to a certain temperature, let’s say 72 degrees, the heating and cooling system will do everything in its power to adjust to a hotter or colder house. Regardless of what’s going on outside, it will keep the house at a cool, comfortable 72 degrees.

Likewise, Spiering explains, your body does everything it can to keep you at an optimal temperature. Sweat is your body’s coolant. When it’s hot, your internal AC kicks into high gear to produce it. As sweat evaporates, it removes body heat. Conversely, when it’s cold your body generates heat through involuntary movement: shivering.

Athletes experience thermoregulation pretty much every time they train. And that’s generally a good thing. There’s just one issue: the harder the body strives to stay cool, the more difficult it becomes to perform optimally.

It’s the ages-old workplace wisdom applied to sports: Work smarter, not harder. And that’s where the smart guys come in, helping athletes focus on performance by evolving something that can support the body’s natural thermoregulation process: whatever it’s wearing.

Evolutions in Regulation

The lightweight Nike Therma-Sphere Max Jacket helps keep athletes training outdoors warm and dry.

The Nike Explore Team Sport Research Lab — comprised of top physiologists, biomechanists, and perception scientists — is dedicated to this goal. It employs cutting-edge technology, such as environmental chambers that simulate the temperature and humidity of competition locations worldwide, and works with athletes of all levels to test materials and corresponding body temperature in different climates at various levels of exertion. Then, there’s Hal.

“Hal’s one of my favorite employees,” says Spiering. Hal is a walking, sweating, thermal manikin that can measure everything from thermal resistance (apparel’s ability to insulate against heat loss) to evaporative resistance (apparel’s ability to allow sweat to evaporate).

“In the lab,” Spiering explains, “we look at athletes from three perspectives: performance, perception and protection. It’s kind of like the Goldilocks moment,” he continues. “And when your body’s temperature is just right, your performance is going to be better because of it.”

Hot and Cold Prospects

Nike Pro Hyperwarm is designed to keep athletes warm during cold, outdoor workouts.

That’s where the Nike Explore Team Apparel Innovation group comes in. They take insights gleaned in the lab and translate them into groundbreaking material technologies. Recent achievements include Nike AeroReact, an innovation years in the making.

AeroReact isn’t just a fabric; it’s a wearable technology that can sense (and respond to) performance in real time. When you’re warming up and beginning to sweat, AeroReact fabric senses that moisture vapor and opens its structure to maximize breathability.

Many apparel innovations have origins in the Nike Explore Team Apparel Innovation group or Sport Research Lab. Nike Therma-Sphere Max is a three-layer composite material specifically designed for cool weather. It helps keep wearers warm and dry, without weighing them down, while also trapping heat close to the body with Nike Sphere raised-node technology.

Meanwhile, Nike Aeroloft technology addresses the challenge of helping keep athletes warm, but not too warm, in cooler conditions. An ultra-light insulating layer of down traps heat for warmth while laser-cut holes provide breathability by allowing it to escape.

There’s also Nike Pro Hyperwarm. A fabric specifically designed for athletes combating cold weather outdoor workouts, it combines multiple textures into one form-fitting core garment that can be layered or worn on its own.

The team doesn’t just explore cold weather; heat is also a major factor in material design and selection. Nike Dri-FIT technology embodies innovation that helps keep athletes cool by wicking sweat off the body and allowing it to dry, and Nike Pro Hypercool’s ultra-lightweight material has a unique open-hole pattern in the back to help improve ventilation during movement.

Wherever you are, whatever the weather, these innovations support your body’s own impressive thermoregulation process, taking the potential of performance from a sound workout to a masterpiece of mind, science and body.