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April/May 2011

Base layers:

The first layer of performance enhancement

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Base layers come in all shapes and sizes — from socks to long sleeved garments — and are worn by young and old, the professional athlete and the weekend warrior. With this wide range, CARIN HARDISTY asked suppliers for tips on what you should recommend to your customers.

The name baselayer refers to the fact that the garment is the first (base) layer of contact against the skin.

Baselayers have come a long way from their humble beginnings as glorified vests made by outdoor companies, whose only function was to keep the wearer warm. The first companies to create technical base layers were outdoor companies who created them for heat and comfort.

Nowadays base layers are worn for every activity and the use is not limited to sports like rugby or cricket, where it seems to have become the norm that players show off their base layers — by having the garment extruding from beneath the sport outfit.

Today there are even base layers that are developed for specific situations, for example cold weather or warm weather conditions, aiding in recovering the muscles after a workout, etc.

Even tourists flying long distance can benefit from wearing base layers — compression socks can assist in preventing swelling of the ankles and feet and may improve return the blood to the body from the lower legs.


Baselayer benefits include moisture wicking, temperature control (heating and cooling), and compression.

With all the different types on the market, how do you suggest the most appropriate one to consumers wanting to buy base layers?

First step is to ask them what they want to achieve by wearing the baselayer, due to the various properties that the individual base layers have.

It helps when the athlete knows his body and what his body needs. If an athlete can tell the retailer that they do not sweat a lot, for example, the retailer will be better able to suggest the correct baselayer for the wearer’s needs.


Wicking moisture away from the athlete’s body is usually the primary function of technical base layers that are designed for performance. This keeps the athlete dry and prevents excess cooling after the activity is finished. Other advantages of wicking fabrics are that when the fabric is dry it does not chafe as easily, it remains soft and flexible, and it is lighter. Keep in mind that it is important that your second layer of clothing breathes as well, says Tammy Rutherford, marketing manager of Second Skins.

“No matter the activity, any baselayer used during active sports should be made from a wicking fabric,” says Ian Vermeulen, Capestorm’s design manager.

Temperature control

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When Under Armour developed the first performance baselayer T-shirt fifteen years ago, the unique performance fibres they used to regulate core body temperature to keep the athlete cool and dry, took the market by storm. Temperature control properties ensure that an athlete operates at an optimum body temperature when doing activity, thus optimising performance.

Baselayers that have a temperature regulating property either help keep the wearer warm or cool them down, depending on the specific baselayer’s properties.

Those designed to keep you warm are great for outdoor sports, where the wearer will be exposed to cold weather.

However, the wearer should keep an eye on unexpected rising temperatures — a baselayer’s heating properties could result in overheating and excessive sweating.

“Baselayers designed purely for warmth might end up being counter-productive (especially in South Africa's climate) as the body naturally warms up during exercise,” warns Wayne Schonegevel of OBO SA, local distributor of LineBreak. “Heat is a performance inhibitor, as more energy is spent cooling the body.”

He goes on to say that while exercising, the body uses evaporation of sweat from the skin's surface as its primary defence against overheating. Producing excessive amounts of sweat means that the body is using energy to try keep cool instead of improving performance. Heart rates rise and performance is negatively affected.

A good lightweight wicking baselayer will assist the body to be cooler on hot days, as it is removing the moisture. In non-wicking garments, the moisture creates a barrier between the body and the air, preventing heat loss.

There are base layers that heat the wearer up; there are those that cool a wearer down… then there are those base layers that have been developed for the athlete that will be active in conditions that are both cold and warm, or for those who want one baselayer where you don’t need to keep pulling it on and off, like the Under Armour AllSeasonGear, locally distributed by Just Fun Sports.

Canterbury’s new ID Control technology both supplies warmth and cools the wearer down by releasing heat. ID Control does what the name suggests — it identifies and controls your body temperature.

Canterbury, locally distributed by Super-Brands, asked athletes where on their bodies they are hot and where they have cold zones — creating a body map from the responses. This body map was used to map zones on the ID Control garments, with mesh-like material where athletes needed cooling down and cylinders that store heat where athletes need heat. The cylinders store heat that is released by the body, and releases the heat as the body cools down.

The garment has to be worn tight fitting, therefore the wrists and neckband are elastic.

Columbia, locally distributed by Wild Elements Apparel, recently added base layers to their Omni-Heat range of products that keep the wearer’s temperature constant. Their Omni-Heat Thermal Reflective technology regulates body temperature using a patent-pending dot-matrix application of reflective material on a moisture-wicking, air-permeable base layer, working together to reflect and retain body warmth while dissipating moisture heat.

The metallic Omni-Heat Dot Lining in their base layers keeps the body heat at a comfortable level by reflecting back the wearer’s body heat.

“The important thing is to have a shell garment on top of the baselayer to help moderate any external elements,” says Barbara Cole, apparel key account manager for New Balance SA. If the garment is worn for warmth, it is better to have a snug fit, which reduces the flow of cold air to the body area and traps the air next to your body that is warmed by your body heat.

If your customer is looking for a baselayer specifically to keep them warm, recommend one made of polyester or polypropylene. These two fabrics provide the best insulation. If there is a toss-up between the two, polypropylene insulates better due to the fabric’s low heat conductivity and minimal moisture retention.

Compression garments

Originally, base layers were worn for heat and comfort. Today, this is still important, but a new category has developed within the baselayer family: compression. The main difference between base layers and compression is that while most compression garments are base layers (with the moisture management properties), not all base layers are compression garments.

Compression garments aid with blood flow, which helps during and after activity to remove waste and increase the blood flow to muscles, which in turn aids muscle performance.

Compression garments can help with

  • improving muscle endurance, power and performance;

  • reducing the risk of sports injuries;

  • maintaining body temperature and moisture wicking;

  • reducing the time taken for muscles to repair themselves; and

  • reducing muscle soreness during post-work-out recovery.

  • The two main types of compression are constant and gradient compression.

  • Constant compression: Compression is applied at an even amount across the whole garment.

  • Gradient compression: Compression is applied in a gradient where the amount of compression is higher on the furthest extremities of the body.

  • “True compression is a highly technical and specialised field, and one in which LineBreak considers itself to be one of the technical leaders,” says Schonegevel.

    “This is an area that is not well researched, but it is believed that compression garments can enhance an athlete's joint position sense,” says Schonegevel. “Accuracy awareness is heightened and believed to be improved, for example a golfer can maintain his swing form accuracy for a longer period.”

    Compression garments can also lower lactate levels. “This can be explained by the compression garments bracing the muscle groups and preventing excess muscle tears during the event,” says Ryan O’Mahoney of First Ascent. “By improving the circulation in the compressed area and ejecting lactic acid from the muscle’s cells, reducing DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness).”

    “Other pertinent advantages of athletes wearing compression shorts are muscle support and enhanced body posture,” says Jeremy Visser, sales representative for Genuine Connection Promotions, local distributors of Rugbytech. “This is due to the product having been designed specifically with panels into the garments that give the athlete support in critical areas, for example the hamstring. This allows for good body posture and support during competition and when off the field or bike, it helps with recovery.”

    “Compression base layers should also be worn should an athlete want to improve recovery from the rigours of an event or match,” adds O’Mahoney.


    So with all these special properties, what baselayer should you recommend for what activity?

    Brett Burgess, marketing manager of Super-Brands, recommends that, if the consumer will be getting the baselayer dirty, for example in a muddy environment, they should choose a baselayer with a darker colour.

    Depending on what training the athlete is doing, the baselayer can either be loose (for extra ventilation) or tight fitting (for maximum skin contact), which improves wicking benefits and heat retention, says O’Mahoney. However, no matter what training the wearer is doing, a wicking baselayer is ideal.

    Compression garments are also ideal to wear during training as they stabilise muscle groups and speed up blood flow, which in turn delivers oxygen to muscles faster.

    Rutherford recommends a baselayer with temperature control. “The temperature regulating garments are wonderful for keeping you comfortable during training. We all know that means you train for longer and feel less stressed at the end of it.”

    During a match

    “Unless you are playing a match in very cold conditions, you may overheat playing in thermal keep you warm base layers,” says Rutherford “We have all seen pro cricketers playing in keep you cool base layers when competing in sweltering conditions.”

    Schonegevel says that you can see the benefits of compression gear across a multitude of sports types — in any activity where muscle activation comes into play. This is true for both the lower and upper body garments.

    He recommends that rugby and cricket players wear compression shorts and calf guards for lower body, and the long sleeve, T-shirt or v-tank for the upper body.

    Runners can run in the long tights or shorts and calf guards — whichever is more comfortable. “Note that the tights are used, because of improved performance due to the compression benefits and not just to regulate temperature,” says Schonegevel.

    “I find that by running in full length compression tights, or even compression socks, my actual performance improves and recovery is even faster than when I wear them post training,” says Rutherford. “There is no doubt in my mind that the support provided and consequent reduction in muscle oscillation contributes to being able to train and recover better.”

    “A great new find for me this year was the New Balance compression garments which helped push my running to a new level,” says Ant Stott, who came second in this year’s Dusi Canoe Marathon. “I felt the pants such a huge advantage that I even raced in them. The way they were able to activate my core, glutes, hamstrings and quads was amazing!”

    Cyclists should use the tights for recovery and the upper body tops for thermo-regulation during races and training.

    Post-match recovery

    Compression garments reduce the risk of soft tissue injury by reducing muscle oscillation and stabilising muscles from dynamic forces, which cause micro-tearing to muscle fibres, and therefore they are ideal to use as recovery garments after a game. Additionally, they also help to remove lactic acid build up.

    “Athletes can use the long tights for recovery as part of their post-match regime (no longer does the athlete need to do the hop into the old ice bath regime!),” says Schonegevel. Proteas players Ryan McLaren and Rusty Theron have used this strategy to good effect.

    Burgess agrees, saying athletes have told him that they prefer using compression garments for recovery. Professional athletes, for example rugby players, play many matches shortly after each other and therefore need something that provides faster recovery than athletes in the past. Compression garments are ideal for faster recovery, says Burgess.

    Many athletes use compression garments whilst doing long haul travel as it helps prevent DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis) and allows athletes to get into proper training a lot quicker on arrival at their destination — as testified by Ryk Neethling (“I feel [my LineBreak gear] cuts down on the recovery time after the 18 hour flight to the US.”) and SA swimmer, world record holder (200m individual medley) and Olympic gold medallist, Darian Townsend (“I've been doing a lot of traveling and have been using the LineBreak compression pants I got before Beijing and I have to say they saved my life.”).

    Robbie Hunter even tweeted about recovering in his LineBreak compression gear during the recent Tour of Australia ("Interview done & dusted.dinner come & just relax in my linebreak compression gear hoping to recover for tomorrows training.")

    What makes them tick?

    Baselayers and compression garments are made using various types of textiles, each contributing their own qualities to the garment.

    Merino wool is a natural fibre that is used in base layers to provide warmth, keep moisture to a minimum and prevent odours from permeating the clothing. Wool, however, retains water.

    Compression fibres are good for garments that demand motion comfort and an increase in performance.

    Cotton is mixed with polyester for a more performance feel.

    Polyester is woven and knitted together with other fibres to create technical, functional, performance products. The textile is great for its breathability, thermo-regulation and moisture wicking qualities.

    Polypropylene is a synthetic material that helps keep you warm and dry without the added bulk. “Polypropylene based fabrics are some of the best fabrics for base layers,” says Vermeulen. “Their fibres are the lightest of all synthetic yarns while absorbing the least water and providing the greatest thermal retention.”

    Polypropylene is a bad conductor of heat, and as a result will keep the athlete very warm. Minimal water retention also means that the base layer will keep you warm even when you are wet. These base layers are extremely warm and ideal for extreme cold hiking and winter paddling.

    Columbia has managed to find a way to work around the problem of odours. “The elastane fibre in Columbia’s base layers wicks moisture and controls odour in the garments,” says Jackie Gouverneur of Wild Elements Apparel.

    Fabrics like Lycra and spandex give garments a long lifespan and great movement qualities, especially in form fitting garments.

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