Run like a Reptile: High-Performance Sports Gear Goes Back to Nature

Biomimetics—taking the best that nature has to offer and developing it into cutting-edge designs and products—is nothing new. But in recent years, sportswear designers have been getting more and more of their inspiration from nature.

Take the gecko-inspired running shoe from Mizuno. Have you ever watched a gecko move? They have the uncanny ability to balance and grip surfaces in a way that enables them to be graceful, efficient runners. Gracefulness and efficiency are two characteristics all runners strive for.

Mizuno, a sports equipment, apparel and footwear manufacturer, has based its Mizuno Evo Collection on gecko mechanics.

The Evo is designed to appeal to the minimalist and barefoot runner. Inspired by a gecko’s low and stable movement, this particular shoe collection offers a wide spread and low stance to help the foot land completely flat, allowing the toes to engage with the ground for more stability.

Running not your thing? What about a dolphin-inspired fin?

I’m not a swimmer. If I fell off a boat I could tread water and make my way to shore, but it wouldn’t be pretty. And, in general, the human body is very inefficient in water, converting just three or four percent of energy into forward motion. That number increases to only 10 or 15 percent when we strap on swim fins.

Not happy with these limitations, engineer and inventor Ted Ciamillo set about designing the Lunocet, a two and a half pound monofin made of carbon fiber and fiberglass that fixes to an aluminum foot plate at a 30-degree angle.

Ciamillo’s design offers almost three times the surface area of conventional swim fins while the semi-flexible material provides a lot of propulsion. And here’s the cool part, the monofin is modeled on a dolphin tail. Dolphins can swim up to 33 miles (53 kilometers) per hour and turn up to 80 percent of their energy into thrust. Now that’s an efficient swimmer.

Users of the Lunocet have already hit about eight miles per hour, which is almost twice as fast as Olympic Gold Medal swimmer Michael Phelps. (Speedo’s FASTSKIN swimsuit, worn by Phelps, is designed to act like shark skin by the way).

Ciamillo hopes his design can be used in free diving (where divers compete to see who can go the deepest while holding their breath), and he’s also made a pitch to the Marine Corps’ amphibious unit. But perhaps the coolest use Ciamillo can think of: “Hydrotouring”: long-distance swimming expeditions using Lunocets to cover dozens of miles a day.

Still not impressed? How about outdoor gear inspired by pinecones?

Researchers at a British university noticed how pinecones expand when they are ready to seed and applied this principle to outdoor clothing required to work well at a wide range of temperatures. The team cut tiny flaps in fabric made from heat-sensitive material. The flaps open automatically when the wearer gets too hot, and close when body temperature starts to drop. Because the fabric is heat sensitive, the flaps only open in the areas which need the ventilation.

Run like a gecko. Swim like a dolphin. Dry out like a pinecone. Whatever we strive for, there seems to be no better designer than Mother Nature. And for myself, I wouldn’t mind using that monofin and those ultra-performance shoes for my next triathlon. Now, if we can just find the perfect aerodynamic road bike….

Nancy Pardo contributed to this story.

Photo: Geko by Michael Matuzak on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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