Plastics materials are widely used in an effort to streamline the human body and enhance performance, particularly in sport. Plastics can be moulded to eliminate corners and create frictionless surfaces, and engineered to provide extra support, thus counteracting the effects of different environments.

The design of the lightweight polycarbonate Giro Advantage helmet (1) helps cyclists to achieve record breaking speeds. In wind tunnel tests, the aerodynamic teardrop shape has been shown to be the most efficient. The extended point at the rear of the helmet bridges the area between the neck and the top of the back, an area of potential vacuum and drag.


Efficient movement through water can be achieved by the use of a monofin (2), typically used in fin-swimming and freediving. By oscillating the submerged fin, divers can generate a large amount of thrust whilst expending comparatively little energy. The polypropylene blade of this particular fin provides the right combination of flexibility and strength for efficient movement.


The inclusion of elastane in sports clothing helps muscles to perform to their optimum potential as in the Speedo Bodyskin (3). Its construction streamlines the swimmer’s body, encourages correct posture and movement, and includes a texture based on that of a shark’s skin, which eliminates drag. Suits of this design had their debut at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 where swimmers wearing it broke 13 of the 15 world records and sparked a debate about its use offering its wearers an unfair advantage.


Similar concerns have been raised about the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Next% distance running shoes (4). Embedded in the midsole is a thin carbon fibre plate which increases the stiffness of the shoe, stabilizing the ankle joint and reducing the load on the calves. They have a breathable Vaporweave upper, inspired by the lightweight, flexible and hydrophobic material used in racing sail cloths. The outsole provides improved traction in the wet, and a thick ZoomX foam midsole claims to return 13% more energy than conventional foam midsoles and some runners say reduces fatigue in the legs.