By Adrian Hill
Slipping on the shades is a common enough activity for most of us in the summer, but even in the dimmest of light sports stars are happy to stick the eye visors on.
And the equipment is becoming big business, as everyone looks for the edge that could make the difference between winning and losing. A case of seeing the light - and blocking it out. As always, there are the big players pumping millions into marketing and endorsements, but there is room for small start-ups who have seen an angle.
Stephen Fowler, founder of running sunglasses specialist Naked Runner, says: “There is a certain amount of energy used when squinting. If your eyes are relaxed, you’ll be more relaxed running. There is also the serious point about ultraviolet light protection - there have been cases of people getting cancer in the eyes. There is mixed opinion on how much protection glasses afford for that, but they certainly offer a lot of protection against UV rays.
“I lived in Spain for a while and, although there is a fashion element that is quite important, the reality is that if you are performing in bright sunlight, as you do over there, that energy expended squinting all the time is vital energy lost. The key, however, is if you don’t know you are wearing them. You need sunglasses that work, but also that make you feel comfortable.
“Some people buy them to match their outfits, which is fine, but it’s more important that they are not annoying when you are performing. The philosophy has to be to wear sunglasses that you don’t notice you’re wearing.”
Fowler started Naked Runner about three years ago, having worked in the spectacle industry. His highest profile client currently is Kerry O’Flaherty, who competed for Ireland in the 3,000 metre steeplechase at the 2015 World Athletics Championships in Beijing and is aiming for the Rio Olympics later this year.
“I started off with runners, but have new styles for cyclists,” Fowler says. “I was at The Bike Show the other week. I did the 100-mile cycle ride in Manchester and it was raining and I found we were chucking up dirt. Sunglasses that fit snugly prevent all that getting into your eyes. There is also the annoyance of midges during the summer, which glasses block from entering your eyes.
“All sports will have different reasons. A runner needs lightweight glasses that make them feel relaxed, a cyclist requires protection for his eyes from the sun and bad weather. There are styles available that have an impregnated anti-steam coating.”
Running is an activity where, as Fowler suggests, style and comfort are heavy selling points, but performance sunglasses are being used more and more in sports where visualisation is vital.
Cricketers used to rely on their caps and floppy sun hats to block out the distraction of that big orange ball in the sky occasionally spotted in the UK or even manoeuvre their bodies to negate the blinding effect.
There is an anecdote about a teammate berating former England fast bowler Devon Malcolm, who was not known for his fielding, for dropping an attempted catch following a lusty swipe by an opposing batsman that went high into the air during a Test match.
Malcolm claimed his hat failed to block the sun’s rays from his eyes, so he couldn’t see the ball properly. His colleague suggested to him that he should have moved around the sun - effectively altered position so that he sighted the cricket ball without looking into the fireball.
“I couldn’t. It’s millions of miles away,” came the sarcastic reply from the droll Malcolm.
A latter day Malcolm has no such dilemma, as souped up sunglasses are standard issue to international cricketers these days, with lenses that are anti-glare and optimise the contrast between light and dark to help players to look into the sun without fear of being blinded and to see that small dark red ball they often have to clutch travelling at very fast speeds.
Talking of speed, there’s no room for a leisurely wipe of the lens if you are plunging down a white water course in a canoe. Shatterproof and impact resistant lenses are essential for so called water sunglasses adapted for the purpose, with special vents to prevent fogging.
Mountain climbing requires the ultimate in eye protection, due to the UV radiation being more intense at higher altitudes, plus the stinging glare from sunlight reflected off the pure white canvas of snow and ice.
Archery has been revolutionised by the development of specialist eyewear, which allow the eye muscles to relax in whatever the standard of light, increasing the focus, so that the target can be spotted with absolute clarity.
Perhaps the most surprising sport where a form of eyewear is being developed is rugby.
World Rugby, its global governing body, is currently monitoring global trials of rugby goggles, which have been developed to enable people who require glasses in their everyday lives to play the game.
The devices, developed by manufacturer Raleri, have high speed impact resistance, anti-abrasion surfaces, anti-fogging, UV protection and a specially designed strap with no clips, buckles or sharp edges. The idea is that they allow the visually impaired to take part without posing an additional risk to the wearer and other players.
If they pass the trials, the goggles will be made available in one size, designed to fit anyone (by adjusting the headband) and will not be provided with prescription lenses in them. The player would need to take them to his or her optician and have plastic lenses inserted.
It’s a case of watch - with spectacles or otherwise - this space, but if we ever see a rugby player run out for an international match sporting lenses over their eyes in the future it would not be a first.
In 1887, Dolway Walkington played for Ireland wearing a monocle. The debonair Walkington would remove the eyepiece to make a tackle and on one occasion, against Wales, collected a clearance kick, calmly took out the circular corrective lens and slotted a drop goal.
Performance and health benefits
Sunglasses add perception and contrast and block out the glare from the sun, according to Joseph Simpson from Simpson Optometrists, a specialist firm dispensing performance sports lenses.
“You can’t put a percentage on how much it helps a sports person, because it depends on the sensitivity of their eyes - we are all different – but there is no doubt they are a huge help. High end sports sunglasses tend to have inserts behind the lens, which are created by prescription.
“And it’s not just glasses. Two years ago Nike produced a contrast contact lens that picked up the lines on the pitch to increase the contrast.”
Top cricketers wear glasses in floodlit matches, but Simpson is not as convinced they are as effective with the different demands of man made illumination.
“There is a use for sunglasses in artificial light, but I think it is natural sunlight where they are most effective, both directly into the eyes and reflecting off rivers, the sea or the road,” he adds.
“Sports people’s eyes are so attuned to light, and susceptible, so I would recommend to anyone performing in sunlight in non-contact sports that they should wear sunglasses and contact lenses for impact sports.”
It’s one thing being an aid to performance, but cool shades have their health benefits as well. Prolonged exposure to the UV light emitted by the sun can cause long-term damage to the eye’s vital working parts - the cornea, lens and retina.
“It’s so important to block out the UV light by using a blue filter,” Simpson explains. “To increase contrast, you need an orange/yellow tint, but it’s a blue filter for full UV block. The assumption is that this is more important in sunny climates, but the west coast of Scotland, for instance, can be affected by UV light quite severely.”