By: S.K. Steven Houston III, MD
As triathletes, we pride ourselves on coordinating all aspects of our kit, from shoes and visors to handlebar tape and water bottles. Jesse Thomas has his signature aviators, and whether you are a FOP or BOP athlete, we each have our own “style”. Sunglasses are an integral accessory to any kit, but aside from looking stylish, they are extremely important to your safety and performance in races. Less than an inch behind the lenses are two of the most important organs in our body that allow us to navigate the course from start to finish. Protecting your eyes and utilizing the correct eye wear can give you an edge on your competitors, if you understand how to incorporate lens technology in with your racing and training.
One of the primary functions of sunglasses is obvious; protection and shielding of the eyes from the sun. Most lens materials offer UVA and UVB protection, meaning that they filter the UV light which can have chronic damaging effects on the eye, including cataract, ocular surface changes, and possibly retinal damage. Polarized sunglasses provide specially aligned filters for an added benefit of decreasing glare and increasing clarity. Aside from blocking UV light, performance lenses are specially manufactured to provide protection from projectiles and blunt force trauma. Most lenses are made of polycarbonate, a plastic material that renders lenses shatter proof. During activity, projectile objects may come off of a passing car or any other unforeseen place. In these unexpected times, lenses provide protection from these small caliber projectiles that would otherwise cause vision-threatening damage to the eye. In the event of an accident, the strong orbital bones protect the eye from blunt force trauma, but sunglasses add an extra layer of protection from the front, an area where there is no intrinsic protection. When we race, sunglasses provide a form of barrier protection from the often harsh environments. Rain, dust, wind, or other environmental factors can cause significant dryness and irritation of the eye surface, which may lead to blurry vision, irritated and red eyes and excessive tearing. For those athletes that wear contact lenses, these symptoms can be worsened.
Lens technologies have progressed over the past few decades much like bikes, shoes, and everything else in the running, cycling, and triathlon industry. Sunglass lenses and frames have become increasingly lighter, utilizing technology, plastic materials, and even low-weight alloy components. These materials result in an almost weightless or feather-light feel. Athletes require a maximized peripheral field to identify hazardous objects, road defects, other athletes, or motor vehicles. As a result, companies offer panoramic, wrap around lenses with minimal frame interruption to provide increased field of view. Another important characteristic of your sunglasses to consider that can enhance your race arsenal is the ability to customize lens tint based on race day or training conditions. For early morning or late night training or racing, clear lenses offer excellent view in dark conditions. For cloudy or rainy days with low light, yellow tinted lens or lightly tinted lenses may offer an advantage to provide the best contrast and vision during these conditions. Advanced technology photochromatic lenses allow for automatic adjustable degrees of tint based on light levels. For longer events with variable conditions in the forecast, these lenses are excellent to accommodate and change throughout the day. Darkly tinted or mirrored lenses are excellent for those sunny, very bright days. Understanding lens type and use for specific conditions allows the athlete to plan their approach and speed in varying light conditions, similar to lens use in other sports such as skiing. For those athletes that require prescription lenses, most companies provide options for precise prescriptive lens in many frames. Athletes in the AG40-44 and above commonly have difficulty with reading, referred to as presbyopia. These changes in the eye prevent athletes from being able to see watches and bike computers which can cause significant difficulty in determining pace, heart rate, distance, and power during training and races. Manufacturers are now providing lens options with a bifocal segment, a higher powered, lower part of the lens that allows accommodation and ability to see up close. With this age-group representing some of the deepest fields in each race and one of the fastest, maximizing visual technologies can help garner that competitive edge.
Purchasing eyewear should be as important to athletes as a proper bike fit, aerodynamic upgrades, and shoe choice. The next time that you ride, think about how well you can see your surroundings – the curve of the road, objects on either side of you, light conditions when you ride. Think about your individual needs, and how visual technologies might improve your race time. If you are as competitive as most athletes on the road, incorporating the right pair of sunglasses can add another tool to your armamentarium, shave off time and give you that extra edge. When it comes time to opt for a new pair of sunglasses for your next big race, refer to the above guide to consider all the options available in order to maximize your performance and protect your eyes and vision!
*Material on this blog is provided for informational purposes only. This material is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services. It is general information that may not apply to you as an individual, and is not a substitute for your own doctor’s medical care or advice.
Steve Houston, MD is an ophthalmologist specializing in vitreoretinal surgery. He currently lives in Miami, FL and races for the Wattie Ink. Elite Team (2012 and 2013).