“Our goal in creating the Exo running apparel was to engineer a material with the perfect combination of comfort and compression for long distance races,” says Serge Chapuis, Salomon’s excitable Project Manager for Apparel R&D. “That means adding compression, but not at the cost of comfort, which is the most important thing in an ultra-race.”
Fortunately for Serge, champion ultra-runner Francois D’haene lives close to Salomon’s Annecy Design Center and also has a vested interest in helping to create this performance-altering apparel.
“I wore Exo during the John Muir Trail. I even slept in it and ate in it,” says D’haene, who established a new Fastest Known Time on California’s famed trail in 2017 when he covered the 359 km route in two days, 19 hours and 26 minutes. “Actually, I use it for anything. All races and projects. For skiing, for cross-country skiing, for winter or for summer. It’s always my base layer.”
Back in 2010, the fabric used to make Salomon running apparel was changed after Salomon athletes pushed apparel designers to increase the comfort. Rather than using knitted fabric, athletes requested woven fabrics, which allowed designers to cut the weight in half.
Today, Salomon’s Exo apparel uses a special woven fabric from France that weighs 100 grams less than the original knit fabric. With less water in the yarn, the lighter woven fabric also has improved moisture management. “Better elongations in the fiber improves moisture management and comfort a lot,” says Chapuis, who has run a number of ultra races himself.
The idea behind Salomon’s Exo apparel is to use muscle compression to improve blood flow, provide support and speed up recovery. The inner of the short is made with four-way stretch fabric and Motion Fit 360 structure to follow your movements. The outer layer is ultra-light to enable maximum freedom and to dry quickly. But it’s not only about design and moisture management; it’s also about positioning pieces of fabric where they will benefit the muscles over the course of a long run.
“Previously, you had a design that when you made a movement, you exerted pressure on the fabric,” says D’haene, three-time winner of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) and one of the best ultra-runners on the planet. “Now that the shape has been improved, the garment moves with you when you it’s in motion, when you’re running. The fabric and pattern of the material is a real benefit as you run.”
To make a garment that helps performance, Serge and his fellow designers improved elasticity on the bone articulation and the muscle area. The idea was to help maintain energy in the quads during a long run, but also help the gluts while still making sure the material won’t chafe the skin when running over a great length of time such as in an ultra.
“Technically, we improved the reinforcement areas in the garment, increasing the positioning to help the runner maintain better posture,” Chapuis says. “But to improve the overall fit and performance, we needed to improve the fabric, and that costs money.”
D’haene notes that there is a difference between a garment with total compression and one that has reinforcement in the right places to help your body alignment while running, like Exo does. The goal is to maintain good postural control while running, which will help fight off fatigue and injuries.
“I use it especially when there is a lot of descent; when you are going up and down,” D’haene says. “The fit is perfect to reduce any pain in your legs at the end, because it controls vibrations and reduces impacts causing broken muscle fibers. It may not make you faster, but you can run longer because it helps the muscles that would normally get destroyed when running downhill.”
Recent studies with Toulon University in France confirmed this. The two-year study established that by reducing muscle vibration, using compression apparel resulted in 5 percent less muscle fatigue during activity, 4 percent less immediately after the activity and delivered 7 percent better muscle recovery the next day. Chapuis confirms that the most notable impact on Postural control with EXO technology was revealed during exercise in which the athlete is going downhill.
“This study is proof,” he says. “At Toulon, we spent two and a half years to validate the results. We launched the study in 2016 and received the certification from the academy of science in 2018. People are rediscovering the benefits of compression.”
Proof from the laboratory is never a bad thing, but working with athletes like D’haene is perhaps more demanding than the lab.
“You have to test it on 10-hour runs and 4,000 meter elevation runs,” the French winemaker says. “You have to do block training one time with the apparel and then one time without it to feel the difference.”
In fact, D’haene believes Exo apparel helps his body so much that he often does not use it while training because he wants to feel the full brunt of his workouts.
“For training I don’t use it because I want my training to destroy the muscle and then become stronger and stronger,” he explains. “If you use the shorts during the training, you work less. Two weeks before a race, I start to use the shorts to prepare the muscles in a recovery way and I really feel the difference. For me, compression is important but it was more about the perfect fit because you need that, not just compression. And then with the reinforcement areas, it’s physiology. The shorts are designed anatomically to work and support the muscles where you need it most. It’s not just the same compression everywhere.”
D’haene says that the key to his running posture is his hip positioning. His goal is to keep the muscles in his lower core warm and he believes the Exo apparel acts like an alarm to inform the brain to maintain form.
“After 30 hours of running, you don’t think about form,” he admits, “but if you have a small alarm, you do.”