It’s not just CrossFit that’s taking over the fitness scene — it’s functional training in general. Athletes are craving activities that make them stronger, faster and better at what they do, from climbing to trail running.
Tucked away in Jackson Hole, Wyo. is a facility called the Mountain Athlete, where North Face pros like trail runner Mike Wolfe and climber Jimmy Chin prep for their next adventures.
But something was amiss with their kit when it came to functional training — they were shredding their shoes and apparel. Since the gear hadn't been lasting, the athletes resorted to virtually disposable clothing, like old cotton T-shirts and running or weightlifting shoes that were on their last legs anyway.
The North Face is addressing those problems with its Mountain Athletics apparel line and a few styles from its Ultra Protection Series footwear line, both of which will launch in Spring 2014 and debut at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City this August.
Kevin Joyce, the product director for performance at the North Face, said the brand has been focusing on the line to give the company a wider reach beyond the winter season.
“For us, performance has really been dominated by run. The other component is training, which hasn’t really matured yet, but it’s something we’ve been keeping an eye on,” Joyce said. His team is focusing on maturing the training line — or what will be known as the Mountain Athletics Line.
The line has been tested extensively on the company’s professional athletes at the Mountain Athlete, but the company didn't want to tether itself too closely to a potentially fleeting trend like Crossfit. Rather, the North Face is making a push to market the products for the gym and functional training in general, while being rugged and abrasion-resistant enough to withstand the rigors of CrossFit activities.
Joyce said the company doesn’t plan to extend into specialty fitness retail for now, but does want to reach out to the fitness industry to attract people partaking in alternative workouts.
Unlike regular running clothes, or even a simple cotton T-shirt, the Mountain Athletics Line is constructed so products are not easily snagged or torn. Plus, the coverage accommodates a complete range of motion — so people can lift and do other movements comfortably without worrying their shirt is flying up or their shorts are showing all their business.
“There’s definitely a shift away from those sanitized, generic workout environments,” Joyce said, adding that races like the Tough Mudder, Rugged Maniac and Muddy Buddy also are a good fit for the Mountain Performance Line.
Among the new products are the Kilowatt shirt (with reinforced seams), and the Kilowatt short and pant, all with FlashDry Duro and strategically placed knit mesh.
For the feet
The North Face footwear guys sent their athletes to the Mountain Athlete in normal running shoes. They tore up every single pair.
Paul Astorino, the North Face’s director of performance footwear, said his team analyzed the way the shoes broke down during the functional training workouts and designed an alternative with stronger rubber at high wear spots.
“There’s a lot of different left-right motion, up-and-down motion and run shoes are made to go forward,” Astorino said.
Astorino’s team developed the lightweight Ultra Kilowatt, which is made from the same EVA, mesh upper and other aspects the North Faces is known for. But it also includes features like a stronger rubber on the arch, so it doesn’t get shredded on the ropes, and a more flexible outsole.
Joyce said the growing popularity of functional training outside the fitness industry is because athletes are seeing the benefits of diversified training — rather than, say, simply running more to train for running.
North Face Athlete Mike Wolfe, an ultramarathoner, is one such athlete who trained at the Mountain Athlete and said his performance has seen nothing but improvements since.
“It’s awesome,” Wolfe said. “It makes you feel stronger and more durable. I just come into the spring running season and feel that once I start ramping my mileage back up, it’s not going to beat me up or get injured. Your body feels more balanced.”
The North Face isn’t the only company that’s ventured into making products for these types of activities. Inov-8 has introduced shoes for CrossFit and functional training for the past few seasons