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I still remember when I clicked into a pair of Volkl’s RaceTiger SL skis while on a trip to Switzerland. The terrain in the Alps can be challenging, but the RaceTiger isn’t branded as skiers’ “weapon of choice” for nothing. Carving turns on steep pitches and icy terrain felt automated – as though a machine was taking all of the grunt work of holding my edge and exhausting my legs entirely out of the equation. Could I ever rip – faster than I ever have before. But while the speed was a real thrill, it felt more like I was a passenger on the ride – rather than the driver behind the wheel.

Indeed, the skis were taking on the grind I craved. “That’s the extra-hard wood located just behind the sidewall for added stability and grip that gives you easy access to quick turns all over the mountain,” says Michael Kay, marketing and communications manager at MDV Sports, home to three of the world’s foremost ski sports brands, Marker, Dalbello and Volkl.

The company’s research and development team spends an inordinate amount of time testing the performance on hundreds of prototypes – from giant slalom to big powder skis – across varying snow conditions, terrains and skill sets so they can tweak the geometry, construction and flexibility as they go along. That focus on staying nimble means they’re able to push out new prototypes every two weeks.

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“We call it the ‘Perfect Set-Up,’ so regardless of whether you’re an adventure skier who’s hucking cliffs at Whistler or a beginner making their way down a green groomer at Blue Mountain, our job is the ease of use for both categories,” Kay says. “Technology takes away the inconvenience of a bad run or a poor experience, so all you need to focus on is being out there and having fun – that’s what every skier wants ultimately, so we’re there to make sure it’s always positive and user-friendly.”

Technology is changing the way we engage in fitness. Today, everyone from the weekend warrior to the recreational athlete can feel like a champion, thanks to significant equipment advancements across virtually every sport. From golf to running, tennis to skiing, technology is revolutionizing our state of play. Long gone are those foul shots, missed hits and poor runs. Now we’re given a chance to throw the ball farther, run a lot faster, and carve a better turn – all because modern automation and updated product design make sports more manageable for us to play.

But this high-tech approach can also compromise the fundamental pleasure principle of why we play: We earned all that sweat and sense of accomplishment through our own hard-won effort. Sure, technology can lessen the work, but is that worth it?

“I hate it when I see someone relatively new to cycling show up with a $9,000 road bike,” says Greg Pace, owner of PACEperformance, a sports training and fitness consulting firm in Burlington, Ont. “It’s too much technology too soon – you will figure out how to use it eventually, but you’re also missing the chance to practice and learn. No matter what, you ride the bike – the bike shouldn’t ride you.”

Trail running shoes at the booth of Adidas during the ISPO trade fair for sports equipment and fashion in Munich on Jan. 26, 2020.

Michael Dalder/Reuters

Pace should know – for more than 30 years, the 65-year-old has competed in marathons and triathlons, with nine full Ironman races under his belt and a 10th lined up for next year. For decades, he’s witnessed the amelioration of sport equipment firsthand, from aerodynamic handlebars to wheels designed to reduce wind drag. While he admits to benefitting from an ultralight, watertight wetsuit in his races (“I feel like Michael Phelps in the water when I wear that thing”), he’s quick to say that what you can give yourself matters more than what technology can offer.

“The pursuit of any sport rides on a singular, often overlooked footnote: People can’t think they can give less effort because technology will bail them out in the end,” Pace says. He offers the example of someone jumping on their bike with a specific kilometre goal in mind. They may have all the gadgets to help guide them on their journey: a speedometer to calculate speed and distance, a heart-rate monitor to evaluate intensity and calories burned, even perhaps carbon shoes to make pedal strokes more efficient – but what happens is they end up ignoring how their bodies actually feel in favour of the metrics telling them how they should feel. “The challenge with all that tech is that none of it will matter if you can’t decipher what your effort actually feels like,” he explains.

So, how do we process that effort – and what effect does that have on our sense of achievement? “In the instance of effort versus reward, when we are exposed to something rewarding – like accomplishing a goal – we release dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, and it helps us learn how to associate the effort we give with the pleasure we feel,” says Dr. Gwen Dutrizac, a registered psychologist at Insight Psychology in Guelph, Ont.

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In short, the brain takes what it has learned in the process of obtaining that reward sensation, and surveys how much effort was involved in getting there. “If the reward justifies the effort in our mind, we will be more likely to practice,” Dr. Dutrizac says. “We derive a sense of accomplishment from chipping away at something that’s challenging for us to master.”

Where technological advances in sports gear may be most beneficial is in doing away with barriers to participating in the first place. Take golf, a game ruled by critical technical skills. So what happens if you arm an amateur player with the Callaway Rogue Jailbreak driver? It can help to hurtle the ball yards farther than limited skill may permit, thanks to the club’s much bigger body and face design, allowing increased forgiveness on drives and more energy transfer at impact.

“We want to put a bullet in the fact that golf is considered too hard to play or keep up with,” says Derek Ingram, Golf Canada’s head coach for the pro and amateur teams, including the Canadian Olympic team and PGA players Corey Connors and McKenzie Hughes. “We want people out there enjoying the sport, and technology helps people embrace the sport more because it’s easier to play: hitting the ball in the air and going a decent amount of distance is thrilling for them. They’re starting to see golf as fun, attainable and doable.”

Sports and staying active are supposed to be enjoyable, after all – not a form of punishment. In allowing even the casual athlete to level up their game, the latest high-tech equipment helps to reinforce our love of whatever physical pastime we choose to pursue.

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