Eye expert’s performance-enhancing lenses help athletes see the finish line more clearly
Optometrist explains how he married science with his love of sport to create lenses that filter out glare and unnecessary light, allowing elite athletes to see their surroundings and lines more clearly and lengthen their stride
Growing up in a world of sport and science, it made sense for Nick Dash to combine the two. He became a pioneer for improving elite athletes’ performance through enhanced vision.
The sports vision optometrist, who works with some of the world’s best athletes, struggled to balance sport and academics as a child: his father played for Bristol Rugby Club when it was England’s top team; his mother was a science lecturer in child development at University of Bristol.
“I tried to compete when I was younger as an athlete, and didn’t quite make the top grade. I almost got thrown out of school because I was playing so much sport, so there has always been that competition between the two,” said Dash, who played field hockey and golf at a high level as a youngster.
“I studied optometry because of the biologically fascinating unique properties that influence life,” he says. “I’ve had very few problems with vision.”
His first degree was in cell biology and immunology, and he started doing research in a lab. He preferred helping people directly, though, and improving people’s lives.
“We can have an immediate positive benefit on life through vision correction with optical devices, spectacles, contact lenses, et cetera, but also improve health and protect vision,” he says.
“I then became an optometrist and it really evolved. Having lived in an elite sports environment all your years, you tend to know how to communicate and understand athletes, so marrying the two happened naturally.”
Dash now spends his time providing research and developing special technology for lenses designed to help athletes reach their full potential. He began helping cricket teams, and branched out to help athletes from many disciplines.
They include Jamaican sprinter Nickel Ashmeade; Bahamian sprinter Shaunae Miller-Uibo; Austrian climber Guido Unterwurzacher; retired England national rugby union team player Lewis Moody; the English cricket team; and the UK skeleton sledding team, which won three of the five UK medals at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Enhancing vision by controlling which light enters the eye while playing sport contributes to significant gains in performance, says Dash, who was in Hong Kong to promote Adidas’ new range of light-stabilising technology sunglasses. He has worked alongside the company for more than a decade.
By filtering bad light, levels of glare and stress on the eye are reduced and visual quality is improved. Certain colours become more prominent and athletes can see their surroundings more clearly, making them more confident in their movements.
Although not all sportsmen and -women wear such sunglasses while competing, many use them to boost the effectiveness of their training.
“You can see the lines on the track better, the texture of the track, and if you know your environment better, you are going to perform better in it,” Dash says, giving the example of runners lengthening their strides. “By limiting that visual noise and enhancing the quality, it enables an athlete to become more focused.”
Research results found that when running into the light on a track, athletes’ performance, measured in terms of length of stride, improved by five per cent, says Dash. Their heart rate also stayed at an optimal level for longer, indicating they are putting more energy, power and effort into training, he says.
This improvement in eyesight not only boosts athletes’ physical performance, but also their psychological well-being. According to the Cambridge Cognitive Function test, used by Dash, Olympics-based athletes felt 12 per cent more comfortable at the end of a training session.
“After a period of training, or simulated competition, they were making judgment calls that were more effective because they feel more comfortable, more relaxed, rather than more stressed,” says Dash.
Some health benefits can also be seen. Within the sunglass collection are some wrap designs which bend around the temple to block peripheral glare. “Those peripheral rays focus on the lens in the eyes and cause a lot of UV ageing properties, that leads to cataracts and things like eye cancers,” says Dash. Controlling periphery with different wrap designs helps control glare and improves safety.
“There are health benefits and performance benefits for wearing glasses for running: it’s an unmet need,” says Dash. “People don’t recognise the benefits. You’re working at that peak potential and want to do that for as long as possible.”
He adds: “Vision leads the senses, vision leads the body: where we go depends on what we see, how we perform depends on how we see.”
While he has embraced science as a career, sports still loom large.
“I love environmental lifestyle sports like skiing, mountaineering, surfing, but I also do triathlon. So I do one swim, run and cycle most days. I also play golf,” Dash says.
“Sport floods my life with energy, makes me feel good … and stimulates my mind. The endorphin release makes life brighter and happier. And I am also far more productive.”