Lens Choices: Sports Specs

Lens options for athletes are  at a max of opportunities

By Brian P.Dunleavy

Optician Brad Childs leads an active lifestyle. When he’s not at the family business—Squirrel Hill Eyetique, a three-location shop in the Pittsburgh area—dispensing eyeglasses, he’s riding the trails of western Pennsylvania on his mountain bike or fishing or boating on one of the Steel City’s famous three rivers.

He enjoys his hobbies, of course, but there’s also a practical aspect to them. “If I have a patient into boating, fishing, biking or hiking, I know exactly what to offer them,” he says.

Not every optician, optometrist or dispensing ophthalmologist needs to be a “weekend warrior.” But as with any patient who comes into your dispensary, it is important for you to have at least some knowledge of the vision needs of athletes, be they professionals, amateurs or hobbyists.

“I have a lot of patients asking me about eyewear for activities like shooting, baseball, basketball, rollerblading, etc.,” notes Carl Hillier, OD, of the San Diego Center for Vision Care in San Diego. “It’s by no means the base of my practice. I don’t consider myself a sports vision optometrist. But you still want to be able to help your patients any way you can.”

And while only a small segment of the eyewear patient population participates in sports at the professional level, literally millions play “weekend sports” such as golf and tennis while others enjoy jogging, swimming, cycling and rollerblading. Indeed, as Childs says, having a knowledge of sports applications for lens products can open your dispensary to second-, third- and even fourth-pair sales.

“I have patients who participate in several sports in their free time,” he adds. “And I sell them eyewear for each one.”

And best of all, dispensing lenses for sports doesn’t require learning a whole new product category. Dispensers only need know how to position the products they sell everyday as dresswear for sports applications.

Of course, because of the impact-resistant nature of the material, polycarbonate has become the predominant lens material for sports use for safety reasons. Its inherent impact resistance offers athletes involved in racquet sports as well as “outdoor” sports such as biking, hunting and hiking important protection. Historically, however, the material’s optics have presented problems for sports such as target shooting. But recent improvements to the material have cleared up peripheral distortion.

“Poly is a must,” says Childs. The recent introduction of PPG’s Trivex—also impact resistant, but with a higher Abbe value than poly—has provided another safe lens option for sports patients. Both materials are lightweight—a big key for some athletes, particularly those concerned with issues such as speed and performance.

Polarized sunlenses have become a particularly popular lens option among athletes because they are specifically designed to reduce or eliminate reflected glare off surfaces such as roads, snow, water or ice, making them ideal for activities such as water sports (i.e., boating or fishing) as well as driving. According to Paul Glaser, optician and owner of Captree Opticians in Babylon, N.Y., the advent of tinted polarized lenses has allowed for further specialization of polarized dispensing, with colors matched to specific sporting tasks.

“I can give my fishing patients tinted polarized lenses that will allow them to best see fish through the water,” he says. What colors work best for different activities often depends on the individual wearing them, Dr. Hillier adds.

One of the most important developments in the sports lens arena in recent years was the introduction of polarized polycarbonate lenses in the mid-1990s. Because the film is added to the base material when it is still in liquid form (as opposed to laminated on the surface of the lens), polarized polycarbonate lenses tend to be more durable than polarized lenses made from other materials.

Like polarized lenses, mirror-coated lenses reduce glare, particularly off reflected surfaces such as snow, ice and water. In fact, a mirror coating can be an add-on option for polarized lenses for wearers who need additional protection in bright sun situations.

Because of these benefits, mirror-coated lenses have become very popular with sports enthusiasts, particularly those participating in activities such as skiing, paragliding, snowboarding, skeet shooting, fly-fishing and mountain climbing. When combined with a polarized filter and A-R coating, mirrors arguably provide the best in sun and glare protection. On their own, mirror-coated lenses absorb anywhere from 10 percent to 60 percent more light than uncoated lenses, depending on the type or degree of coating.

While mirror coatings have traditionally been a niche product in the sunlens arena, suppliers have been enhancing product lines in recent years, improving coating application technologies and adding to color palettes.

In general, researchers still disagree on the impact of tinted lenses on the playing field, but sports vision experts like Barry Seiller, MD, owner of the Visual Fitness Institute in Vernon Hills, Ill., say colors do have an impact on visual performance—and he’s done the studies to prove it. Tints applied for sports-specific applications should act as filters, reducing the overall amount of visible light reaching the athlete’s eyes while, in some cases, filtering out specific wavelengths of light. Some lens tints also enhance contrast sensitivity, allowing the eye to see greater definition between colors. Yellow tints, for example, are said to brighten low light situations and improve contrast, which makes them a favorite of skiers and some sport shooters. Recently, shooters have found they benefit from other tints such as orange, reds and browns, depending on their targets and the environments they are “working” in.

Tints are generally not stand-alone sports lens products, however. Rather, they are most often used in combination with other lens treatments such as photochromics, polarized filters and mirror coatings as well as anti-reflective (A-R) lenses. Sports vision dispensers say it’s important to research which colors work best for which sports before selling them to their sports-playing patients.

“Athletes, in general, aren’t amenable to wearing eyewear,” Dr. Seiller points out. “It’s seen as a weakness and it can be uncomfortable on the field. But today’s frames are more attractive and better fitting. And the lenses, with improved tints and mirror coatings, look better, too. Anything that gets them into the best possible correction for their sport is what I’m after.”