Sports Science and Technology Trends
By Doug West, Contributing Author to How They Play – Updated on August 24, 2018
Technology and science play central roles in major sports around the world. Teams and individuals are constantly hunting for an extra performance boost, or a technique that speeds injury recovery. While there is sometimes resistance to new methods from established coaches or team doctors, sports science still makes a huge difference to what athletes eat, how and when they train, how they recover from injuries, and how often they are rested from competition.
Athletes are some of the fittest people in the world. But they also push their body to the extreme on a regular basis. Whether an athlete is attempting to get faster or stronger, or they just continue playing and training despite fatigue, they are taxing their muscles, joints and the whole body to the extreme. In the past, teams had a harder time understanding when an athlete was suffering from fatigue or exhibiting early signs of an injury.
Sports science has changed things in a big way. Teams and athletes can now get real time data on performance, endurance, flexibility, technique and more. They can compare that data with previous benchmarks to understand their body’s condition. And new medical techniques mean recovering from training sessions, games and injuries is better than ever.
The sports science trends receiving prominence over the past few years include using analytics to prevent injuries, the use of new injury recovery systems, sweat analysis, and wearable technology.
Analytics to Prevent Injuries
The risks of picking up an injury while training or playing sports is common. Many athletes suffer serious injuries that keep them out of action for three months or longer. In fact, it is very rare to encounter a professional athlete who did not have at least one or two serious injuries over their career.
Injuries not only rob players of time they could be spending on the field or court, but they also cost their teams money. The estimated cost of player injuries in the four major soccer leagues in Europe – English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Spanish La Liga and Italian Serie A – came to roughly $100 million in 2015. In the American NFL, injury totals are trending upward, despite all the moves the league makes to boost the sport’s safety. Sports teams and athletes want to use technology and data to help understand why athletes are picking up specific injuries, and how to prevent them.
An example of such technology includes VU, by Pivot. VU is a device that uses Pivot’s sensors to understand an athlete’s body and performance in real time. The tech is capable of analyzing player landings, cuts, sprints and other movements to understand an athlete’s performance and technique.
By using such technology, teams and individuals can understand whether specific techniques are causing injuries, or if they are merely suffering because of excessive fatigue or strain. VU is also usable for helping athletes rehabilitate from a major muscular or bone injury, as their movements are tracked and analyzed during each step of their rehab.
It is not possible to understand how each athlete is impacted by different activities or fatigue by applying a “one size fits all” approach. That is why some are taking a very personalized approach to understanding the bodies of elite athletes. Kitman Labs asks players to go through a Microsoft Kinect station daily, where they move different muscles the same way each time. Trainers get the information instantly, allowing them to compare a player’s flexibility and range to other days. If a discrepancy is noticed, further tests can be done to determine the issue.
Some injuries are difficult to prevent, such as contact injuries. But muscular problems are preventable through analysis and rest. If the Kitman Labs system notices a player is moving their left leg differently to previous days, they may be able to spot a hamstring or thigh problem in its very early stages. The player could rest for a week and be back in top condition. If the issue was never noticed, the athlete would keep playing until they tweaked or tore their muscle, which is a much longer and more complicated problem. Per Kitman Labs, they see anywhere from 20 to 33 percent reduction in injury rates among their partner teams.
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
— Michael Jordan
Injury Recovery Systems
Cryotherapy is an incredibly popular practice in sports, and it is gaining a lot of attention in the past few years. The concept of cryotherapy is to expose parts of the body to freezing or near-freezing temperature. While it is not the most fun experience, especially for those who hate the cold, it is said to help with recovery during the sports season.
With cryotherapy, it is possible to submerge most of the body into a cryotherapy booth, or target specific areas such as the arms or legs. It helps athletes deal with muscle pain, joint pain, soreness, and it promotes faster healing from injuries. While cryotherapy booths can be expensive, many teams and athletes use ice water baths to achieve the same result. The athlete sits in the ice bath for three to five minutes.
Hyperbaric therapies, such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, are becoming increasingly popular among sports teams. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is said to repair and regenerate tissue, limit swelling, stop infections, and aid in muscle soreness after intense training sessions.
The process for hyperbaric oxygen therapy is straightforward. The patient breathes pure oxygen in a pressurized room, or through a tube. When in a chamber, it is possible to set the air pressure to three times the regular levels. The increase in air pressure causes the lungs to get even more pure oxygen than is otherwise possible. The pure oxygen is then carried by the blood throughout the body, where it can help muscles, stimulate growth factors, promote healing and help in other ways.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is very good for treating head injuries, such as serious falls or concussions. It is being used at an increasing rate in sports such as American football, where head injuries are a serious concern. But it also helps with other injuries and soreness throughout the body.
There are some risks associated with the therapy, such as middle ear injuries, temporary nearsightedness, lung collapses or seizures. But the risks are not an issue if the therapy is being performed under the continual supervision of a medical expert. When athletes attempt to buy and use equipment to breathe pure oxygen on their own, it can be an issue, as it may result in overexposure that could trigger a lung collapse or a seizure.
Athletes involved with sports that tax their legs can benefit immensely from technology like the NormaTec leg boots. NormaTec combines sports science and technology to create leg compresses that assist athletes in recovery and injury prevention. The system comes with a control unit and attachments that can go on the legs or arms. Compressed air is used to massage limbs and mobilize fluid around the area.
The attachments mold into the exact body shape of the athlete’s legs. Then it begins to compress the area where it is attached, with the compressions going in a pulsing manner to mimic a massage. Athletes can use these attachments after each training session and game, with additional use during moments in the year where they are experiencing increased fatigue. American basketball star LeBron James uses the NormaTech attachments regularly.
Recovering from injuries is not just about the body, but also the mind. Athletes who suffer bad injuries, such as complete muscle tears or broken bones, may face mental obstacles when they are set to resume training. Many teams are beginning to understand the mental and psychological impact of injuries on athletes.
It is common for athletes to feel sad, isolated, angry, depressed, frustrated and disengaged while injured. It is especially true when the injury keeps the athlete from training for three months to a year. Athletic trainers, team doctors and coaches are beginning to understand the issue and take it seriously. Many teams now employ therapists so that athletes can have someone to talk to regarding their emotions when they suffer a bad injury.
Teams have begun using smart patches, such as the ECHO Smart Patch, to help analyze a player’s sweat as they train and compete. These patches are useful for monitoring health signs, gathering data to boost recovery, and eventually improving athletic performance. Sweat analysis can provide information about the many solutes in a person’s body, such as sodium, chloride, potassium, ammonium, lactate, proteins, peptides and alcohols.
Since sports teams have benchmark numbers for these solutes on each athlete, the data they gather after every training session and game helps them understand a player’s physical condition, whether they need a rest, and what foods and/or drinks they could use to replenish the body and aid in recovery.
Some of these smart patches can even monitor player vital signs, like their heart rate, respiration, skin temperature or the heart rate variability. Instead of relying on how an athlete feels, or what a coach is seeing out on the field, teams can use real data to shape their decisions on how their star athletes train and recover.
Each individual is different in how they respond to the rigors of sports. Some may have greater natural recovery, while others need more rest in between training sessions and games. By analyzing sweat, teams can put real data next to everything else they know about their athletes.
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Wearable tech plays a huge role in how athletes are evaluated in real time, and after games or training sessions. For instance, coaches can use wearable tech to understand how an athlete is performing compared to their previous training sessions or games. A reduction in physical output could be a sign of fatigue or an injury. Many muscular injuries are the result of overtraining or playing, which is easily remedied by tracking player performance with wearable technology. Coaches have the information at their disposal using laptops or smartphones, and they can make real time decisions about whether to keep a player on the field or make a substitution.
Examples of successful wearable technology include the Catapult OptimEye S5. The device came to prominence when used by English soccer team Leicester City, as they defied 5000/1 odds to win the 2015-2016 Premier League title. Leicester used the OptimEye S5 to track a player’s acceleration, positioning, collision impact and much more. The data arrives instantly, meaning coaches and team doctors always have data to provide greater context to what they are seeing from a player during games.
The product gives information about volume, intensity and explosiveness during games and training sessions. Teams around the world, such as the Denver Broncos, Sacramento Kings, Brazil national soccer team, Newcastle United and Ajax use the OptimEye S5.
Tennis professionals are incorporating products such as QLIPP into their training regimes. QLIPP offers real time data from within a tennis racket, as it attaches to racket strings. The device offers information about the intensity and position each time a player hits a tennis ball with the racket. Coaches can see the information in real time, and tell the player when they are hitting the sweet spot.
Zepp’s Baseball and Softball offering provides players and coaches with real time data regarding bat speed, swing technique, attack angles, and more. Players can use the Zepp Baseball and Softball kit to methodically improve every aspect of how they are swinging their bat and hitting the baseball.
With each iteration, wearable technology improves its accuracy and the type of data it can offer to sports teams and athletes. Wearable tech is useful to understand performance over time, improve technique and prevent injuries.
We have merely scratched the surface of how much science and technology can help sports teams and athletes. As more coaches and sports doctors begin to see the benefits of combining their old methods with new technology, players will be fitter, exhibiting better technique, performance, and less likely to suffer muscular injuries due to fatigue.