Wearables Will Drive New Advances in Understanding And Driving Peak Athletic Performance


Biomechanics, a field that focuses on the movement of and forces on a living body, has been making new strides thanks to advances in wearable and sensing technology, equipping scientists with the tools to analyze our body’s movement more precisely than ever. Researchers around the world have been very interested in applying the analysis of biomechanics towards the goal of improving athletic performance while better understanding the forces that act on athletes’ bodies.

At Johns Hopkins, Mechanical Engineering Professor Rajat Mittal is focused on the mechanics of the freestyle stroke, looking to end a decades-long debate on the optimal technique to propel a swimmer forward. The debate centers on whether a freestyle swimmer should pull his/her arm straight-through versus a sculling motion. Legendary swim coach James Counsilman advocated in the ‘50s that the sculling approach was far superior to the straight-arm appraoch; however, Prof. Mittal had his doubts. Using laser-body scanning technology and underwater footage, Mittal and his team were able to demonstrate that the straight-arm approach actually produced 50% more thrust than sculling. What this demonstrates, however, is that people are often unable to identify potential inefficiencies in athletic motion with just their naked eyes. Biomechanical analysis gives scientists, coaches, and athletes the ability to see through the noise and get to the truth.

Similarly, researchers at the University of Nantes, France sought to use biomechanical analysis in order to provide coaches a more objective way of zoning in on potential problem areas for their teams. Here, the researchers analyzed the biomechanical movement of a two-person rowing team, deemed by their coach to be lacking in coordination. The data was obtained through four sensors, two to measure the forces applied by the oars and two to measure changes in oar angles. Their results found that the inefficiencies were caused by a slow recovery stroke for the front rower combined with a small stroke amplitude from the back rower. With this insightful information, the coaches were able to instantly make positive changes to the rower’s dynamics, bypassing the generic advice stage where they would normally say something along the lines of “your coordination with each other needs improvement”. Clearly, biomechanical analysis has the potential to disrupt the way coaching works, but does it have the ability to revolutionize the concept of scouting as well.

In a study conducted by David Thiel and Sophie Nottle of Griffith University, Australia the answer to this very question was determined. Here, stick-mounted accelerometers were used to quantitatively assess the skill level of junior hockey players. By analyzing the mean time between hits during hockey drills, these scientists were able to determine the skill level of the player under study, because a lower mean time meant that the player was able to handle the ball with more deft. Rather than relying on the often-subjective analysis that coaches and staff used to judge players before, this quantitative approach has the potential to create a more accurate and efficient way of recruiting talent that could theoretically put only the best players in the rink.

But what about technology that can be used to track body chemistry today? Airo may have the answer. Using light spectrometry to gain insight into the user’s blood stream, the Airo wristband can do tasks previously unprecedented in the wearable space, such as tracking caloric intake, quality of meals, and calories burned. This is in addition to the standard features that are already found on most wearable fitness trackers. With this kind of data, serious athletes will be now able to understand both the intensity of their workouts and well their body recovers, all in one, convenient place.

Researchers at the Centre for Sensor Web Technologies at Dublin City University sought to figure out the best way to non-invasively analyze an athlete’s biology using wearable technology. Their analysis indicated sweat as the most effective medium to continuously monitor. This is because sweat gives computational biologists immediate access to sodium, chloride, and electrolyte concentration, three useful metrics to track the well-being and performance of the athlete. Additionally, sweat tracking has the ability to screen for more serious, underlying conditions such as anhidrosis or Cystic Fibrosis. However, the quality of the tracking device and the need to calibrate for each use prevent sweat analysis from being utilized by many coaches and athletes. Their findings indicate that a potential solution to this problem could be the development of a disposable, smart-textile patch. As it turns out, smart textile patches, like the EU Biotex patch used in the study, were most effective in tracking sweat in real time. By making a smart textile patch disposable, coaches would be able to calibrate a new patch in seconds using prescribed algorithms that are built into the product from the factory.

Armed with this new influx of granular data, coaches and players in the future should be better positioned to improve their game and reduce inefficiencies that currently plague the sporting industry. In the future, we would not be surprised to see athletes performing at an even higher level than they are today thanks to continued advancements in the wearable and sensing technology industries in addition to their increased applications towards biomechanical analysis.

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