Jun 11, 2012
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As a kid, I watched as Hollywood created a Russian warrior named Ivan Drago to destroy the American icon, Rocky Balboa. Inside a secret gym, lights flickered, graphs flashed, and a team of white-coat scientists studied the computer monitors to prepare Drago as the ultimate fighter.
Today, we’re not too far from the Ivan Drago super athlete of the future. But how can technology destroy the current limitations of man?
The first step towards exceeding your physical limitations is understanding your current ones. Today’s biomechanics labs, like the SPEED Clinic I run at the University of Virginia, have progressed much further than Hollywood could have dreamed because they enable us to establish performance benchmarks. Inside the lab, a runner steps up on the treadmill. Twelve infrared Vicon cameras surround the athlete’s body, their semi-infrared glow bouncing off the reflective markers stuck to his body. As the runner moves, these infrared cameras recreate a 3D model of his skeleton on the computer nearby.
This system goes well beyond anything that the trained eye of a coach could ever hope to see. Because, unless you name is Master Yoda, no eye can measure the forces that cause us to move the way we do. A new frontier of instrumented treadmills from companies such as AMTI and Bertec allow us to measure the location and magnitude of forces acting on the runner at a rate of 1000 times a second. This combined data is powerful enough to pinpoint the exact timing and location of mechanical stresses placed on the athlete, and its impact on injury and performance.
It’s one thing to tell an athlete they are doing something wrong, and even better to show them their errors. But the greatest advancement in performance optimization has come from using feedback to optimize the way the athlete should move.
As the runner logs miles on the treadmill, he watches as his stride is graphed in real-time right before his eyes. Based on the athlete’s injury or performance limits, the lab staff directs the runner to do whatever necessary to adjust his shape and timing-- therefore altering the on-screen graphs. The runner is able to optimize the way he moves, and receives instantaneous feedback on whether it’s working. Suddenly, his stride improves enough that the bum knee that’s been bothering him feels like new. His speed increases. He feels better. Technique matters. Afraid that you won’t be able to keep up your good form once you leave the lab and head for the road? A company called EvaForce is even developing a wireless version to take this type of feedback to the great outdoors for feedback on the go.
Are runners the only ones to gleam a helping hand from tech? Hardly. A golfer with low back pain uses similar sensing technology, which allows him to change the motion between his trunk and his hips based on the feedback. Several swings later, he’s not only free of his back pain, but transferring more force to his club for a longer drive down the green. In a wind tunnel, a lone cyclist spins his pedals while a flock of NASA engineers adjust his position to make him more aerodynamic. Aerodynamics are important in cycling, but it’s critical to ensure that these aero gains don’t come with the penalty of reducing power output to the pedals. The engineers are able to identify the exact balance point of power and aerodynamics, and accurately predict race splits within seconds. Inside the stadium, a hammer thrower spins forcefully in his quest to break his own personal record. And inside his ear a sensor relays information helping him to keep his spin stable for improved accuracy and distance to achieve that personal best. The ability to respond to real-time feedback and correct an athlete’s technique is blowing the performance curve wide open.
But should we stop with just optimizing technique? Maybe we actually need better parts.
Want to run faster? Maybe it’s time for a set of prosthetic limbs. Only for the handicapped you say? Some of these newer prosthetic limbs are really good. Good enough that an Olympic-qualifying, and bilateral amputee runner named Oscar Pistorius had to withstand a rigorous international trial to determine if his prosthetic legs were actually an advantage over able-bodied athletes. Or maybe you’ll soon use an exoskeleton device similar to ones already in place to help paraplegics walk, run, jump, and skip.
Perhaps we’ll even develop new skills with technology. New Innovega contact lenses offer improved peripheral vision for field sports, and also improve near-sighted contrast enough to read a heads-up display projected on your sunglasses. No need to memorize plays when you can read your route on the field between downs.
Beyond just aiding the way we play sports today, technology will one day help us achieve unimaginable athletic feats. For example, the U.S. Military is currently developing spider suits that will enable soldiers to scale vertical walls like Spiderman, with no climbing experience necessary. Bodysuits from companies like BioSyn Systems and Xsens are outfitted with accelerometers and gyroscopes to measure movements on the court or on the mountain. One day they may do more than just gather data, and help manage injury risk or improve our individual technique. Imagine getting a message from your clothes that after two hours of tennis that your serve is changing and placing increased stress on your shoulder. Or perhaps this same suit could identify the severity of blows to the head of a linebacker for concussion management. Or instantly correct your throwing mechanics to max your fastball each and every pitch. Or give you the cues like the best athlete in the sport. It could take imitation to a whole new level. Or help you find the breakpoint where your individual body differs so that you can capitalize on your own unique traits.
What does the future of sports technology look like? For competitive athletes, it’s in their DNA to push the limits of their bodies. Technology allows us to capture data to optimize performance, which is undoubtedly the first step towards exceeding current limitations. Alongside the new phrase “individualized medicine,” we continue to push the limits and skills of today’s athletes for individualized performance. Anyone want to pre-order the iBody? It may be a lot closer than you think.
This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author's own.