7 ways data is driving a summer of world records

A look at the technological innovations that are revolutionizing sport, and may well give elite athletes a head start for the Games.

For teams competing in Brazil, this year, dreams of gold galore rely on more than training. Helping them gain edge over the competition are streams of biometric data that enable them to make smart decisions on how to boost their performance. The biometrics being measured are heart rate, movement and muscle activity, to name a few, and are acquired via a multitude of wearable monitoring and tracking computerized devices.

Names like Team GB (Great Britain) sprint cyclist Becky James and flyweight boxing champion Nicola Adams are already using the technology. And wearables feature in Stella McCartney’s new kit for the British athletes, which includes a smart tennis bra with sensors that monitor performance and send data to a mobile app.

Devices like this are, in fact, becoming mainstream in sports all over the world, among both amateurs and professionals. According to a report by the technology consultancy HIS, the global market revenue for sport, fitness and activity monitors will reach $2.8 billion in 2019 – a nearly $1 billion increase from 2013.[1]From a scientific standpoint this trend seems to be justified, as research shows wearables can improve training and performance for athletes.[2][3]

This year’s Games promise, not only great entertainment, but also to showcase an impressive array of data-driven technologies that will power teams to glory, like never before.

Here are seven examples of innovative sensor-enabled devices that are transforming sport in ground-breaking ways, and promise to win gold.

1. GPS tracking devices

These combine global positioning system (GPS) technology with accelerometers, which measure physical activity on three planes. They allow the gathering of real-time data from athletes in movement and, consequently, a precise assessment of their performance. In turn, this information can be used to improve preparation and training. Combined with biometric data, it can also help determine the best recovery times and methods for each athlete.[4]

Footballers and rugby players, among others, are using the technology to their advantage, by wearing an activity tracking vest nicknamed ‘man bra.’ Fitted with a GPS unit and accelerometer, and worn with a heart rate monitor chest strap, this wearable takes the guess out of practice. It can objectively measure, for example, how fast and far a player runs, and whether they are pulling their weight or could do better.

2. Energy and nutrition

Accelerometers are also being used to quantify the energy athletes need and use whilst performing. Research conducted on footballers at Victoria University, Australia, found this can be done effectively with an armband accelerometer, both during training and on the field.[5] The measurements can then form the basis for the development of individualised nutrition plans – a key factor in achieving athletic excellence.

3. At-rest monitoring

But maximising sport performance isn’t all about analysing movement. New technology is available that allows to personalise training, based on biometric information gathered at rest. Known as readiness test, it employs skin sensors collecting heart, brain and body energy data. Its job? To provide athletes with valuable feedback on their body’s condition, so they can channel their training efforts in the right direction, and know where and when they can push their limits.

4. Eye tracking

Also helping athletes reach maximum potential is data that provide insights into their vision. These can be acquired through wearable devices such as smart eyewear, or via computer tests. They are making a difference in sports like tennis and archery, in which knowing an athlete’s ability to, for instance, track the ball or aim at a target, and their reaction time to that information, allows to devise customised training plans to help drive success.

5. Smart equipment

The same is true for equipment that provides athletes with valuable feedback on their performance. Take the boxing wraps containing sensors that track the number and speed of punches being thrown during a sparring session, for example, or the sunglasses with a tiny heads-up display that allow cyclists to see key data like speed and heart rate, whilst keeping their eyes on the road. This summer we see the debut, in 800 and 1500m freestyle swimming events, of underwater digital lap counters. So, swimmers don’t have to count their laps – they can see them on a display at the bottom of the pool – and can concentrate solely on winning.

6. Virtual reality training

Team GB athletes in triathlon, canoeing and sailing have left nothing to chance in the quest for gold. They have upped their game by going beyond tracking devices, and have embraced virtual reality (VR). Using a VR headset they trained as they were in Brazil – without the need to actually hit the track or water. So, it’s like they had been there many times before, and know exactly what to expect.

7. Safety-enhancing solutions

Not all sport technology, however, aims to push athletic performance to the limit. In fact, a key feature of many sensor-enabled devices is that they can measure the strain placed on the body and, therefore, assist with training load management to prevent over-exertion and injuries.

For example, teams participating in basketball, swimming, wrestling and other sports use a fitness wristband to measure body’s stress, and know exactly how much rest they need before a competition. Speaking to USA Today, American distance swimmer, Connor Jaeger, said the wearable has played a major role in helping him to qualify.

Athletes involved in contact sports can benefit from helmets that collect data on the number and force of blows to the head, enabling to accurately quantify, and manage, the risk of brain trauma.

More records to be broken

This year’s Games promise, not only great entertainment, but also to showcase an impressive array of data-driven technologies that will power teams to glory, like never before.

The ability of many of the above-mentioned devices to provide immediate, or nearly-immediate, analysis and feedback appears to be especially important. In a recent interview to the BBC, Dr. Helen Meese, head of healthcare at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said real-time data analytics “has the potential to enable yet more records to be broken in 2016.”

  1. Revenue for Sports, Fitness and Activity Monitors to Increase by Nearly $1 Billion Through 2019, https://technology.ihs.com/500868/revenue-for-sports-fitness-and-activity-monitors-to-increase-by-nearly-1-billion-through-2019, Shane Walker, (16 May, 2014)
  2. Wearable Performance Devices in Sports Medicine, http://sph.sagepub.com/content/8/1/74.short, Ryan T. Li, MD, Scott R. Kling, MD, et al., (2016)
  3. Use of Integrated Technology in Team Sports: A Review of Opportunities, Challenges, and Future Directions for Athletes, http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/pages/articleviewer.aspx?year=2014&issue=02000&article=00032&type=abstract, Dellaserra CL et al., (2014)
  4. Use of Integrated Technology in Team Sports: A Review of Opportunities, Challenges, and Future Directions for Athletes, http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/pages/articleviewer.aspx?year=2014&issue=02000&article=00032&type=abstract, Dellaserra CL et al., (2014)
  5. Inertial sensors to estimate the energy expenditure of team-sport athletes, http://www.jsams.org/article/S1440-2440(15)00039-0/abstract, Walker EJ et al. , (2016)

Lorena Tonarelli

About the author

Lorena Tonarelli

Lorena has over ten years of experience in journalism, covering the latest in health and technology for national newspapers and international research and analysis publications. She is a contributor to The Times, The Independent and The Guardian, and writes for the Economist Intelligence Unit.


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