Sports

Technology

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Running

Redefining limits: technology and the 100m dash

New technology and training methods are redefining the limits of athletic performance (see infographic). Is there a limit? Theoretically, yes. But the charts show that the goal posts keep moving further.

Running

Redefining limits: technology and the 100m dash

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New technology and training methods are redefining the limits of athletic performance (see infographic). Is there a limit? Theoretically, yes. But the charts show that the goal posts keep moving further.

Chart 1 (100m dash men and women’s world records)

Chart 2 (100m dash (para athletes)men and women’s world records)

The improvement in world records can be attributed to a number of things. For one, there were no professional athletes before the 60s and 70s – amateur athletes competed part- time while having other jobs. As “sports professionalized, the level of training that athletes were subjected to increased exponentially (Jeff Bercovici, journalist and author of Play On: the New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age),” leading to better performances.

New technologies and innovations have also contributed. Runners in the 1930s ran on cinder tracks, dug their starting blocks, wore loosely fit clothes and heavy leather shoes. More than 80 years later, Usain Bolt, a professional athlete who holds the world records for 100m and 200m dash ran in lighter shoes, optimum tracks, high-tech starting blocks and wore garments that reduced dynamic drag.

Today, we have highly functional “compression garments which apply required pressure to the underlying muscles of the athlete, improving the work of targeted muscles, proprioception and fatigue reduction” states Olga Troynikov, Associate Professor, Performance and Sport Apparel Research Leader, at RMIT University. She also emphasizes the importance of designs, as athletes’ garments today “also look like they perform – a red car always drives faster.”

Technology and innovation have also improved the performance of para-athletes (see infographic). Ken Endo, a prosthetics engineer from MIT and the CEO of Xiborg Co. Ltd, a company that creates prosthetic legs for athletes, points out that the introduction of the running “blades” in the 2000s was instrumental in propelling the para-athletes’ world record (for 100m) – to below 11 seconds. This was a breakthrough also in that it brought about a shift in public’s perception from seeing the sport as “a rehabilitation programme for the disabled to a “proper” competitive sport.” While the world record for para-athletes for the 100m dash (men) is still 10.57 seconds, the “time required to qualify for the finals is becoming much faster (Ken Endo).” The number of para-athletes are on the rise and the races are becoming increasingly competitive. To illustrate the point, Oscar Pistorius, who in 2008 was perceived to be quite a unique para athlete who “had the talent to compete in the Olympics” was, by 2012, unable to win a medal in the Paralympics due to increased competition. That para-athletes are improving their performance is progress. However, Ivo van Hilvoorde, an assistant professor at the faculty of Human Movement who often combines sociological and philosophical perspectives on sports points out that the “gap between people who can afford and who cannot afford the technology [is increasing]. Paralympic sports must make sure that there is a kind of level-playing field and access to technology.” To run, a prosthetic leg will cost from anywhere around 2,500 dollars to 6,500 dollars – many people around the world still struggle to buy a normal prosthetic leg to walk. While new materials and new data and insights will help para-athletes improve their performance going forward, “the fastest way to break the next world record may come by way of simply increasing the opportunity for people to participate in the sport (Ken Endo).”

How much further will runners improve, and how much will the technology improve? While it is difficult to pinpoint when the world record for the 100m dash will be broken, it is likely that both the records for performance and longevity (age of athletes competing) will be broken in the future. What will athletes compete in? Ms Troynikov explains it will “be very light and become almost like second skin – performing functions without added weight or bulk. And they will become adaptive – dynamically adjusting themselves to the physiological, emotional and biomechanical state of the athlete, environment and sporting activity.” Garments will also increasingly protect athletes from injuries. Such functional garments will provide the athletes and coaches with new data and analysis, paving way for even better ways to train and perform. In some respects, elite sports is “becoming more like F1 [where] given the amount of money, training and a team of engineers and specialists to support the sport excludes most countries out of the race (Ivo van Hilvoorde).” The issue of increasing accessibility to top innovations in sport is especially pertinent in the light of “Peak Olympics” – that athletes in some sports have reached the limit of human abilities – suggesting that any improvement from here onwards will be brought about by new technology. And since not all innovations are visible or easily detectable (such as having good data, a team of highly specialised engineers, or good training programs), it will become harder to distinguish human performance and external assistance. We could even think of “future legs of normal athletes that are in fact partly human and partly robotics – then when is it a normal leg and when is it artificial? (Ivo van Hildoorde)” Things like “talent transfer” – the switching of athletes between sports – may become even

more advanced. David Epstein sites in his own book, The sports gene – inside the science of extraordinary athletic performance, that in Australia in the run-up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000, athletes were usherd away from the sports in which they had experience into unfamiliar ones that better suited them – as a result, in the “Australia, home to 19.1m people at the time, won 58 medals in Sydney. That’s 3.03 medals for every million citizens, nearly ten times the relative haul of the United States, which took home 0.33 medals per million Americans (p49-50).” More than ever before, sports – to remain relevant and commercially viable – will need to embrace technology going forward, to redefine the limit of athletic performance.

Swimming

Scratching the surface: technology and swimming

In 1908, the first year reliable records were kept for both men and women, the fastest times in the 100m freestyle swimming event were 65.6 seconds and 95.0 seconds, respectively. A century later, the men’s record time has fallen by nearly a third and the new women’s record, established in 2017, has almost been halved. Human beings haven’t evolved flippers, scales or gills over the last hundred years, so what accounts for these massive improvements in performance?

Swimming

Scratching the surface: technology and swimming

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In 1908, the first year reliable records were kept for both men and women, the fastest times in the 100m freestyle swimming event were 65.6 seconds and 95.0 seconds, respectively. A century later, the men’s record time has fallen by nearly a third and the new women’s record, established in 2017, has almost been halved. Human beings haven’t evolved flippers, scales or gills over the last hundred years, so what accounts for these massive improvements in performance?

Technology and swimming

As with virtually all other sports, the answer is technology. The athletes who set the records in 1908 would have been wearing full-body swimsuits made of wool that absorbed water and thus became heavier as races went on, slowing speeds even over distances as short as 100m. By 2012, the materials technology had become so advanced with the introduction of Speedo’s LZR suits, which mimicked the skin structure of sharks, that the International Federation for Swimming (commonly known by its French acronym FINA) banned the full-body LZR suits on the grounds that they were equivalent to “technological doping.” Technology has helped in other aspects of the sport, as well, and been met with less resistance. Gary Hall Sr, a three time Olympic medaler and former world record holder in five events, divides it into three segments: technology for training, competing and recovery; technology for communication with swimmers; and technology for improving techniques. Within these three segments, says Mr Hall, who is now head coach at The Race Club, a training facility, there have been advances both large and small. Take swimming goggles. “If you go way back, the unanimous consensus [of opinion] was that swimming goggles probably had more impact on our ability to train and our ability to compete at a higher level than anything else.” Mr Hall explains that goggles allowed swimmers to train longer and improved their vision during races, two key aspects of overall performance.

Para-athletic swimmers and technology

Technology has helped para-athletes in similar and different ways. Since no prosthetics or other assistive devices can be worn during races, para-athletes benefit from advances in materials sciences, training and techniques just as able-bodied athletes do, but they’ve also benefited from advances that help them overcome other impediments. This is especially true for hearing and vision-impaired athletes. The Blind Cap, developed by a collaboration between Samsung, the Korean electronics manufacturer, and the Spanish Paralympic committee, uses a vibration system and Bluetooth technology to alert vision-impaired swimmers when they need to make the turn at the end of the lane. This marks a vast improvement over the old system of coaches waiting to tap approaching swimmers on the head with a stick, as does the seemingly simple practice of installing LED tube lighting on the starting blocks so that swimmers who are deaf or hard of hearing don’t need to rely on more cumbersome cues to signal the start of a race. Still, more needs to be done in the area, according to Dr Rod Havriluk, president of Swimming Technology Research, an institute and consultancy dedicated to improving swimming techniques. “There have been relatively few studies [in para-athlete swimming] and hopefully that will change,” Mr Havriluk says, citing as an example the work of Dr Jans Prins, founder and current director of the Aquatic Research Laboratory at the University of Hawaii, who in 2010 published and presented findings on how different types of amputees could benefit from different types of propulsion in the water.

Redefining limits: the future of technology and swimming

The question now for able-bodied and para-athletes alike is how far they can go. “There’s a limit to how fast a human go in water,” says Mr Hall Sr, but the existing records will be broken, “it’s just a matter of when.” That said, at least in swimming and, more specifically, in the 100m freestyle, humans appear to have been knocking up against those limits for some time. The downward slope of the chart above has leveled off over the past four decades, particularly for men, for whom the current record has been standing for nearly a decade. And the tenths of a second that are being shaved off record times for men and women alike are

growing smaller. Mr Hall Sr says that soon new records will need to measured in hundredths of seconds rather than tenths. But there will be new records and barring a sudden evolutionary leap in human capabilities, those records will almost entirely be attributable to developments in technology. Mr Havriluk believes that, at this point, research into improving technique rather than materials will yield better results, which makes sense since the sport’s international governing bodies have already shown their reluctance to allow advances in materials to provide outsized advantages to competitors.  “It would be interesting,” he says, “to see if a swimmer puts $500 into the purchase of a suit as opposed to $500 spent on improving their technique. Honestly, I would find a bigger time-drop with the technique [investment].” It also comes down to dissemination, however. There are a number of existing technologies for improving performance that have yet to be adopted by the wider swimming community. “We are at the infancy of getting technology into swimming,” says Mr Hall Sr, “which may seem surprising, but I do feel we are just scratching the surface of what we are going to be able to do.”

Blogs

The future of athletes’ longevity

How likely is it that older athletes will break future world records? Age is an obsession in the sports world for a good reason, as it is one of the key determinants of athletic competitiveness. While age will most likely continue to define the limits for athletes, Jeff Bercovici, a journalist and author of Play on: the new science of elite performance at any age, notes that we are seeing technology minimise age as a factor in sports, where “the tail-end of athletes’ careers in particular are becoming much more competitive”.

In the Rio Olympics in 2016, Michael Phelps (who was 31 at the time) became the oldest Olympic swimmer to win an individual gold medal. Just four days later, Anthony Ervin (who was 35 at the time of the event) broke that record by winning gold. Mr Ervin is gunning for another medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge (who was 33 then) set a new marathon world record in Berlin on September 16th 2018 at 2 hours 1 minute and 39 seconds. In winter sports, Noriaki Kasai (currently 46) is the first athlete in history to participate in eight Winter Olympics. He is also the oldest ski jumper to win a medal at the Olympics (in 2014), the oldest World Cup individual competition winner and the oldest World Cup participant.

Total Olympic medalists 30 years old and older in 1984 Games vs. 2004 Games

Technology such as fitness trackers, motion trackers (how fast an athlete accelerates, for instance) and heart-rate ability sensors are also enabling older athletes to thrive. Armed with such data, coaches can now accurately track the recovery level of athletes to better balance the extreme fitness demands with the imperative to maintain a certain amount of freshness and rest for maximum performance. Mr Bercovici stresses that "recovery is the hottest buzzword in sports right now"—as older athletes require more time for recovery, and this mind shift has benefited older athletes. In a fully recovered state, the older athletes have the advantages of experience, cognitive skills and psychological acumen over the younger athletes (see chart).

A generation ago, athletes were over-trained and more likely to sustain injuries, often having their athletic lifespan cut short. If expectations have shifted around the notion of training (and recovery), so has the expectation of older athletes. As we see the likes of Roger Federer (age 37) and Serena Williams (age 37) still playing at the top of their games, “managers today would think twice before writing off a 35-year-old athlete who might go off to another team and put out an amazing performance for another five years,” notes Mr Bercovici.

Is there a limit? Mr Bercovici states that “based on the science available now, I would say that there is an outer limit. In most sports, I would say 40 is the outer edge of competitiveness for world-class athletes. That will not change. We will probably see more clustering of the top competitors toward that limit—but that may also change if anti-ageing treatment (like stem cell therapy) becomes prevalent and efficacious in the future.”

Blogs

The future of sports entertainment

We are surprisingly inarticulate when it comes to athletic movements. How would you explain something as simple as walking? When a baseball player is told to “look at the ball” the words carry little information on how exactly one should look at a ball travelling at a speed of up to 160km/hour. Such intricacies have been mostly left for the individuals to figure out (consequently, one either got it, or didn’t)—but data and technology carry the potential to change this status quo.

Masayoshi Boku, the president and creative director of Bascule, notes that with technologies available to measure the size of pupils and the amount of perspiration, or even “how many times we blink, data are rapidly transforming what we can verbally communicate in sports. This will profoundly impact coaching and strategising, training, and the experience of spectators.”

The understanding of great athletes may even change. What makes a great football player? Contrary to expert opinion, data may point to new characteristics (like neurological reflexes) and may identify suitable sports for individuals not dependent on experts’ “hunches”. The likes of Zwift, which operates a virtual reality cycling simulator (which it calls an “at home training game”), has been using it as a scouting tool for competitive cyclists.

Technology such as TrackMan—based on the Doppler radar principle, which has been used by the military—is employed in baseball stadiums and can track games (such as how fast and far the ball travelled, where the ball was when the runner returned to home base and the angle of the ball, etc). This has transformed how people can "see" baseball. Using this technology, Mr Boku and his team were able to bring to life a dream scenario of Shohei Ohtani—a baseball pitcher and designated hitter for Los Angeles Angels of Major League Baseball—playing against himself. Could this hitter hit the ball pitched by himself?

This experiment demonstrated that, with detailed 4D data of games and players, athletes (and anyone) in the future can virtually relive games, train with top athletes and play against top-notch teams. For the athletes, with every piece of data and motion tracked, “a slump” will “no longer be a catch-all term explaining poor performance, as data will identify exactly what is ‘off’—such information will also enable athletes to relive their own top performances via VR [virtual reality] machines,” explains Mr Boku.

In the future, athletes may compete with augmented reality glasses on—where the players can grasp real-time information of the game, the opponent, the weather, the coach and the spectators. Uniforms of athletes and stadiums will probably become even more sensor- heavy, amassing data on things that we had never even dreamed of before. Mr Boku imagines the possibilities: “In 1936 people consumed sports via the radio (sound). In 1953 sport started to be broadcasted by television (by sound and image) so in the future, sports for the consumers will probably involve actual participation or experience of the game together with sound, vision and data. Imagine people around the world watching a live baseball game and being able to participate by way of virtually ‘hitting’ the ball—and where we can immediately see data that over a million people participated, and three people have just hit a home-run!”

Sports will continue to embrace technology and innovation. While sensors and tracking technologies are still not accessible to all, the democratisation of data is happening quickly with the likes of Qoncept, Inc. (a company that provides affordable tracking technology) stepping up. Mr Boku reckons that, in the future, “there may be sports that would allow people to play in two different places—or different ‘pair’ games. Like one needs to be a disabled athlete and the other an [able-bodied] athlete, or one at least 15 years older than the other, etc, completely different combinations, and this will all become possible because of advances in technology.”

Blogs

The future of neuroscience and sport

Next at bat
A glimpse into the future of neuroscience and sport

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Movement and motion are intrinsic to all human beings and nearly all animals, yet the movements associated with the world’s most popular sports seem to come easier for some than for others. Purely physical attributes are clearly a major differentiator between the world’s best athletes and everyone else. Now, new research suggests that the brain and how it operates may play an equally important role.

Much of what happens in our nervous system when we throw a basketball or serve a tennis ball is a mystery. But as Zach Schonbrun, a New York Times writer, describes in his new book, The Performance Cortex: How Neuroscience Is Redefining Athletic Genius, advances in the field are allowing us to explore what happens during the entire chain of actions and reactions that occurs during movement, from how much data our eyes process, to the sensitivity of our fingertips, to how we store and retrieve memories built up over years of practice.

These insights have a number of potential applications, ranging from movement therapy for paralysis sufferers to training guides for athletes. One company featured in Mr Schonbrun’s book, deCervo, markets a solution that measures baseball players’ accuracy in assessing the types of pitches they field while at bat, as well as their reaction time. DeCervo is part of a growing ecosystem of organisations attempting to leverage these advances in the neuroscience of movement in order to make inroads in the lucrative world of professional sports.

Despite these breakthroughs, the science of movement remains a fiendishly complex field, something Mr Schonbrun emphasises. “We have done a very good job of creating thinking machines that can answer [any] question, yet creating a robot that can move with the dexterity of a five-year-old child...we have not been able to solve that problem,” he noted in a recent interview with CBS Sports. It remains to be seen how much more light science will cast on the inner workings of the moving body and the brain housed within it.

Blogs

The future of sports and nutrition

Food fights
Competitive athletes are increasingly looking to nutrition science to gain an edge

It should come as no surprise that the old adage “you are what you eat” is particularly salient to the sporting world, with new research emerging regularly about the effects of diet on athletic performance. No elite athlete can afford to overlook nutrition in the quest to be the fastest, strongest and most agile. As science advances, an ever-increasing list of dietary factors will play a role in how athletes train—and whether they win or lose.

The first set of considerations revolves around what kinds of substances can affect performance. A growing body of research is exploring not only what happens to the body from different levels of carbohydrates, fats and proteins in an athlete’s diet, but the molecular interactions of specific nutrients found in everyday foods like dark chocolate, beetroot juice and tart cherries. Though it is hard to draw hard-and-fast conclusions about these foodstuffs, they have been linked to effects such as enhanced resistance against muscle fatigue, faster muscle contractions and relief from soreness. The authors of one comprehensive study on the topic, however, highlight that “mega dose micronutrient supplementation” should be avoided in favour of eating a balanced diet: “it really could be that simple”, they write.

The second thread explores how athletes eat, in particular the timing of meals of different composition before and after meets, matches and games. One school of thought known as “train low, compete high” holds that deliberately keeping carbohydrates low during training can facilitate muscle adaptation by enforcing a state of deprivation, which is then counterbalanced by high carbohydrate consumption before and during the athletic event—as a tightly- coiled spring explodes when released. Though hardly backed by a strong scientific consensus, the idea of the almighty carbohydrate as a “training regulator” whose intake can be timed for maximum benefit—rather than simply a fuel source to be depleted—has become a major area of research among sport nutritionists.

Regardless of how sport nutrition advances in the years to come, there’s little doubt that the drive to be the best will lead to the rise of foods and substances that many of us haven’t even heard of yet. It will be up to science to separate the fads from the genuine articles.