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Separating The Good From The Great

How coaches use wearables to create faster, fitter, stronger athletes 9/21/2015 02:30:00 PM

Not so long ago, wearable technology was a unique commodity used by forward-thinking coaches to give their athletes a leg up on the competition, creating the next wave of elite superstars with improved and refined athletic prowess.  Today, most coaches across all levels of play, pro to amateur, incorporate some type of tech into their practice routines whether its GPS or inertial trackers fitted onto the wrist, or a heart rate sensor strapped to each athlete’s chest.  Heart rate data and fitness analytics combined with physical performance data are the emerging trend behind this new roster of elite athletes because it provides coaches a tool to determine training load and recovery, breaks down physical boundaries, evaluates stress levels, and prevents injury. 

If you watched the US Women’s National Soccer team dominate the World Cup earlier this summer, you may have taken note of the heart rate monitors under each player’s jersey.  These coaches require their athletes to wear those devices because they can get a solid grasp on whether their players are being over-trained or undertrained through the real-time data produced from the wearable.  Essentially, what heart rate monitors and wearable technology can do is actually quantify work-rate.  That data tells a coach if an athlete is doing too much which can lead to fatigue, decreased performance, and even injury, or it can show if the athlete is not taking advantage of his or her full training load capacity.

By observing an athlete’s data in real-time through tech, coaches can also begin to customize training and strength programs for each individual player.  Essentially, it’s all about efficiency, and developing elite athletes through quality training programs, not only the quantity of practice hours.  Another phenomenon many coaches are witnessing is a bridge in fitness gaps, as the younger generation of athletes are coming in fitter and stronger.  This can be attributed, in part, to the more sophisticated training programs that are beginning to emerge at the earlier levels because of the integration of technology into practices.

The adoption of technology also allows for breaking down boundaries of distance and time between coach and athlete.  Often times, athletes are living in different locations or traveling, and coaches are able to set strength, fitness, and training programs, and observe the athlete’s progress from anywhere in the world.  Heart rate serves as the foundation of tracking training load; but, when combined with mechanical performance data like accelerations, decelerations and maximal sprints derived from accelerometers or other sensors, a coach can get a clearer understanding of the metabolic and mechanical loads, respectively. This ensures that all athletes are achieving the necessary milestones in their practice and fitness progression ahead of games, matches or tournaments.

The observance of heart rate data is also being increasingly used to manage the stress levels of athletes as stress is not always visible.  For example, a stone-faced baseball pitcher may look calm on the outside, but, oftentimes, the heart rate data collected from his device can paint a much more serious picture of an internal struggle.  Once the stressors are known, coaches can implement resources and programs to ensure their athletes are mentally stable and heart healthy.  Some popular techniques to help manage stress are visualization and meditation.  Coaches can also request that athletes speak to a counselor for additional help.  A sound body and mind are key to a great athlete, and technology brings both to the forefront.

An old saying goes ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’ and heart rate data combined with mechanical and performance tracking technology helps coaches curb injury before it happens.  This circles back to my earlier input on overtraining athletes, and using analytics to manage practice and training routines to ensure the overall health and safety of a player.  The adoption of fitness and activity tracking technology into everyday life for athletes allows coaches to analyze the recovery time outside of practice, like rest and sleep time, which also impacts training progress. 

There’s no doubt that technology is changing the game, and will continue to pave the way for better athletes, at an even younger age.  Many coaches are now embracing the modern twist on training with tech, and the insights gleaned from reliable, actionable data will only make our beloved sports that much more exciting to watch, play, and coach.  

Marco Suvilaakso is the product management director for Polar.

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