Wednesday / 1 / March

Wearable Tech – How today’s athletes are finding that winning edge

Ever since competitive sport has been played, athletes have looked for a winning edge over their opponents. Today’s sporting stars are no different but with the rapidly-advancing world of technology we live in, their methods of finding that competitive advantage have changed somewhat. Wearable sports technology is the latest approach to identifying those 1%ers and boosting performance. So what is wearable sports technology and why is it suddenly on trend?

Wearable sports technology is basically any device or apparatus that attaches to the athlete’s body or equipment, typically using sensors to measure, transmit and record data in real-time that can be later used to analyse technique or physical performance.

Think smartwatches and heart rate monitors such as Fitbit or Garmin, mini-cams like GoPro’s, GPS trackers and location devices, even smart clothing that measures muscle activity.

There is a myriad of measurable performance metrics but captured data commonly includes heart rate, skin and core temperature, perspiration levels, sleep patterns, calories burned, and biomechanical movement analysis.

Once obtained, such quantifiable data can then be used to assess actual performance levels, monitor playing and training workloads, set training programs and schedules, analyse technique, assist in recovery programs, increase motivation and improve goal setting.

A common example of how these are used in sport is the GPS tracker by AFL teams, where fitness coaches can track the distance a player has run, at what intensity and for how long.

This allows them to make better decisions in relation to resting and interchanging players, planning their recovery sessions and upcoming conditioning programs, and managing injury prevention systems.

Another example is biomechanical testing for fast bowlers in cricket. Bowlers wear a coordinated set of sensors on their body while bowling at training. These sensors measure data related to force exertion and limb positioning, which can then be assessed by the coaches to improve technique and reduce injury potential.

The surge in the availability of these types of products comes largely on the back of technological improvements and innovation. In essence, the electronic component size and power requirements have shrunk, allowing the design of devices to become smaller, more efficient, more dynamic, more functional, and – as some consumer’s desire – more fashionable.

At the heart of wearable tech, however, is its capability to enhance performance and because of that major sporting teams around the world are leading the way with adopting it.

While there is an ever-growing number of wearables, a few more well-known examples include:

Catapult – An Australian company that produces a biomechanical tracking system device worn in a sports bra that captures up to 100 metrics including acceleration, speed, heart rate, distance covered and collisions. It is used in over 30 elite sports across the world by over 800 clients, including a large number of teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL, AFL and NRL, 30 major US College programs, the Australian cricket team, and the Wallabies.

Zebra Technologies – The NFL has partnered with Zebra to embed RFID chips in the players’ shoulder pads to track player movement for broadcast statistics. The device logs the location of a player to within six inches while measuring the distance, acceleration and deceleration within real-time.

Zephyr Bioharness – This season the MLB approved the use of the Zephyr to allow teams to measure the breathing and heart rates of players during game play.

Motus Baseball Sleeve – Similarly, the MLB has approved the Motus Baseball Sleeve which monitors the stress and force exerted on the elbow when throwing or pitching.

Zepp – A US-based company that produces a sensor that attaches to golf clubs, baseball bats and tennis racquets to provide swing analysis data such as swing speed, hand speed, swing angles, 3D planar tracking and contact points. Recently, they announced MLB All-Stars Mike Trout and David Ortiz, PGA Tour golf pro Keegan Bradley and ATP World Tour tennis star Milos Raonic as ambassadors.

Adidas – The famous sports brand developed the miCoach Smartball training football that tracks speed, distance, trajectory and rotation, as well as miCoach apparel that measures speed, distance and acceleration. The training equipment was used by Germany in their lead up to their victorious 2014 FIFA World Cup, as well as by many teams in the USA Major League Soccer competition.

Where a few years ago these devices were high-tech novelties, today they are essential training tools. Certainly elite athletes and coaches have been quick to recognise the benefits of measuring performance metrics in real-time, but weekend warriors and amateur athletes are catching on just as swiftly when it comes to using them. And that means spending money.

According to the latest global wearables forecast by international market researchers CCS Insight, who provide analytic services for companies focused on the mobile and wireless sector, an estimated 123 million devices – valued at $14 billion – will be sold across the world in 2016. These numbers are expected to increase to 411 million and $34.2 billion respectively by 2020.

Sports and fitness trackers account for the largest portion of the 2016 industry numbers with over 61 million units, while smartwatches (33 million), virtual reality headsets (15 million) and wearable cameras (14 million) make up the rest of the share.

That equates to a market value of approximately $3.8 billion, which they estimate to increase to $6 billion by 2020. This is supported by computer giant Intel who – based on a study from ABI Research – project a market of about 285 million wearables by 2017. Additionally, global market research and analytics firm IHS Technology predicted back in 2014 that the wearable sports technology industry will be valued at around $3 billion by 2019. The exact value and growth rate of the sports wearables industry clearly depends on whose research you choose to follow, however the evidence is clear: the value of the sports/recreation sector of wearable tech is rapidly increasing.

Of course dollar values are easier to quantify, but there is more than enough evidence to support the performance value for the athletes using the technology.

Even I have personally experienced it throughout my career. We use GPS trackers in training and in matches to measure running workloads, detailing distance covered, intensity of running and time of intensity. One insight this has given cricket coaches is an idea of just how many kilometres a player covers during a day of fielding. One particular day behind the stumps I clocked up just over 21 kilometres, while one of our opening bowlers racked up 28 kilometres!

Accordingly, a lot of my fitness work revolves around long-distance running and interval training to increase the ability to repeat efforts. We have also used consumable heat monitors, swallowing biodegradable thermometers that allowed coaches to track our core temperature at various times throughout a day’s play. With this data, hydration and recovery programs can be specified to suit the individual player’s needs. Again, with a more detailed understanding of how my body responds to certain conditions, I can tailor my preparation accordingly. In the end, the key for athletes is working out how to use the information to improve their performances.

Coaches can capture as much data as they want but the real value lies within how the data is interpreted and applied practically. But with more and more sports wearable technology becoming available, and the actual use of it becoming more and more prevalent, athletes will continue to find ways to gain that winning edge.

Header Image via: New Atlas