How the Latest Wearables Can Help You Improve Your Sports Performance

Two women checking out a fitness watch.
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If you are a soccer fan, you probably remember Germany’s win over Argentina in the finals of the 2014 World Cup. Germany’s athleticism was impressive and lauded for its intelligent design. However, the smart technology that supported these champions is rarely mentioned.

Software company SAP worked with the German Football Association to produce a “Match Insights” software system that was used during the World Cup by coach Joachim Löw and his team. The system analyzed different data, such as players’ speed, the speed of passing, and distance traveled. Eight cameras distributed throughout the pitch captures Germany’s play. Many believe that this technology probably gave the German national team an edge over their rivals and helped them win.

Sports data analytics professionals are in high demand. Their work is being supported more and more by the latest wearable technology. Body-mounted sensors have transformed sports science and offer novel opportunities for measuring human movement outside of laboratories. European soccer clubs were one of the first to utilize the new technology.

Now, the use of live performance data is common in many sports, ranging from basketball to horse racing. Coaches no longer make decisions based only on their experience and gut feelings. Hard data can substantiate the team’s strategy and optimize athletic performance.

Wearables and other health tech devices are now accepted in many sports during competitive practice. They are expected to strongly influence the future of sport and training at both the professional and amateur level.

A Chip on Your Shoulder

NFL teams have been tapping into data collected by wearables for a few years now. Players often wear a lightweight chip embedded in their shoulder pads. This technology, provided by Zebra, tracks metrics about the NFL players’ vital stats, location, speed and distance traveled. It is used during games and practices. Live data gets converted into useful statistics coaches can use to adjust their strategy.

The NBA is also using tracking devices to measure different biometrics and performance points. Catapult, one of the world’s biggest suppliers of athletic-tracking tech, is working with various basketball teams to provide them with their GPS technology. The devices are often worn under the wristband or on the player’s back. Data points mined from the sensors are used not only to improve the team’s strategy, but also to enhance individual ability and preserve player health.

Sports analytics bring a significant advantage to professional athletics, and this area of statistics is quickly evolving.

Devices for Recreational Athletes

Professional athletes are not the only ones benefiting from the boom of wearable sensors. If you are a recreational sportsperson, tracking your effort while you train can be insightful.

With new wearables coming to market, these devices might help you boost your performance as well. Furthermore, wearable devices are becoming smaller and more affordable, so consumers have unprecedented access to sports science.

One of the most important facets of sports science is knowing how to interpret your data. For your performance to evolve, you need to understand the presented analysis. This is where a lot of early wearables fell short.

For instance, if you are an avid runner, you might want to experiment with a system such as ARION  intelligent insoles that work as a running analysis system. This cutting-edge running technology was presented at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The Netherlands-based company behind the product describes it as a tool “to unleash your inner athlete.”

ARION provides you real-time feedback about your running technique so you can make adjustments as you run. ARION is an example of the next generation in wearables. New devices will help you push the limits of your ability by providing you with a closed-loop feedback channel.

Attempts to popularize wearable technology for sports do require more scrutiny, however. Metrics are not always reliable and valid, and certain products make claims that are not necessarily research-based. For instance, a very successful IndieGoGo campaign is currently running to support the development of BionicGym. BionicGym is promising users athletic training while lying on the couch. This may or may not be true, but nonetheless, outrageous claims should be scrutinized to ensure they align with the ethics, science, and philosophy of sport.

Preventing Injuries With Smart Technology

Performance analysis can also be applied to learn about recovery times and to prevent injuries. Real-time preventative feedback can be useful when trying to avoid an injury.

Wearable technology is well-suited for this task and is unobtrusive, so it doesn’t affect an athlete’s performance. Researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Kentucky, led by Dr. Samir A Rawashdeh, looked at baseball throws and volleyball serves—two actions that require overhead movements and often cause injuries from overuse. They developed a prototype wearable device that could track arm motion using a set of inertial sensors.

Their goal was to imitate the function of a pedometer and apply it to more complex movements of the arm. They were able to devise an approach for motion gesture recognition and developed a classification algorithm. Their work may one day assist coaches and medical professionals by providing them with information on the throwing patterns of a particular athlete.

Recreational runners often develop overuse injuries, too, due to the high impact nature of the sport. Experts suggest that asymmetrical running could often be the primary cause of injury or an indicator of already existing tissue damage. Thus, wearables that could detect this asymmetry could be very helpful, especially since the asymmetry is often not visible.

A team from the Dublin City University in Ireland has been working on such a system, and they have already produced a framework that could evaluate and analyze the asymmetry in runners.

The Future of Wearable Technology in Sports

Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armour, addressed the audience at this year’s CES in Las Vegas and expressed his belief that technology will soon become even more important for athletic performance.

Plank, a former football player himself, has been dedicated to building a business around the idea of products that could enhance athletic performance. He first developed a smart T-shirt that could remain light and dry throughout exercise. Now, Under Armour is a leading developer of performance apparel, footwear, and accessories, and its products are sold globally. The brand’s Connected Fitness Platform is the world’s largest health and fitness community.

Research insights are supporting the views of the wearable industry. Associate Professor Daniel James and Dr. James B. Lee from the Centre for Wireless Monitoring and Applications at Griffith University predict that consumer-grade wearables specifically designed for sports will become increasingly sophisticated. Shortly, they will be able to compete with the research versions of these devices. It has been suggested that researchers could use these commercially popular products to help aggregate more data.

Dr. Pio Alfredo Di Tore from the Department of Human, Philosophical and Education Sciences at the University of Salerno, Italy, also feels that next generation of technologies will offer new ways of collecting and analyzing data and will include a “perceptual” level. Di Tore talks about using wearable technology to increase situation awareness—a concept well-known in sports psychology. Situation awareness involves perception, comprehension and projection and can help with decision-making during activities that involve taxing cognitive and physical tasks.

As more data is collected from professional and recreational athletes through wearables, the question of ethics also emerges. Some experts agree that there might be an issue of increased surveillance of players and that data security will need to be carefully monitored.

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