On the Fast Track

September 1, 2015

One of the biggest trends to hit the performance field in recent years, wearable GPS devices are changing the way athletes train and recover. We asked leading strength coaches how they are making the most of the technology.

The following article appears in the September 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.

By Joel Bergeron

Joel Bergeron, MS, CSCS*D, is a freelance writer based in Manchester, N.H., and an Assistant Track and Field Coach at Southern New Hampshire University. He is also the Coaching Education Chair for USA Track and Field-New England and the former New Hampshire State Director for the NSCA. He can be reached at: [email protected]

For nearly two decades, the Global Positioning System has been helping drivers reach their destinations efficiently. Now, GPS technology is helping athletes more effectively reach their ultimate objective—optimum performance.

Thanks to the development of smaller and lighter GPS units, athletes are able to wear them in practice and competition. This allows strength and conditioning coaches to access information that was unimaginable even five years ago by tracking metrics like movement, velocity, location, and distance.

Armed with this precise data, strength coaches can quantify workloads and determine when a player has had enough for the day. They can also identify trends over the course of a season to ensure they are providing the optimal amount of training. In addition, GPS data has applications in rehab, allowing a more objective approach to return-to-play decisions.

However, because it’s a relatively new player, there are still many questions on how to use it most effectively. In the following, we asked five leading strength and conditioning professionals who have embraced GPS technology to share their thoughts on implementing it into their programs.

When and why did you start using GPS technology?

Ryan Horn: Back in 2008, the men’s basketball coach I was working with at the time challenged me to look into using some new technology. I started out with heart rate monitors and rate of perceived exertion [RPE] forms. However, I felt there was a big gap in technology for things like strength and power development and change of direction. I began to research GPS systems so I could be prepared when my program had the money to purchase some units, which we were able to do at Wake Forest University prior to last season.

Craig Cheek: It was something we discussed for a while before we started using it in November 2014. We wanted to get a better feel for what was going on with our athletes on a day-to-day basis and manage the stresses placed on them during practices and games. If there was any extra step we could take to improve our program, we wanted to do it.

Erik Korem: I started using GPS during my time with Florida State University football and brought it with me when I came to the University of Kentucky in 2012. I needed a way to quantify the physical demands of practice for our football coaches. While it’s easy to determine the external training load of the athlete in the weightroom using metrics such as volume and intensity, we had no way of quantifying the external load of football practice.

Greg Gatz: We began about three and a half years ago to help track training loads for injury and performance purposes. It was important for us to have the ability to collect precise information on individual athletes so we could plan workloads and competition strategies.

Kevin Cronin: We’ve been using it with our soccer and lacrosse teams for two full seasons. The data gives me a reference point to let coaches know when we need to take some time off for recovery.

Can you provide an overview of how you use GPS technology with your athletes?

Horn: Before our athletes head out to practice, they weigh in and put on their GPS unit. During practice, we have a large flatscreen TV that monitors what the athletes are doing, and we also get periodic updates on our iPads and iPhones. Once practice is over, the athletes put their units into a docking station, which dumps the data into a laptop-based content management system. From there, we start crunching the data and breaking it up into drill splits and segments. Then we send it to a web-based platform where all of our analysis occurs.

Next, we aggregate the data and develop post-session reports for the coaches that provide some context for the numbers. The last step is the planning process. I meet with the coaches each morning to discuss the previous day’s data and help devise that day’s practice schedule.

Gatz: We mainly use it with women’s soccer during practices and matches. We track every segment of practice for each player, so we can put objective intensity values to each drill, which can be categorized for future practice planning. In addition, we look at match data to determine when individual player work rates decrease.

What data do you collect, and how do you interpret it?

Gatz: After a few years of trial and error with tracking, we now concentrate on four specific variables: total distance covered, max velocity, percent of high velocity efforts, and player load, which is a value assigned to each athlete based on their level of exertion that day. The data can make sense of the athlete’s efforts. For example, we know our midfielders and defenders cover the most distance per session because we pressure the ball as far up the field as we can. On the flip side, our flank backs and front-runners produce the fastest speeds with the least amount of workload. Knowing these trends gives us the information we need to better develop training plans and recovery techniques.

Horn: We started out with 20 metrics, but trimmed that list down to the areas we feel are most beneficial for men’s basketball, including percentage of max heart rate and time spent in those zones; heart rate exertion scores; heart rate recovery; total distance covered; vertical, horizontal, and lateral movements and body displacement; accelerations and decelerations; body load per minute; and session intensity. We try to customize the key performance variables to provide a snapshot of what’s really happening in training. Then, we turn the information into insight and recommendations that the coaches can use to adjust practice loads.

We also take the absolute numbers for each metric and produce relative scores from them every week, two weeks, month, and so on. This helps us know how hard players are working compared to their previous performances. In addition, athletes complete RPEs after each workout, and we compare their responses to the data. Overall, this approach allows us to be much more objective and take our emotions out of the equation.

Cheek: When we first started using GPS, I didn’t want to have 100 different data points and not know what most of them meant, so I decided to hone in on two: player load and player load per minute, which is basically their work rate. These points really help to quantify things that were more of a subjective analysis previously. The data is objective—it doesn’t have skin in the game.

How important is proper data analysis?

Korem: The data is nothing more than numbers on paper if it is not helping to drive change. I know of some places that collect data but don’t really understand how to use it. That’s like having a Ferrari in the driveway but not knowing how to drive stick. It looks good, but you aren’t going anywhere in it.

Horn: It’s taken us a year to really understand how and where to use the data. You have to educate people, be patient, and be progress-oriented to work your way through it all.

Cronin: If you’re not careful, data analysis can turn into a trip down the rabbit hole, and you can spend all day looking at the numbers. You have to decide early on how much time you’re going to spend on analyzing the results and leave it at that. Ideally, you can have someone dedicated to just working on data because it’s that time-intensive.

How do you use the data to adjust workload?

Korem: We periodize our training and regulate the load our athletes are under. The tracking system gives us external load metrics that we can use to determine how our athletes are coping with the stresses of training. For instance, a senior with a very high work capacity may blow through a two-hour practice and bounce back just fine. However, a freshman may be gassed by the 90-minute mark and need two days to recover. With GPS data, we can see this.

In addition, it helps us work smarter in the week leading up to a game. Early on, we determined that we were often putting our players through the equivalent of two or three games during the week before we even got to game day. Now, our coaches can develop smarter practice plans that ensure we aren’t robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Gatz: By having reference points on each athlete, the sport coach and performance team are able to track possible drops in speed, power, and fitness due to overtraining or lack of proper recovery. Then we make adjustments to training.

Cheek: If, for instance, we start to see tendonitis and Achilles stiffness in an athlete’s dominant push leg during practice, we can go back and look at the data to figure out why it’s happening. This has resulted in my observation level increasing tenfold because I’m looking for these clues.

What are the rehab applications of the data?

Gatz: By having a history of data points, injured athletes can be measured against their own baselines to give us some indication of whether they are ready to return to competition. Also, by having practice segment values categorized, the coach and medical personnel are able to administer the correct dosages of stress while the athlete works to return.

Horn: We are able to explain to the athletic training staff what our athletes are going through so we can be proactive instead of reactive. Athletic trainers are informed of an individual athlete’s tolerance for a given drill, and then they can plan their prehab and rehab protocols accordingly.

Cheek: It helps to have some hard data to base your return-to-play protocol on. For example, I’m able to look back at pre-injury practice data for a specific athlete and gather information on their running rate. Then, I can determine a certain percentage of player load that I want to see out of their conditioning before we allow a return to practice.

How did you get sport coaches to buy into using this technology?

Horn: The most important thing about using GPS technology is that the head coach has to buy into what you’re doing. If they don’t, all the data and technology in the world won’t mean a thing. What worked well for us was starting small with wellness questionnaires and RPE charts and letting it progress organically to GPS technology. We didn’t go out and buy the first device we saw and spring it on coaches. That made for a smooth transition.

Cronin: It’s very difficult to walk into a veteran coach’s office the first week after using GPS and tell them, “You’ve done too much with your kids this week.” But with time comes understanding. Now that we’ve collected data for two years, the coaches know that the less they practice, the fresher their athletes are going to be on game day.

Cheek: Initially, our coaches weren’t exactly sure what GPS did, so it was up to me to make them understand it. My approach was learning how to best communicate the data to coaches. That helped them come up with questions, and the more questions they asked, the easier it was to promote communication.

How have athletes responded?

Horn: I’ve heard people say that GPS technology can distract players, but that hasn’t been the case here. On the contrary, it’s increased compliance and buy in tremendously with our athletes. We’re able to explain the why’s behind what we do in training, build relationships, provide meaningful feedback on performance, and make players more consistent.

How much does it cost to use GPS technology, and how is it funded at your school?

Gatz: Depending on the company, most GPS units will run between $1,500 and $2,000 per unit annually and are leased. Our units and system fees are paid through individual sport operating budgets.

Horn: The majority of the units we purchased came out of our own budget.

Cronin: I am in a unique position in that we had our units provided on a test-trial basis.

What is on the horizon for GPS technology in athletics?

Korem: Wearable technology will become much smaller and woven into the garments we wear. We will very soon be able to track all the metrics we want, including O2 saturation, perspiration, and temperature without having to attach special tracking units to our athletes.

Gatz: I think the next step will be smaller units that will sit on an athlete’s waistline or even in their shoe. Also, I foresee data collection becoming more accurate and sophisticated and less time consuming.

 

OUR PANEL

Craig Cheek, MS, CSCS, SCCC, is entering his eighth year at the University of Notre Dame and fourth as Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning. He works specifically with baseball and women’s basketball, which he has helped reach four consecutive NCAA Division I Final Fours.

Kevin Cronin, MS, CSCS*D, has been Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Colorado College since 2012, where he oversees the strength and conditioning programs for all 16 varsity sports. Previously, Cronin served as Assistant Strength Coach, Performance Center Coordinator, and Education Coordinator for the NSCA.

Greg Gatz, CSCS, is in his 17th year as Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports at the University of North Carolina. Overseeing 21 varsity sports, he works directly with men’s and women’s soccer, baseball, volleyball, and track and field. In his time at UNC, Gatz has worked with nine national champion teams—seven in women’s soccer and two in men’s soccer.

Ryan Horn, MS, SCCC, is entering his second season as Director of Athletic Performance at Wake Forest University, working specifically with men’s basketball. Prior to his time at Wake Forest, Horn was the Director of Athletic Performance at the University of Tulsa, where he trained the men’s basketball team, helping the squad win the 2013-14 Conference USA regular season and tournament titles.

Erik Korem, MS, CSCS, is High Performance Coach for the University of Kentucky football team, where he supervises all aspects of athlete well-being, nutrition, and strength and conditioning. He came to Kentucky after working as the Director of Sport Science and Football Operations for Florida State University football. Korem also previously served as a Speed Development Consultant during the 2008 Olympics and helped sprinter Tyson Gay break the American record in the 100-meter dash.

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