Nov 3, 2020
Distinguishing Differences in Wearable Sensor Tech
Wesley Sykes, managing editor

Once thought of only for the affluent athletes of top-tier colleges and professional teams, wearable sensor technology has exploded — and expanded — in recent years to get real-time data to measure athletic performance at any level. 

And the demand for data through the means of wearable technology won’t be dying down anytime soon. According to some outlets, like Forbes, the wearable smart tech market is expected to double by 2022, becoming a $27 billion industry. 

While increased access to these devices is an obvious positive for athletes and weekend warriors alike, there is a downside — deciding on the type of tech that will work best for you and what you want to accomplish. Want to track the progression of your foot speed over time? There’s a device for that. Want to measure movements? There’s a device for that. Want to see your heart rate or sleep rate in an instant? There are devices for those too. 

The value of these sensors can be enhanced by linking them to performance analysis software and website platforms, which allows the strength conditioning coaches to analyze the data from the sensors in even greater detail and, therefore, be in a position to make more advanced decisions on revising the training protocol of their athletes.

When developing the total athlete, having an abundance of data to gauge performance is a tool every coach, athlete, and trainer should have in their toolbox. Below we are going to breakdown the different types of wearable sensor technology for athletes and where each one is best utilized. 

Inertial Sensors

Photo: Timo Newton-Syms / Creative Commons

In reference to athletics, inertial sensors are comprised of accelerometers to gauge force and acceleration. Additionally, the sensors have a gyroscope to give an indication of rotation as well as a magnetometer to measure body orientation. 

The result is the ability to collect data across three axes and capture athletic movements in great detail. When coupled with algorithms to make the data measurable and usable, the inertial sensor tech learns movements. 

One of the most popular uses of inertial sensors is to quantify an athlete’s readiness and fatigue during the game. Data collected via sensors are able to detect changes in acceleration or direction of acceleration which may change with injury or fatigue. Each athlete has an individual movement signature, so coaches and sports scientists can compare an athlete to his/her ‘normal’ self. 

Inertial sensors can be very compact which allows them to be placed on different areas of the body. There has been a recent push to measure load not just on the body as a whole, but at the source of each limb, something that inertial sensors are uniquely suited for. Common placements for inertial sensors are typically at the ankle for running sports, at the waist to detect jumping, and in between the scapula to approximate rough body movement. Inertial sensors now measure movements such as high-velocity cutting, acceleration and deceleration, and jumping. 

This type of wearable tech is best used when performing small movements in a tight area or where the load to a specific limb is important — like soccer or basketball. Additionally, it can be a strong aid in a player’s return-to-play guidelines following an injury. 

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) 

GPS tracking devices are typically worn by athletes on the upper back in an elasticated bra and interact with GPS satellites in low-earth orbit. With the help of these satellites, GPS technology monitors changes in an athlete’s positioning on the field or court over a period of time — and then calculates his or her speed, acceleration, and distance covered. 

In more recent years, GPS companies have added accelerometers to their devices to give deeper insights into actions that happen on the court or the field. Accelerometers have become crucial, especially to those involved in indoor sports such as basketball where a clear path to satellite signals is impossible.

This type is best used by large team sports, like soccer and football, where distance and speed are key metrics in measuring success. While great for measuring the workloads for large groups of athletes, there are drawbacks. Relying on satellites means it can be difficult to record accurate results indoors. Additionally, with the sensors located on the athlete’s back, they cannot measure limb-specific loads and struggle to quantify non-running movements that can significantly add to an athlete’s load, like volleyball or basketball. 

Heart Rate Monitors

Measuring heart rate is a way of tracking an athlete’s internal load, helping detect the body’s response to the external loads placed upon it. 

Heart rate is often the first wearable technology teams will invest in due to its simplicity and ability to provide insight when paired with other technologies. Simple training modifications based on how many minutes each player spent in the ‘red zone’ are easy to monitor and implement. 

Photo: Surrey News / Creative Commons

Due to the invasive nature of the traditional heart rate strap, many elite teams are looking for alternative ways to measure heart rate data during practice. This has led to the current surge in the development of smart garments, which have heart rate sensors (along with other sensors as well) integrated directly into the fibers of the garment — meaning the athlete only needs to wear one accessory, not multiple. 

» ALSO SEE: 4 Trends in Strength & Conditioning for 2021

Heart rate sensors are easy to incorporate into any sport and easy to understand the data. When combined with other wearable sensors that measure the external load, it can be a useful tool in understanding an athlete’s physiological structure. 

The flaws? Well, most of the available heart rate monitors measure by tracking signals across the skin. The wetness of the skin can cause unreliable readings. 

Sleep Trackers 

Rest and recovery — perhaps the most overlooked part of a training regimen, but maybe the most important part. The Fitbits and Apple watches of the world have mainlined sleep trackers to the masses, but the reliability of the information can be hit-or-miss.

When it comes to wearable technology, practitioners must do research to ensure that the devices they are giving to players are providing data that is actionable. Getting data for the sake of it and not feeding that back to the athlete can often lead to athletes losing interest and buy-in also being lost. On the other hand, tracking sleep may encourage athletes to pay closer attention to their sleep habits and make any necessary adjustments.

Velocity Based Training (VBT) 

While many sensors measure an athlete’s movements and performance on the field, there are others that help strength coaches see how their athletes are responding to work in the weight room. VBT is a simple method of training that uses technology to measure bar or body speed to enhance the quality of training. 

It’s a great way to obtain more data that’s specific to an athlete’s individual strength and power training regimen. Tracking and programming based on movement velocity is a move away from traditional periodization and can give greater insights into fatigue and athlete readiness.

Tracking bar speed has been around for nearly two decades now, but the increased availability of accelerometers and wearable devices has spiked this approach recently. Strength coaches can receive the data from workouts right to their tablets or device.

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