Feb 4, 2015Driven by Data
At Rutgers University, a handful of teams are benefiting from a traditionally untapped resource: their on-campus human performance lab.
By Dr. Shawn Arent
Shawn Arent, PhD, CSCS*D, FACSM, is Director of the Human Performance Lab at Rutgers University, where he also serves as Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Sport Studies and Director of the Center for Health and Human Performance. He is the Exercise Physiologist for the New Jersey Devils and can be reached at: [email protected].
It’s no secret that making use of scientific data for assessment is the newest frontier for maximizing athletic performance. We’ve already seen this phenomenon take hold at the professional and Olympic levels, and more and more colleges are following suit.
This trend is undoubtedly positive because–as I like to say–if you are not assessing, you are guessing. And in this day and age, there is no excuse for guessing. Yet, some coaches and strength and conditioning coaches are still shooting in the dark when it comes to program design, unsure of how effective their plan truly is or how to potentially improve it.
Many coaches already have a valuable tool for incorporating science and data into their training programs available to them: a human performance lab. Long used in the academic world for exercise science and kinesiology research, the testing done in a human performance lab can provide valuable insight into athletes’ strength, power, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness. Further interpretation of this data can help strength coaches develop training regimens that will have athletes performing at their best.
As beneficial as this innovative technology is, it will do strength coaches no good unless they take advantage of it. Human performance labs are not something strength coaches should be leery of. Rather, a lab can make their job much more effective–as long as they are willing to work with those of us on the academic side of the institution. Acquiring the knowledge related to test selection, interpretation, and application takes time and effort, but the return on investment is worth it.
In my experience partnering with athletic teams as Director of the Human Performance Lab at Rutgers University, the sport coaches appreciate what our testing offers, and our results have been phenomenal. We’ve seen increased performance and decreased injuries across the board.
HOW IT WORKS
So what is a human performance lab? Generally speaking, it’s a testing facility that can assess working capacity and athlete function. Therefore, it’s valuable for determining fitness aspects that are critical to elite athletic performance.
At Rutgers, our lab is housed in the Center for Health and Human Performance, which is part of the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health. I am very fortunate to oversee a highly skilled lab staff consisting of doctoral students, master’s students, and research interns, and we train and test various populations, including college athletes.
Our lab consists of equipment capable of measuring all major aspects of fitness and performance, such as endurance, efficiency, strength, power, and flexibility. Here are some of the tools we have at our disposal:
– Infrared timing system for speed testing
– Bod Pod for assessing body composition
– Cycle ergometers capable of Wingate testing to assess anaerobic power, sustainable power, and fatigue index
– Metabolic cart for measuring metabolism
– High-speed treadmills for VO2 max, lactate threshold, and ventilatory threshold testing
– Equipment to draw and process blood to assess for various hormones and biomarkers associated with health, performance, and overtraining.
I first started working with Rutgers’s athletes in the Human Performance Lab back in 2003. Bob Reasso, the school’s Head Men’s Soccer Coach at the time, wanted to find a way to integrate technology and testing to maximize his squad’s training efficiency. This was a novel idea at the time. Since then, my lab’s work with athletic teams has expanded over the years in both size and scope. Now, we use our resources and expertise to optimize performance for the women’s soccer, men’s soccer, and field hockey squads, covering everything from day-to-day training loads to yearlong periodization.
When working with athletic teams, I rely mostly on controlled, valid laboratory-based testing. To begin, I identify the key performance variables of a sport and the outcomes of interest. Then, I choose the tests and interventions necessary to properly assess or address these factors. I also identify and measure the major bioenergetic pathways required for a particular sport. In instances where a squad may have limited time available for testing or we need to do simple reevaluations during the season, we use validated field tests that can be easily conducted during practices.
No matter the type of test, the results are always viewed as a means to an end, not an end in themselves. They serve as an important evaluation of a team’s performance training program by allowing the sport coach to determine whether it is meeting his or her goals.
Furthermore, utilizing science through the Human Performance Lab allows coaches to individualize training and preparation schemes for each member of their team. In team sports, it can be incredibly challenging to train every athlete optimally because everyone responds differently to stimuli. But with our testing results, we can hone in on exactly what each player needs to succeed, so that athletes peak at the right time and performance improves from year to year.
Of the three squads we work with in the Human Performance Lab, we’ve had a great deal of recent success with the women’s soccer program. About three years ago, the coaches approached me about helping them improve the physical preparation of their players. The team had been beset by a rash of major injuries over the previous four seasons, particularly ACL tears. The coaches hoped that using scientific data for assessment might help get the squad to the next level and limit injuries.
The first step in this collaboration was to implement a thorough testing program to assess each athlete’s strength, power, VO2 max, and ventilatory threshold. My goal with this testing was to identify the fitness components that could be prioritized in a periodization plan and obtain baseline readings that would help evaluate the effectiveness of the program down the line.
We struggled right off the bat to identify an optimal testing plan that provided sufficient data and worked within the time constraints of a busy team. Ultimately, we settled on four one-week testing periods throughout the year: the start of preseason, the end of the competitive season, when the players returned from winter break, and the end of the spring semester.
These specific times were chosen because they provided us with a chance to monitor players’ progress throughout the year and make changes as necessary. For example, we were able to use the testing results to modify the players’ training loads during preseason, assess how well they maintained fitness and power in-season, establish priorities for offseason training, and determine the effectiveness of spring training as the team transitioned into summer workouts. This schedule also allowed us to perform the tests we needed without disrupting the team’s yearlong training plan.
After analyzing the team’s initial testing results, it became obvious that there were three key areas that needed to be addressed: training load, power deficiency, and periodization. Before working with the Human Performance Lab, the women’s soccer team had never quantified its training load, so there was no way for the coaches to know which athletes were working too hard and which were not working hard enough. To track this metric, we started using the Polar Team2 system regularly. By doing so, we could see who needed to be shut down and when, which prevented the athletes from overtraining. In addition, as time went by, we used the data to compare different phases of the season from one year to the next.
Our initial tests with the team also revealed that the athletes became deficient in power in-season. As they started to wear down over the course of the competitive schedule, their intensity in the weightroom decreased, and they started to lose strength and power. I presented these findings to the sport coach, and he took them to the team’s strength coach to encourage her to push the athletes harder during in-season workouts, which she did.
To prevent such problems in future seasons, generating power and strength became the focus of offseason training, as well. During the spring, the team was in the weightroom four days a week. So far, the results have been positive.
Finally, our initial testing results revealed that the athletes were not peaking at the right time to maximize their success on the field. Therefore, the sport coach and I used the data obtained from the Polar system to structure a periodization program, which he took to the team’s strength coach. Together, they worked out a weekly training schedule that would help boost recovery and maximize training, ensuring that players were functioning at their best.
In the first season after making these training changes, we saw a number of notable outcomes. On the field, the team advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division I tournament for the first time in years. In addition, the number of injuries fell by more than 70 percent.
It’s important to note that the latter result didn’t come from a specific injury prevention plan, but rather from the way we changed the team’s training structure. When athletes are not playing well, the natural tendency for many coaches is to work them harder. But with the testing and monitoring in the Human Performance Lab, we could see when athletes were working too hard and stop them before an injury occurred.
We noticed results in subsequent testing, as well. With the emphasis on power in offseason training, we were able to increase the team’s vertical jump average by approximately two inches. Equally as important, this gain in power was accomplished without sacrificing aerobic capacity. In fact, the squad’s ventilatory threshold was improved by the start of the next preseason because we started to focus more on interval training, which reflects soccer’s pace.
None of our successes in adding science to training would have been possible without total buy-in from the women’s soccer coaching staff and players. Coaches can be resistant to change training approaches, even if their techniques are outdated or have no scientific basis. On the other hand, there are an increasing number of coaches who look for opportunities to learn about exercise physiology and proper training or seek out others who can guide them. I’ve been fortunate to run into these latter types with some of the coaches here at Rutgers.
The women’s soccer coaches value my knowledge and prior experience with the sport, both as an athlete and scientist. Because of this, trust has never been an issue. Their enthusiasm and cooperation made the comprehensive approach work and allowed them to get the most out of our collaboration in the lab. Their willingness to learn and evolve, despite their history of success, is what allows them to stay ahead of the curve.
In addition, the players have been nothing but excited and appreciative of what we are trying to accomplish. They truly believe in what we are doing and understand how the testing results will benefit their athletic careers. Most of them ask what the data means, why we do what we do, and how they can adjust their own training habits to improve their areas of deficiency. The process has opened a dialogue that did not previously exist, and the players have benefited.
ONWARD AND UPWARD
The men’s soccer and field hockey squads at Rutgers have experienced results similar to the women’s soccer team after working with my staff in the Human Performance Lab. As the interest in adding science to sport training continues to grow, we hope to expand our reach in the future.
For example, last spring, the Rutgers Center for Health and Human Performance hosted its inaugural Conference on Human Performance. We had a great turnout. Dan Donigan, Rutgers’s current Head Men’s Soccer Coach, stayed for the entire day’s sessions. Immediately afterward, he asked to meet with me to discuss how we could expand the existing relationship between the lab and the team. He wanted to establish a more detailed periodization plan, a better strength training plan, and make further use of the heart rate monitoring system.
Another step toward our goal of expanding our capabilities will be the completion of a new facility housing the Center for Health and Human Performance, which is slated to open in the summer of 2015. It will provide approximately six times the space of the current Human Performance Lab and include state-of-the-art technology and updated testing equipment.
Strength and conditioning is both an art and a science, which is one of the things I enjoy the most about it. Human performance labs are one of several tools that can provide an enhanced understanding of the scientific side of training. With each additional year of testing and data collection, we markedly improve the quality of information we can provide and our ability to develop optimal workloads unique to each team we work with. I’m proud of the sports we work with here for making an effort to stay on the cutting edge. Remember: science works–if you use it.
SIDEBAR: BRIDGE THE GAP
Many of my colleagues working at human performance labs across the country have voiced frustration over how hard it has been to get involved with teams at their university. In many cases, there is a divide between academics and athletics. Territoriality is a common issue.
In my work with Rutgers University’s athletes in our Human Performance Lab, I collaborate with the sport coaches, who serve as a conduit between me and the strength coaches. While some of my suggestions have been implemented in strength and conditioning programs, I do not work directly with the strength coaches. However, in the future, I think it’s in the best interest of the athletes to close the gap between academics and athletics.
When both the sport coach and strength coach are involved in bringing science to training, it will create a much more cohesive program. We’ve been able to produce phenomenal results by working with the men’s soccer, women’s soccer, and field hockey teams at Rutgers’s Human Performance Lab. Greater cooperation with the strength coaches would only serve to enhance these results. With the quality of athletes at the collegiate level and with the available technology, I think athletic departments should do everything they can to facilitate this collaboration where it exists.
There are unique dynamics at every university, and the ease with which science and athletics are integrated for performance purposes will vary. As relationships evolve, greater synergy may be achieved and more effective training plans can be realized.