Jan 29, 2015Measure for Measure
Technology now exists to monitor the body’s response to training in ways never before thought possible. It’s opening new doors to performance enhancement for those who know how to separate valuable data from background noise.
By Vern Gambetta
Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning. His daily thoughts on training athletes can be viewed on his blog at: www.functionalpathtraining.blogspot.com.
After 40 years of coaching and training, I’ve arrived at a conclusion that I’m fairly confident in: I do not see revolutionary changes on the horizon in the methods we use to train athletes.
Don’t get me wrong–this isn’t like the legend of the U.S. Patent Office Commissioner purportedly saying in 1899 that the office should close because “everything that can be invented has been invented.” I have no doubt there will be refinements, and some very productive ones, to the ways we develop athletes. But I don’t believe there will be major changes to our basic concepts for training the body, because there are practical limits to how much we can do, and our scientific knowledge has progressed to a point where the major aspects of development are fairly well understood.
However, that doesn’t mean progress in training is coming to an end. It just means we need to refine our search, and I believe some of the most fertile ground for future gains lies in the realm of athlete monitoring. Effectively gauging how athletes respond to their workouts and practice and competition workload, and making any needed adjustments to their regimen in response to the data we collect, lets us optimize training time and take performance to the next level.
I believe we need to fundamentally change the way we look at the connection between competition and training. In many settings, the training management process has not kept pace with the evolving demands of extended competitive seasons. One of the foremost challenges today is finding ways we can better translate work into competition results. The answer lies in better, more accurate monitoring of training and competition.
Most coaches use some form of training monitoring, and it is usually intuitive, based on their own experience and knowledge. In my first years of coaching, I used a 10-point rating scale that relied on the athletes to self-report in their training logs how difficult they felt each day’s session was. It had no scientific validation–it was just something I had read about other coaches doing, and it seemed logical.
Though it was very rudimentary, this system provided some important feedback on who felt they were being pushed to their limit and who was coasting through workouts. But I soon realized it wasn’t ideal to have to wait until I read the athletes’ training logs to get feedback–I needed the information in real time. In essence, I had to coach more and observe more. I needed to be a more active participant in the workout process and develop a more analytical eye.
I began predicting a rating for each workout, based on my own best guess of how hard it would be for the athlete to complete. Then I would ask the athletes for their rating as soon as the workout ended, and it was always interesting to see how my ratings compared with theirs. I was pleased to learn that the longer I spent with a group of athletes, the better I was able to accurately predict their ratings. But even in this system, the numbers were still very subjective, with no way to truly pinpoint or define the difference between a “six” and a “seven.”
This was before the Borg scale for rating of perceived exertion (RPE), but it served the same function, and had the same limitations. I knew there had to be a better way, but at the time, monitoring wasn’t first on my list of priorities. However, through the union of technology, sports science research, and coaching experience, today we are on the verge of a forward leap in our ability to monitor training, and the possibilities for how it can improve training program design are exciting.
THE RIGHT KNOWLEDGE
To train athletes effectively and meet specific goals, we must know the precise effects of their training and the exact physical demands of practices and competitions. We also need to measure stress levels from all performance parameters to avoid overuse and overtraining. Smart training sets targets and measures progress toward them, and we need to know why we either hit or miss each target. With the information available today, setting training load and intensity should never be a wild guess.
The process begins with thorough analysis of the demands of the sport an athlete is preparing for. I am convinced that what we think occurs in competition and what actually occurs are often far apart. In addition, each athlete has their own way of performing in their sport. Two soccer players on the same team might have entirely different profiles in terms of total distance traveled per game, average heart rate, number of full-intensity sprints, and countless other factors. The best programs are designed with individual needs in mind, even for athletes competing in team sports.
Because it can be a major challenge to personalize training programs in team sports, I have found it helpful to begin with broad general classifications of sports. The sport classification can help you determine the dominant physical characteristics that must be trained in an athlete, but they’re just a starting point. I prefer to break sports down into four categories:
Sprint sports. These require one all-out maximum effort. The goal is to achieve as fast a time as possible over a set distance. The ability to recover or quickly repeat the effort is not a factor. Sprint events in track and field are the best example of this category.
Intermittent sprint sports. These require a series of maximum efforts with time for relatively full recovery in between. This category includes football, rugby, ice hockey, and volleyball.
Transition game sports. These require a series of efforts of varied intensity that occur in random patterns. Recovery between efforts varies from almost non-existent to nearly complete. Soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse fit in this category.
Endurance sports. These are characterized by continual sub-maximal effort with the goal of finishing in the shortest time possible over a set distance. Sports that fall into this classification include marathons and triathlons.
When you think of traditional athlete monitoring in any of these categories, the first thing that comes to mind may be heart rate. Conventional sports science wisdom has a heavy bias toward heart rate and a related number–VO2 max–since both are very measurable qualities. However, I believe they have little value as a true indicator or predictor of stress in intermittent, transition, and explosive activities.
I think heart rate monitoring has actually led many training programs to a dead end, because the numbers aren’t typically viewed in adequate context. It reminds me of George Carlin’s sportscaster routine, in which he reads the days scores: two to one, five to four, six to three, and the whopper, 12 to six! Of course, the numbers mean nothing without context, which in the case of heart rate means a thorough understanding of the biomechanical and neural demands that determine total load on the system and ultimately drive athletic success or failure. Just because it’s easy to monitor something and collect impressive amounts of data doesn’t mean the data collected carries great value.
GLIMPSING THE FUTURE
So where do we turn for a better way to enhance our program design? We have to find new paradigms for monitoring work output, exertion, biomechanical loading, and performance. The technology is available to do this accurately and in real time. When you know how far athletes move in a session, how fast they go, what their work-rest intervals are like, and how frequent and stress-inducing their movements are, you can construct more precise training, rehab, and practice sessions that take their progress to new heights.
Here is an assessment of what I see as the most promising frontiers for cutting-edge athlete monitoring:
Video analysis. Coaches who have been around long enough remember the cumbersome days of Super 8 video recording, and the somewhat less cumbersome days when VHS was in its prime. But today, digital video analysis is revolutionizing the way we monitor athletic activity, and we’ve yet to realize all the possible applications of this technology.
By breaking down an athlete’s movements during a workout in slow motion, we can observe flaws and inefficiencies that go by too quickly to capture with the naked eye. Then, once these problems have been addressed through targeted training, video analysis can confirm that the new movement patterns have eliminated the flaws.
Game video analysis can also provide valuable insights in areas where real-time observation has limited value. For instance, there is no weightroom exercise or practice drill that can truly capture the physical and mental demands placed on a football defensive lineman who needs to develop an explosive first step. But game film can reveal who excels in this area and who needs work, and progress can be tracked as athletes train to improve reaction time, first-step power, and force production from the ground. The possibilities are practically endless for analyzing specific aspects of on-field or on-court performance, then monitoring team and individual progress to assess the effectiveness of a training program.
Global positioning satellite (GPS) technology. When GPS became commercially available in the 1990s, the tracking systems that were adapted for sports use represented a quantum leap forward. Today’s systems can measure total distance traveled during a practice or game, speed in various zones of the field, and movement paths with a high degree of accuracy. This information can be invaluable to both sport coaches and conditioning coaches.
Because GPS depends on satellite signals, this method cannot be used reliably indoors–in fact, some older systems may even have problems outdoors when the sky is overcast. But as the technology improves, it probably won’t be long before basketball and volleyball teams can wear GPS tracking devices and enjoy the same data collection benefits as athletes in football, soccer, lacrosse, and other outdoor sports.
Accelerometer technology. Accelerometer use is another area that offers great promise. A triaxial (three-axis) accelerometer with a high sampling rate can provide very accurate information about distance traveled, speed, acceleration, and biomechanical load.
In the weightroom, a device can be attached to equipment before lifts to measure power output, force, bar acceleration with various amounts of weight, and other performance factors. In sport-specific applications, a coach can monitor the timing and height of a hurdler’s leg kicks, measure how level a baseball player’s swing is as the bat passes through the strike zone, and assess whether a golfer’s head remains still during the swinging motion.
Biochemical testing. Biochemical monitoring can include blood or urine analysis, muscle biopsies, hormone level testing, and other measures that can tell us a great deal about everything from hydration and lactic acid levels to cellular adaptations experienced during training. This highly specialized form of monitoring requires considerable training to collect and interpret the data, since a random snapshot of an athlete’s blood lactate concentration, testosterone level, or cortisol ratio means virtually nothing without the proper context.
But this cutting-edge branch of athlete monitoring may provide critical information on athlete health and safety, especially for endurance athletes. For instance, collecting information on an athlete’s urine osmolality and sodium level can diagnose hyponatremia, a potentially fatal condition in which blood sodium concentration falls to dangerously low levels.
Of course, not all of these testing methods are ideal for all settings. Based on the sport, the athlete’s needs, and available resources, it’s up to athletic trainers and coaches to determine whether these potential new frontiers in athlete monitoring can produce meaningful data that improves progress toward training goals.
I like to think of training monitoring as a “gap analysis” tool. The ongoing task is to close the gap between what we are presently doing and what we must do to improve competition results. You can’t improve what you cannot measure. Accurately measuring what happens in a workout, practice, or competition helps close the gap, and helps us to translate work into wins.
Sidebar: GETTING THE MOST
While I believe there are many advances to be made by optimizing training monitoring systems, there are also some common pitfalls. To help you avoid some of them, I offer these pieces of advice:
• Whenever possible, monitoring performance factors in real time is the best way to provide athletes with meaningful, actionable feedback.
• When observing an athlete during a workout or practice, remember you are not always looking for distress, but for all types of stress and adaptation to imposed demands–that is what functional training is all about.
• Tracking progress over time is essential. The longer the timeframe, the more meaningful the data and the more opportunities you have to evaluate whether your training strategy is producing optimum results.
• One-time monitoring is rarely useful, because it produces numbers without a proper context. Ongoing monitoring in a systematic manner allows for development of key performance traits over time and promotes better overall control of the adaptive process.
• Decide early on what constitutes “need to know” information, and separate that from “nice to know” information in your mind. The latter category is often just noise that will make your training program less focused on producing functional results.
• Use monitoring as a motivational tool to help athletes push themselves to achieve goals, correct flaws and inefficiencies, and demonstrate that they are being responsive to your instruction.
• Always seek ways to make your monitoring methods as non-intrusive as possible. If athletes are distracted by a monitoring device or testing method, they may adapt their performance to the task that’s being tested instead of developing functional performance that translates to their sport.
• Make sure athletes fully understand the monitoring you’re doing, and involve them in the process of evaluating and analyzing the data you gather. Besides providing an excellent learning opportunity, this will help them understand the “why” behind your training program design. Always remember that coaching is something we do with athletes, not something we do to them.
• Don’t base your entire training program solely on data collected through objective monitoring–common sense still must apply. For instance, in some sports, collisions with other athletes and with the playing surface produce a large amount of training stress, but since it’s difficult to quantify, the cumulative toll it takes on the body is easy to overlook. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring something just because you can’t objectively track its impact.
• Overload comes not just from training volume, but also from a workload’s intensity and density. A smart monitoring strategy accounts for all parameters that may contribute to overload.
• In rehab settings, objective measures of performance from athlete monitoring are an outstanding tool to determine when someone has returned to pre-injury levels. If baseline data is available, for instance, you can compare a rehabbing athlete’s performance in various drills with their “healthy” performance to help make informed return-to-play decisions and design targeted rehab protocols.