How technology raises the bar in sports

The smallest of margins can make the difference between a podium finish and an empty-handed trudge back to the dorm. And science in sports can make a difference of 5% between gold and silver, say experts


Usain Bolt is known to use electronic muscle stimulation (EMS) which stimulates the muscles with an electrical current that runs through the pads or clothing that touch the skin which overrides that natural energy-retaining mechanism, causing all the motor neurons to fire at once and creating up to 30% more tension in the muscle.
Usain Bolt is known to use electronic muscle stimulation (EMS) which stimulates the muscles with an electrical current that runs through the pads or clothing that touch the skin which overrides that natural energy-retaining mechanism, causing all the motor neurons to fire at once and creating up to 30% more tension in the muscle.

Human endurance and will power would undoubtedly have played a major factor in determining the winners in every sport played at the Olympic Games at Rio de Janeiro, which ended on 21 August. Nevertheless, the winners also bank on technology and science to give them the much-needed edge over competitors. 

Science in sports can make a difference of 5% between gold and silver, according to Donavan Pillai, head of high performance at JSW Sports, which runs a sports excellence programme.

Indeed, the smallest of margins can make the difference between podium and an empty-handed trudge back to the dorm. In the Beijing Olympics in 2008, for instance, Michael Phelps’s record-tying seventh gold medal came in the 100 metre butterfly. The margin of victory: 0.01 seconds.

It’s these fractions that inventors try to shave of. Swimming gear manufacturer Speedo has the Fastskin LZR Racer X which is engineered to help swimmers “feel their fastest”. It was developed in consultation with 330 elite swimmers, including 11-time medallist Ryan Lochte, 20 experts from 26 countries.

It allows for compression in areas needed and range of movement across the rest of the suit, taking four years and 10,000 working hours to develop, according to a company spokesperson. Among the team that developed it included a fluid mechanics expert, a professor of kinesiology (the study of the mechanics of body movements) and a physiotherapist among others.

Race driving is another sport that requires precision to win. It might appear that all a Formula One driver needs to be, in terms of fitness, is flexible enough to squeeze into a car and steer the wheel.

Nothing could be further from the truth. To drive a car at 300km per hour, a driver ends up burning up to 1,400 calories and loses about 3-4kg of bodyweight in sweat. Considering there are 21 races in this season, the process repeats many times over eight months.

Driving and braking at those speeds mean that a driver faces a longitudinal G-force (the force acting in the opposite direction to acceleration) of up to 5g on a regular basis. “Given that the weight of the head is about 7-8kg once you include the helmet, if you are braking at 5g, you have a weight of up to 40kg effectively trying to rip your head off your shoulders whenever you brake,” says Clayton Green, manager of human performance programme at McLaren, in The Telegraph.

Hence, the F1 racing company’s drivers use Technogym—a special training machine that helps recreate the G-force on the neck and shoulders. To make up for the fluid loss, there is also a special drink that pre-hydrates the driver so they can load up before the race and retain it, according to the 2014 report.

Automaker BMW AG has a camera that measures velocity while Felt Bicycles have a bike with in-built hardware and software to gauge a cyclist’s performance, making the stopwatch redundant.

Adidas Group reportedly developed battery-powered trousers that direct heat toward a cyclist’s thighs and calves, keeping the muscles ready even during breaks. When it’s time to start the race, the pants can be removed in seconds, leaving muscles at an optimal 38 degrees Celsius.

In 2012, a vibrating suit was developed by MotivePro with tiny sensors attached to the wearer’s skin that triggered motors to tell them when they moved in the correct way, reported the Daily Mail. Team USA this year is using sensors to track boxers’ performances—the number of punches they throw in a day, their speed, etc., while marathoners are using little patches on their bodies that collects sweat which can later help figure out how much electrolytes (minerals and other body fluids) are being lost.

Moreover, all athletes typically use the binding kinesiology tape that alleviates pain instantly.

We list here how five of the world’s best athletes use science and technology to stay ahead of the race:

Usain Bolt: The world’s fastest sprinter ought to be its most aerodynamic, too, you would think—but science has proven otherwise.

The Independent reported that Bolt, at 6.5 feet, is not the most aerodynamic but produces enough power to overcome air resistance and every other competitor, in most cases. He takes 41 strides to cover 100 metres, unlike others who take 44.

According to the same study, Bolt’s time of 9.58 seconds in 2009 was achieved by reaching a terminal velocity of 12.2 metres per second, “around a quarter of that achieved by a skydiver in a belly-to-earth free-fall position, and exerting an average force of 815.8 Newtons (a unit/measure of force), close to the force of a knockout punch from a heavyweight boxer”.

Bolt exerted 81.58 kilojoules (or kJ, a measure of energy) during the 9.58 seconds, but only 7.79% was used to achieve motion; the remaining 92.21% was absorbed by the drag, says the study. This means that had Bolt been a few inches shorter, he would have been faster?

All this extraordinary force and power does not come easily to the “world’s most talented sprinter”—he has to work for it. Among the aids he uses for training is Dartfish—a video analysis software that breaks down an athlete’s movements into minutiae, and a corresponding mobile application that allows instant analysis.

Bolt is also known to use electronic muscle stimulation (EMS) which stimulates the muscles with an electrical current that runs through the pads or clothing that touch the skin. Why so?

It’s because our body tries to naturally conserve as much energy as possible to prolong endurance. Hence, applying electricity to muscles “overrides that natural energy-retaining mechanism, causing all the motor neurons to fire at once and creating up to 30% more tension in the muscle,” a report in Coach magazine says.

The maverick Jamaican, who hates to train and loves to eat junk food, completed the expected triple gold feat in Rio, smiling through most of his events.

Novak Djokovic: Besides his gluten-free diet, which he wrote about in his book Serve to Win, and his 14-hour exercise days, Djokovic is also known to have used a fitness pod, which catalyzes muscle recovery, according to Optimum Tennis.

The pod, made by a California-based company CVAC Systems, uses a computer-controlled valve and a vacuum pump to simulate high altitude and compress the muscles at rhythmic intervals, reports the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

The company says spending up to 20 minutes in the seven-feet long, three-feet wide and seven-feet high pod three times in a week can improve circulation, boost oxygen-rich red-blood cells, remove lactic acid and possibly even stimulate mitochondrial biogenesis and stem-cell production, adds the WSJ report.

Since 2011, when the pod was first reported about, the Serbian has won 47 titles, including 11 Grand Slams.

Photo: TechnoShape
Photo: TechnoShape

Virat Kohli: In a World T20 match against Australia in March, M.S. Dhoni and Virat Kohli scored the last 67 runs off 31 balls to win, but 21 of those came off 13 balls by running, singles and doubles. Their speed left the commentators in raptures and the usually agile Aussie fielders flummoxed.

“You do gym fitness for this,” said Kohli in his post-match comments. “When I’m tired, I should be able to run as fast as when I’m on zero.” 

Kohli, who has often credited his fitness to his success, is known to use Technoshape, a gadget to burn fat and increase core strength. He also has a high altitude mask, for better stamina. The effort shows in his body shape, which resembles that of a footballer, a far more active sport compared to cricket. The pay-off also is that unlike other Indian cricketers, he can post shirtless selfies.

Cristiano Ronaldo: The Portuguese star, besides doing 3,000 crunches a day to maintain his six-pack abs, also uses cryotherapy—a practice of exposing the body to extreme temperatures, similar to the CVAC pod.

This helps muscle regeneration and stimulates the immune system. The temperatures could go as low as -160 degrees C, according to reports in the Daily Mail and Spanish paper El Mundo.

Just big enough to accommodate a human body, the chamber costs around €45,000 (a little over Rs.33 lakh). 

The fairly popular pod gadget was also used by boxer Floyd Mayweather who posted a video on his social media account with the high-tech freezing chamber, during his preparation for his fight against Manny Pacquiao last year. Mayweather won the fight but though there is no direct evidence that the ice-box helped him, he did come up with a pretty cool performance.

P.V. Sindhu: A significant catalyst to an athlete’s fitness is her scientifically-designed diet. Leave aside multiple Olympic champion Phelp’s part-mythical, part incredulous carb-heavy intake, the right food makes an athlete stronger and fitter.

Sindhu, who won a silver medal in badminton in the 2016 Rio Olympics, does not have sweets, as sugar delays recovery process. Her meals are measured and supervised so she gets the right amount of nutrition. Whenever she loses her appetite, the deficiency is made up with high energy, high protein food.

During Rio, Sindhu had to shun her favourite food, biryani, sweet curd and ice-cream, and was allowed to eat them only after the final, coach P. Gopi Chand told news agency PTI.

Athletes associated with the not-for-profit organization Olympic Gold Quest, which also supports Sindhu, have for the last two years undergone regular blood tests to more closely monitor for vitamin deficiencies, etc. Dr Nikhil Latey, head of sports science and rehab at OGQ, said, “Regular tests, supplementation ensure athletes recover faster, thus improving training quality and performance.”

At times, going tech-free helps, too: Sindhu was not given her phone for the last three months leading up to the Rio final, according to her coach.

Texting, it would seem, is detrimental to medals.

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