Athletes rely on gold medal science

May 27, 2008 12:36:07 PM PDT
Olympic training centers around the country are essentially massive science fairs. In Colorado Springs, Colo., swimmers train in a flume, the equivalent of a liquid treadmill, which allows them to adjust water current and simulate various altitudes.

In Charlotte, N.C., kayakers paddle in an artificial water park where coaches can tinker with water flow, alter rapids by shifting underwater hydraulic gates, and transport kayakers to the start of a run via conveyor belt.

At Northern Arizona University's Center for High Altitude Training in Flagstaff, runners receive analyses of what their foot posture and gait mean for their performance.

Indeed, with eyes on Beijing, top athletes have their sports down to a science, and recent advances in science and technology mean competitors adhere to the Olympic motto of "faster, higher, stronger" like never before.

Case in point: Most of the world records in men's and women's swimming have been set since 2000, with the exception of American Janet Evans, whose 800 meter freestyle mark set in 1989 still holds . A slew of those new records have been set this year, many of them in a new high-tech swimming suit designed with guidance from NASA researchers, which some contend has pushed the world's best over the edge.

Coaches, athletes, sports medicine doctors and other experts attribute strides to increasingly incorporating science into training, whether by using advanced video technology to analyze form, increasingly turning to sports psychology to assess personality, or relying on training centers that merge state-of-the-art equipment with world-class doctors and trainers.

"It's science that allows us to continue to help athletes to perform at higher and higher levels," said Tom Crawford, an expert on human performance in sports and former director of coaching for the United States Olympic Committee.

Technological Strides

According to Doug Ingram, managing director of performance services for the U.S. Olympic Committee, advances in technology are being used in different ways depending on the sport. In shooting or archery, high-speed video detects when competitors release the trigger, picking up slight movements and, as a result, helps explain why their shots are going off target, Ingram said. In weight lifting, sensors in the floor can measure how much force weight lifters put on their right legs versus left, determining whether they are properly balanced.

Ingram said new Eye on Performance video technology also makes it possible for coaches to digitally record the latest movements and techniques, providing athletes with instant feedback.

"The big advantage for us is that we have 16 cameras between two gyms and are able to record from so many angles," said Ron Brandt, men's senior gymnastics coordinator in an August statement announcing the technology. "In gymnastics, there is a lot of flipping and twisting and angle alignments, and if you can't see all that, you're missing part of the picture. And a lot of the times we were missing part of the picture because we were only looking from one angle. Now we can look at multiple angles and pick up everything so the athletes' ability to make an adjustment has really increased."

Likewise, syncing up a high-speed video to kayakers' paddles led to athletes' discovering that the two top competitors in their sport had similar strokes, recalled one of those paddlers, three-time Olympic kayaker Scott Shipley. Competitors could also examine the force of their strokes in relation to time, illustrating on a graph that the best kayakers excelled for the same reason.

"We both went from zero to full force much, much faster than anyone else that was racing," said Shipley, now an engineer who designed and opened the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte in 2006.

Shipley said that in a sport in which one stroke can make the difference between first place and being knocked out of contention, it helps paddlers enormously to understand the scientific and mathematical dynamics of the water.

"They're looking at how the boat's momentum moves in relation to the whitewater," he said. "It's all kind of vector science."

Shipley has put that science to use at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, creating a course with optimum training conditions for the Olympic paddlers by eliminating the variability of flow, building more efficient eddies and creating an environment where water velocities are faster.

"We're able to take the amount of whitewater that might be in a half a mile or a mile stretch and pack it into a thousand feet," he said.

Sports Medicine, Nutrition and Psychology According to several experts, athletes are also more aware than ever of how their bodies perform, whether by keeping tabs on their heart rates, refining their nutrition regimes, planning out training cycles to peak at the perfect time or monitoring recovery times.

"We know more about the human body, we know more about how to train -- when to put a stress on the training sessions, when to pull it back and let them recover," Ingram said. "The great coaches know exactly how much stress and pressure to apply."

Given the pressures of performing one's best on race day, mental analysis is part of that assessment, thanks to the rise of sports psychology.

Robert Troutwine, a psychologist in Liberty, Mo., who consults for NFL, NBA and MLB teams to help evaluate whether particular athletes are good hires, uses tools called psychometrics to examine competitors' personalities and behavior traits. He said that since the incorporation of psychology into sports in the early 80s, the practice has proved its staying power by way of good draft picks, playoff titles and championship rings.

Troutwine said the correlation between physical and mental performance cannot be overlooked.

"If you really self-sacrifice and show up to training camp in top shape, that's got to have an impact on your confidence," he said. "If an athlete's been injured, you know that's a physical thing, but there's also that creeping doubt."

"We prefer to work with athletes, even executives, on an ongoing basis, because it helps them prepare for and develop habits of excellence," Crawford said. "So they're really strong and mentally tough when they need to be."

Crawford joins doctors, nutritionists, athletes and trainers May 31 in New York City to discuss the science of sports at the World Science Festival.