Dame Kelly Holmes: “Technology is massive for athletes these days”


These days athletes are fitter than ever, competing in a world where every millisecond counts and the fight for perfection is becoming more intense, in all sports. That’s why the professionals are turning to tech.

Gone are the days of footballers training in bin bags to sweat out the worst of a big night or marathon runners clocking their long runs on the cars odometer. The technology today’s modern athletes have at their disposal means face a very different ball game.

Professionals and their coaches are pioneering training techniques using bleeding edge technology to inform decisions that just ten years ago might have been made on gut instinct alone.

It’s all changed since the days when double Olympic gold winner Dame Kelly Holmes was beating all comers on the track.

“Having immediate and easy access to technology is massive for athletes these days.” said Dame Kelly at the Intel RunUK event in London.

“It’s really critical. Everyone’s doing it and if you want that edge, you’ve got to keep up with what’s new.”

And it’s not just athletes like runners and cyclists that use tracking to affect performance. Europe’s biggest names in football, including the majority of those in the Premier League, have started to adopt STATSports, a tracking technology developed with rugby teams, to monitor and analyse player movements.

Watch any footage from the training ground of these big clubs and you’ll see players in what look like sport bras. That’s STATSports. The system puts a huge range of data at the fingertips of the coaches in real time. From heart rate, to how much power and intensity their stars are training with. It can even use fluctuations in heart rate to predict when that £42m investment might be about to get a cold.

It’s used in rugby too. According to Irish rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll this piece of kit “In a nutshell [has] revolutionised professional rugby training.”

“It’s really critical. Everyone’s doing it and if you want that edge, you’ve got to keep up with what’s new.”

STATSports is a chest worn mesh of sensors and processors that records things like player direction, speed, range, heart rate and more – all taken 100 times per second. This is fed live to coaches that can see how players are performing and make decisions based on hard data.

11. Kelly and our runners warming down by the Olympic Park
Technology is not only helping athletes train, but also to try and prevent injuries too

This is where things get interesting. It’s one thing to read data, like a player’s total distance run, or top speed, but it’s another to adapt training based on that. Now players coming back from injury, for example, can be coached at their pace for optimal recovery. Or if someone is seen to be favouring one leg over the other, a coach can even predict potential injury and work to avoid that.

That’s a big improvement according to Dame Kelly Holmes.

“Wearable tech like the Intel powered SMS Audio BioSport headphones don’t just offer tools for progressing fitness either. This kind of tech is also used a lot in terms of recovery, which in itself can show how an athlete’s fitness is progressing. Each of the readings you get from something like daily heart rate monitoring will inform what you can do going forward.”

Often new technology is a matter of debate in sports as it can be seen to remove a certain natural element. The STATSports system is so new, the Premier League is keeping a close eye on how it’s used. One team choosing to make a transfer based on a decline in speed of a player might be unfair if another is reliant on the old fashioned eye of the manager.

Despite this skepticism around tech, new gadgets have been finding their way into sport for years. In cricket the Snicko-meter that records sound to hear if a bat connects with the ball, is now commonly used and accepted.

Smart earbuds such as the SMS BioSport feature a built-in optical sensor that monitors your heart rate
Smart earbuds such as the SMS BioSport feature a built-in optical sensor that monitors your heart rate

This hasn’t stopped umpires being needed. In tennis the Hawk-Eye technology, that can see if a ball is out, now gets used the world over. That’s not put linesmen and women out of work. Now football referees have a smartwatch that vibrates when a ball goes over the goal line.

In most cases new technology enhances sport, without taking anything away. By adding new ways to analyse competitors coaching will change. But since the pursuit of better performances is the goal of sport, surely this is a good thing?

GlaxoSmithKline is currently running its Human Performance Lab where it creates bespoke training programmes and sports drinks for the British Triathlon team, including the Brownlee brothers. Here, by using data taken from sensors, blood tests and more, scientists are able to eke out maximum performance from athletes.

The Brownlees now have specific drinks for their bodies to replenish the exact amount of salts they need during a race. They can also train at altitude and certain temperatures and humidity, in a special chamber, to adapt their bodies to a new country before a race.

As sensors become smaller it’s only a matter of time before the public have the same technology as the professionals. If training the professionals is based on data everyone could one day have access to the best training methods too, making everyone a potential pro. – Kieran Alger (@kieranalger)

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