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The Science of Sports

by Richard Quinones
…From the pages of South Jersey Magazine…

Gaining the competitive sports edge with a high-tech advantage

Remember pushups?

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when dedication to the gym and building muscle and strength meant a commitment to a simple yet structured workout routine. These days, with nouveau fitness regimens buzzing and new enhancers continuously hitting the market, everyone is fixated on the next big movement.

In a bit of a twist, as today’s athletes grow bigger and stronger, more and more are trading in their supplements for an unexpected reason—science. That’s because cutting-edge technology and equipment along with calculated research is helping transform the level of athletic competition.

Having a problem with your endurance during long-distance running? Do you get overly tired halfway through your weight lifting routine? Want to improve your vertical leap before next season’s tip-off? Once armed with the necessary information, experts can pinpoint target areas and cater training programs around specific, rather than general, needs.

Historically, exercise testing has been on a treadmill or a stationary bike with a tube connecting the athlete to an analyzer. Now imagine having scientists and trainers monitor your performance on a mobile unit you can wear. It’s exercise with a definite sense of purpose.

At Velocity Sports Performance in Cherry Hill, not only will trainers work up specific routines to strengthen your weaknesses, but you can also work within their Performance Lab, a partnership with the Rothman Institute designed to combine the worlds of science and medicine to help an athlete reach their peak.

Rothman’s Dr. Michael Ross conducts several different testing procedures to help devise a personalized training program. “This gives us the ability to have people run naturally, sometimes doing sport-specific workouts on the turf, track or rowing ergometer to help with diagnosis, especially if we need to reproduce the environment in which their symptoms started,” he explains.

Ross, who has worked with several pro cycling teams and professional athletes during the past decade, tracks four main variables when gauging an athlete’s level of fitness.

“We track oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide exhalation, heart rate and ventilation. By combining these, we can see strengths and weaknesses in an athlete’s metabolism and identify any heart, lung or muscle problems that might be limiting exercise.”

It’s heady stuff for sure, but Ross is quick to point out that whether you are going to see him for a breathing problem, a knee problem, or to improve your fitness, the process is always the same. “We evaluate the problem, make a diagnosis, and then use medical knowledge to get you to where you want to be. Just as I wouldn’t tell you to ‘walk it off’ if you had knee pain, I wouldn’t have you go out for a ride or run without a purpose.”

And it’s not just in the gym where science is helping athletes improve their game. At the Hit Doctor Baseball and Softball Academy in Voorhees, they can not only monitor your swing, but they can critique and help you make adjustments, all in a matter of minutes, thanks to state-of-the art software.

“Parents can record their kid’s at-bats during a live game, record it on their iPhone or iPad and download it, and send it to us at the facility, where we can critique the swing,” said co-director Joe Barth.

Using biokinetics along with a computerized motion analysis, hitters are able to make adjustments gradually to improve results. The learning curve in video gets cut tenfold, according to Barth, who has seen hundreds of young athletes he has worked with go on to play professionally, most recently Millville’s Mike Trout, who was the top-rated prospect in the country and was drafted 25th overall in the 2009 Major League Baseball Draft by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

One piece of equipment that is already used in Major League Baseball, and something Barth is excited about, is the SmartKage—essentially a batting cage that collects data every time you step in the box—which touts itself as bringing America’s pastime into the future.

An extremely expensive and high-tech evaluation system, the SmartKage measures and reports each player’s skills. It is a precise way to see an athlete’s strengths, while identifying weaknesses. The equipment costs well over a million dollars and can measure 26 of the most important baseball or softball skills. A database is created and kids can see where they measure up against others across the country. It also gives MLB a leg up when it comes to scouting high school players. Come spring, Barth’s clients will have access to the equipment.

Perhaps the most consistent use of science and technology to bolster performance comes by way of runners. Whether training for a marathon or just jogging around the local park, runners are turning to GPS units that track everything from heart rate and calories burned to time and distance traveled. Then that data is downloaded to a computer where progress can be charted.

“This simple but intricate device has so many benefits for runners of all levels, but really is designed to help beginners track progress,” says Dave Welsh, owner of Haddonfield Running Company. For those who go from the couch to a 5K, a simple monitoring process goes a long way in reaping the rewards of pounding the pavement.

Haddonfield Memorial High School’s Tim Kenna, a member of the track team, uses Nike’s version of the GPS watch and believes the technology helped the team during training and their eventual state championship run last year.

“We always assumed we were running our training runs at a certain pace,” said Kenna.

“This pacing really helped us get more fit than we ever have been and helped us win the title. It is a great tool.”

It’s just another example of today’s athlete striving to be bigger, faster, stronger, and ultimately, more efficient.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 11 (February, 2012).
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