At the highest levels of sport, milliseconds and millimetres make the difference between winning and losing. Biomechanics – the science of human movement – can now harness data and advanced tech to analyse these tiny details and help athletes perfect their performance.
For example, member of the JAM Team and three time Olympic swimmer Francesca Halsall is probably not someone with much to learn about diving into a pool. But when she tried out some newly-developed underwater sensors, she discovered she could actually make several subtle improvements to her starts.
“I received a whole document with photos of every phase of my start and detailed points for improvement, like ‘Work on flatter shin angle of the front foot just before leaving the block’,” says Halsall. “It sounds like nitpicking, but in swimming you need every bit of an edge you can get – especially at the start. It’s a lot like business in that sense.”
While technology and data have been used in sport for some time, they’re now seeing increasing use across sports disciplines, becoming increasingly big business, and attracting more investment. BAE Systems has been UK Sport’s official Research & Development Partner since 2008, creating tech which has been used at different Olympic Games to benefit 250 Olympic and Paralympic athletes in over 30 sports.
The importance of data in sport became clear in 2015 when the International Football Association Board decided to allow wearable tech on the pitch. Electronic performance and tracking systems (EPTS) are now a common sight in training and even during the World Cup.
More recently, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) released reports from the biggest ever biomechanics study in athletics. 49 high-speed and HD cameras recorded the world’s top athletes at the IAAF World Championships, and the IAAF and Leeds Beckett University analysed their movements.
Like the data from the underwater sensors, these reports go into meticulous detail; for example, the report on the men’s 100 metres gives the angles of different parts of the finalists’ bodies at touchdown and toe-off (the moments of the foot touching and leaving the ground), their mean speed over each 10-metre section of the track, and their mean step length.
This is useful learning material not only for the elite athletes who were actually analysed, but for athletes and coaches all over the world, who now have specifics on how to emulate them.
Data like this can also be used to reduce the risk of injury. For example, the men’s 100 metres report mentioned that Usain Bolt ran asymmetrically: his left foot stayed in contact with the ground for longer than his right. Bolt has had trouble with his left leg during his career; this asymmetry could be part of the problem.
While COVID has benched many athletes and forced the postponement of the Olympics, it’s also further accelerated the development of technology and data. When sport returns to normal, tech is likely to play an even greater role than ever before.
To get to know more about what Fran is doing at JAM, you can find her Consultant page by navigating to Meet The Team!