Athlete Tracking- From Satellite to Microscope

By Carl Valle, June 3, 2015


When president Clinton opened GPS data to the public, the ensuing translation of space-age, futuristic technology into consumer products enabled the weekend warrior to experience and deploy an entirely new way of measuring and contextualizing training. We have reached critical mass in this market. Now that the most casual of 5k racers is sporting a GPS-enabled watch, the question is, what is the future in wearables and monitoring? Many tracking devices have recently been under scrutiny for accuracy, according to research at the 2015 American College of Sports Medicine Conference, but the potent question is less about the precision of the sensors and more about the value of the data in driving and improving human performance. Interestingly, what started out as a seemingly long shot with GPS athlete tracking from satellites is rapidly combining with body mechanics and blood analysis, and entering the molecular level. Sports data and sports analytics are not a fad and are here to stay; and the casual fan will start seeing more live athlete data in the years to come, weaving data sets from the satellite to the microscope.

The Oil Spill of Athlete Data

Data is the new oil, and now that wearables are affordable and widely available...well, we are drowning in numbers; some of them valid and some of them, perhaps, just ornamental. More and more professional teams are using measurement devices, ranging from the latest smart fabrics to tiny sensors on athletic shoes to collect data. As recently as five years ago, professional teams were the only ones having access to lab-grade data, but the consumer market is evolving so fast that the average joes are now caught up to the pros. Going to a sporting goods department store and picking out the right heart rate monitor can be overwhelming, not to mention the dozens of web or mobile platforms that promise better ways to use the data rushing out like a geyser. Taking pause for a moment, thoughtful consideration needs to be given to any data we are collecting to validate and calibrate their true value. Data in itself is not meaningful unless a proactive change or intervention is possible and choices can be made, supported, repeated, and supported again. The observable and visualized data must equate to a possible impact we can and want to track or measure. The principle of the smallest worthwhile change is growing with sport scientists for a reason; because coaches and athletes want to know - is the effort worth it? Can the data collected, possibly requiring a lot of time and effort, actually make a difference on the clock or on the field? Teams and national training centers are spending millions of dollars on athlete monitoring systems, sport scientists, and the latest technologies, but is it working?

From Horses to Humans- A Brief and Early History of Sports Data


The first shot in competitive sport with data may have been chariot racing in ancient Rome. That was long before the Kentucky Derby added the betting component to the equation. As soon as hard cash is on the line, evolution accelerates faster than the competitive spirit by itself. Competitions that are measured by the clock like auto racing and equine sports naturally force creativity, and inevitably lead to cheating of the rules by some, to attempt to get to the winning formula. For every ingenious training or equipment design progress, drugs and unethical strategies have matched sport in order to collect a bigger pay day. While the sport of horse racing is in decline for many reasons, the science and data collected on those animals and their “drivers” is the primordial soup for today’s approaches to modern sports tracking. Legendary Roman racers had plenty of motivation to win besides the immense wealth and fame; they literally could earn their freedom if they lived; yes, many of them were slaves. With these kinds of stakes, technical advances such as keeping detailed statistics on a horse’s pedigree and breed data rapidly ended up being the norm. Athlete statistics were collected as well during the Roman Empire. In a fascinating review of chariot history, Mike Hanlon summarizes the impressive resume of the top charioteer Diocles:

“Four-horse races were the modern day equivalent of MotoGP or Formula One – the fastest of all the sport’s variations. Diocles won 1,462 of the 4,257 four-horse races in which he competed which calculates to a winning ratio of 34.34% over a remarkably long career of 24 years.”

All of the history of chariot racing is more than just showing a rich background of sport, it serves as a testament to the importance of detailed record keeping in order to break records, be it in the walls of the Circus Maximus in ancient Rome or the modern box score after an NBA game. Every component of a Formula 1 race car is monitored by the latest sensors and technology to optimize performance, and that same approach is being translated to the body, the human machine.

Athlete Dashboards and Wearables - Beyond Moneyball

Moneyball was a catalyst for teams reaching beyond player value and into building rosters; it led to the idea that sports medicine and sports performance training could help a team get the advantage. Michael Lewis did share an accurate depiction of the Oakland Athletics, but the book and subsequent movie didn’t tell the whole story. At that time strength and conditioning coach Bob Alejo’s role may in fact have been the x-factor in winning, since the pitching rotation was instrumental to the success of the team. As everyone in pro sports understands, keeping talent on the field by preventing injuries is paramount to winning. Based on the data during Alejo’s tenure over a decade ago, the health and production of the starting pitching was top notch, and that helped make many strength coaches more important to a sports organization today. Baseball is indeed America’s pastime, and today’s smart and modern coaching most likely serves as the hidden variable behind why teams are winning and losing in 2015.

During the time of rising soccer salaries in the UK, Spain, and other countries, teams realized that all data, not just player statistics, were needed to win. Managing the “beautiful game” required more than a coach's eye, it needed technology that could literally tap into satellites and the hearts of athletes to measure how hard and fast players were working. The convergence of combined heart rate monitoring and GPS tracking was born, and now it’s everywhere. Experience any modern spinning class like FlyWheel and the fitness client is now seeing their heart rate live, likely a composite synchronization between the effort on the bike and rhythm of the music playing. Companies like Catapult are increasing in importance for professional teams but Garmin and TomTom are growing in popularity with athlete consumers. What was reserved to the military years ago, or deemed cutting-edge on the latest smartphone is now a feature on a sports watch. Workouts are no longer about mapping out a course before a run; we have entered a real time augmented reality of smart eyewear such as the Recon Jet sunglasses. Google’s own creation may not have made the dent the experts predicted, but other wearables are collecting massive amounts of data like breathing rate, foot strike, and even posture during activity. Professional sports teams are desperately trying to keep afloat with all of the data coming in, and keeping it all organized is a job in itself.


The world’s best teams are managing a billion dollars of talent with Athlete Management Systems (AMS) in order to improve performance and athlete health, but the disruption is likely to occur from the consumer market and from web services like Strava. The San Francisco company provides more than a way to aggregate and visualize the data, they also provide a social network for users to gamify and contextualize their training with the crowd. No longer is one metric the compass for athletic performance, the new standard is seeing one’s own dashboard of data sets, ranging from wattage on a bike to the perfect temperature for deep sleep. Teams are taking the next step beyond a good night’s rest, they are now investing large sums of money into athlete recovery. Last month at the latest NBA Trade Show, companies like Normatec, Marc Pro, and Squid Compression were all vying for team budgets with the promise of a quicker return from competition, training, and injury. The new frontier will not be measuring the workload, but the synthesis between work and rest by measuring the value of the recovery device market.

Are Data Driven Approaches Working in Sport?

In a thought provoking presentation at the NFL Combine this past February, noted Performance Advisor Derek Hansen spoke about the emerging challenges professional football strength coaches are facing today. With the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) limiting preparation time, NFL athletes are likely getting injured not from overtraining, but from the lack of proper preparation. The rising rate of concussions are creating a new problem, athletes are not being exposed to enough training time with reduced weeks to train, and are getting injured without even contact with a tackle or hand placed on them. Much of the problem is not the total amount of running or the speed of the football players, it’s the perfect recipe or balance of the two.


In his presentation, Hansen expressed the understanding of how faster athletes need to increase their lower intensity work while making sure they are faster when they are fresh, or they will break down. Observations from GPS tracking wildlife of cheetahs and other fast land animals have directed high performance advisors to think outside the field and into the plains of the savannah, in order to see the big picture. In seeing how speed needs recovery and the right dose of sprinting, Derek Hansen suggests an optimal balance between lower intensity type training to offset the fatigue of an increasing demand of high intensity work on modern athletes. In his presentation at the Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group Director’s Meeting in May, Derek illustrated the pattern of work to rest ratios and explained the following:

"One of the biggest problems with the training and preparation of athletes in American Football is in relation to their running volumes in practice.  It is not about how much they run, but more “how” they run.  The players are not running fast enough to create positive adaptations for speed and “protect” them from the high speed demands of the game.”

Currently NBA Superstar Kyrie Irving is suffering from knee tendonitis, one of the most common injuries in the league. The underlying factor with the NBA is that the schedule of competition is so demanding, teams are battling pattern overload syndromes due to the pounding on the hardwood and the exhaustive player schedules. Fans are unaware that professional basketball is an entertainment league showcasing stars, not a calendar of competitions designed to adequately rest and recover from games. One tragic irony with new technologies like Sparta Science, is that basketball players are already jumping enough in games, making the tracking of additional jumps in training with force plates perhaps too redundant to those prone to overuse type injuries. Other technologies such as Heart Rate Variability (HRV), a measurement of fatigue, are only valuable when teams are willing to rest teams strategically, such as the San Antonio Spurs and other teams have learned. Without decision making options that can lead to a positive change, monitoring athletes is just an exercise in futility, just with a pretty chart to show the slow torture.

Quantified Self and The Future

Athlete data is no longer an enterprise option with teams and companies, it’s an individual responsibility and opportunity with consumers and elite athletes. New companies are not chasing professional teams, it appears that professional teams are chasing the latest products and services that are available to the junior varsity athlete trying to start for his or her team. Gary Wolf, a pioneer with the Quantified Self movement, is a key player with the athlete performance space, not just the regular person deciding to experiment with tracking their personal data. Disruption is happening everywhere, and users of InsideTracker are the best examples of how data can directly move blood analysis from patient testing to athlete performance. With just a tap of a smartphone screen, a first time marathoner or NFL athlete can get started tracking at the microscopic level. Similar to Uber, a consumer can “order” the most modern blood test and have a real phlebotomist arrive at their door to tap into their vein and the crucial data that flows within.

Just today as we write this piece, a former All-American swimmer turned serious triathlete walked into a lab facility and in less than 24 hours was able to share his blood biomaker data with a former coach, the new normal in correspondence or cloud coaching. Aided by sophisticated algorithms and now artificial intelligence, the future is not a coach or sports medicine professional being replaced by a piece of software in cyberspace, but it’s likely to be a support fleet of “Guardian Angels” watching over us like a protective and invested big brother. Fifteen years ago, navigating a car with the assistance of satellites was the start of sports tracking, and now the biochemical solar system of blood cells, electrolytes, and hormones of super humans and the rest of us are being explored and analyzed with the latest research and software. Nobody can predict the future, but the same challenges and opportunities that faced athletes over a thousand years ago will continue to be there, just understood and addressed in more digital form, with data brought to us from the satellite all the way to the microscope. I can't think of a better time in history to be training, grinding, and achieving.

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