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Pace Breaker: How Biomarkers Move Sport & Life into Full Throttle

By Carl Valle, June 12, 2015

Soccer_Throttle

Last weekend was a perfect example of how the term pace, in sport, is evolving each year. Three sports exemplified the concept of pace: horse racing, elite soccer, and Formula 1 auto racing. In a span of 24 hours, history was made at the Belmont stakes, thrilling lead changes in occurred Montreal during the Canadian Grand Prix, and glory was claimed in Berlin at the Champion’s League Final.

The sporting world showcased some of its best athletes pushing past their limits; and those extreme limits continue to be pushed as sports science unveils the mystery of what makes the body better. Recent studies explain how simple walking pace can help predict longevity within the general population, redefining the value of step-total versus speed. Pace is tossed around casually as a crude summary of speed of competition, but biomarkers and the wearable technologies available today are poised to help the average fan understand what pace truly means.

Defining Pace in Life and Sport

A working definition of the term “pace” is qualitatively different, as it applies to everyday people and professional athletes. Pace and pacing can range from the description of a mundane walking step to the precise, tactical race plan of a professional cyclist. The term becomes even more vague in team sport, an arena with far more chaos thanks to infinitely more variables.

In the sport of soccer, for instance, pace is viewed as a representation of work rate; or how much effort over time a player is exerting during the game. Professional soccer teams wanting to protect their multimillion-dollar athletes have invested in wearable and camera based player technologies, tracking every step over time and distance.

Soccer_Speed_maximum_-_graphic

Time is the ultimate metric, but without context it doesn’t tell the whole story. It can be argued that pace is the expression of both speed and distance with respect to time -- a Holy Grail quality for most sports. In most cases, a team or athlete that can do more in less time with the same skill level, be it running on a field or swimming in a pool, will enjoy a greater impact than those that are less talented or improperly trained. Faster athletes are wonderful assets to teams, but with greater distances covered and more minutes played, come injuries. The sporting world is facing an epidemic of injuries. This crisis is forcing professional teams to turn to data as a solution, with mixed results.

A Data Disconnection with Biometrics

With all of this data rolling out like a tidal wave, one would think that injuries would be decreasing and world-class performances improving. The truth of the matter is that the results of player tracking is more like Jurassic Park: the idea looks great on paper but the gap between concept and execution can still very much be felt.  Teams seem to forget that the limiting factors are not what sport science knows about biology, but the simple need to have athletes comply with interventions.

No matter how much data a team collects, the choices an individual athlete makes on their own is usually the limiting factor. As sport seems to speed up every few years, time to prepare for competition shrinks. This creates a veritable sports medicine nightmare for performance coaches who are hired to prevent or reduce injuries. Simply put, athletes are underprepared and overplayed.

Soccer_Distribution_-_graphic

Training based sports like elite running and cycling, where prize money and appearance fees reward athletes financially, force necessary risk-taking and compromise in performance.  As sports continue to deal with the “star athlete injury plague,” it seems that team coaches have become something akin to professional gamblers at high stakes poker: they hope to beat the odds with shaky forms of data and strategy.

The competitive gap is shrinking with every team now budgeting for technology and hiring the leading performance and medical teams. The next frontier will involve looking at how the brain and biomarkers interplay, rather than just collecting a summary of data on distance traveled and peak heart rates. The current playing field is becoming increasingly level, thanks to athlete data such as GPS tracking and heart rate measurements. Now the game changer is artificial intelligence and simulators -- both in elite sport and in the general population. Teams are finally understanding that it’s not about warehousing and seeing all of the data; it’s combining it all to create a working model of what can get better and what could go wrong.

A Turning Point within Sport Science

Research on injury rates show that if a soccer athlete competes twice a week, his or her injury risk dramatically increases. Unfortunately, MLS teams are trying to manage the need to win with the attrition of injuries that comes with competing twice a week. Resting players too much can reduce fitness, a variable that decreases the rate of injury. The fine line of trying to rest enough for games, all while maintaining the qualities that make one elite, is still more art than science. Professional teams like DC United are aware of the growing trend in the sport of soccer and are dealing with near-impossible schedules by looking at data that can lead to action. Expert performance coach Rotchstein summarizes the challenge with the following insight:

“There is no doubt that work output in soccer players is getting higher and faster.  As the game has evolved we have seen a further shift even further down the strength & power continuum.  While total distance covered during matches has increased slightly over the years, the percentage of distance covered by sprinting has increased to a much higher degree.  Not only that, top end speeds have increased dramatically.  As a rule, your average soccer athletes are much faster and more athletic than they have been before.  You may have noticed that due to this evolution of the game, the importance and inclusion of repeat sprint ability has become a staple in physical preparation programming for soccer.”

-Adam Rotchstein, DC United Physical Preparation Coach

Performance coaches are facing a daunting challenge: the time to physically prepare athletes is decreasing due to contractual agreements between clubs and players. With athletes living away from their teams in the offseason, sometimes preparing adequately and sometimes neglecting the right elements of success, professional soccer teams are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to getting athletes ready for the long grind of a season.

A Growing Trend with Growing Athletes

Injuries in soccer are rising not only at the professional level; at the youth level the problem is worse. Youth sports are at-risk due to the calendar pushing more games in tournaments, creating a spike in non-contact injuries like ACL tears and overuse syndromes one would only expect to see at the English Premier League level. Just as the elite level is facing a crisis, youth levels are facing a similar problem with players being thrown into the fire of doing too much for too long. With scholarships and general pressures to make travel teams and clubs, athletes are participating in performance enhancement programs to ward off injuries and developer further -- but the data shows they are more at risk than ever.

Distance_Covered_in_Soccer

 

The modern soccer youth player is analogous to the white rhino: the child athlete is now an endangered species that needs protection from money-driven clubs which act as talent poachers. The sport science director at the Philadelphia Union Academy, an affiliate of the MLS team of the same name, is already addressing the future challenges by preparing the athlete for where the sport will be in 10 to 20 years. Garrison Draper, who guides and directs the developmental players with the best practices of athlete long-term development states:

"The game of soccer is becoming faster. If we expect our athletes to sprint past anyone at the world stage, our training regimen must emphasize this and create specific environments to allow the athletes to prepare for this.  Much of these changes don't necessitate large changes in training culture, as it can be obtained with the ball in 'Soccer' specific training.  But to really create these optimal environments, it takes a combination of Athletic Development and Soccer Specific Training to push our athletes forward."

The Philadelphia Union Academy hosted a clinic to educate coaches and performance staff on the value of player monitoring with GPS and other tools this past March. Colleges are now investing into ways to keep millions of dollars of athletes on the field, and now the youth levels are seeking the same solutions to help their own plight of reducing injuries and avoiding poor performance. Even with all of the information on physiological data on heart rate and GPS, professional sport is still seeing the problems rise without a strong solution -- until now.

Faster, Higher, Stronger or Fresher, Fitter, and Smarter?

Noted author Mark McClusky dove into the pursuit of what the world’s best athletes do to be their best and discovered that InsideTracker was part of that puzzle. The book, Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes--and What We Can Learn from Them, was published last year. Since then, the understanding of how biomarkers connect the dots between technology and the human body, has continued to evolve at a rapid pace. On page 58, the author and editor of Wired Magazine explains why biomarkers matter:

“…It means getting good information about your own body and learning how it reacts to what you eat and drink, and even thinking about getting blood work and consulting with a sports nutritionist if you’re serious about hacking your diet.”

A diet is just the first step when it comes to applying the information found in blood biomarkers, as training and intelligent resting are part of the winning formula for both “superathletes” and regular people. You can buy a sleep mask to mask a sleep problem, or you can tackle it internally by seeing financial stress showing up in your veins after a blood test and making life changes.  One can look to total steps on a pedometer and wonder why the count is low, or look at their own metabolism and see why the total is low. 

What biomarkers do perfectly is explain the response to how an athlete recovers from a game and identify why injuries seem to resurface, when properly integrated to a monitoring program. An elevated heart rate alone merely shares a number without showing the details -- such as if an athlete is dealing with personal stress or struggling with anemia. A literal “arms race” with sport watches is growing, but no wearable can yet screen for Vitamin D, a nutrient deficiency which happens to be a problematic issue for NFL players. Simply put, GPS tools and heart rate data describe what is going on, biomarkers explain the root reason why those measures are helping or hindering an athlete’s performance.

Some scientists see the ABCs (activity, biomarkers, cardiology) of sports monitoring as a rock, paper, and scissors game, with each data set competing or dominating another. In reality, all three work together, linked by biomarkers. Every device product claims to be the compass that guides training -- but it’s wise to remember that it is not the map nor orientation tools that make the explorer; it’s the insight and interpretation of those tools that do. Biomarkers give the final touch by adding that extra calibration to technologies that remain slaves to the pitfalls of synthetic algorithms made in a lab.

Hemo_Iron_Group

As the title of McClusky’s hints, one should first learn from Superathletes -- or what we at InsideTracker call “super humans” -- before designing the next breed of athlete. Over the last few months, InsideTracker has invested countless hours into modeling improved athletic performance on biomarker optimization. Every system of the body was combed over in order to identify a winning advantage for all human populations -- not just the elite athlete. The purpose of NASA is not only to send someone to the moon; it’s to help everyone here on earth while doing so. The lessons learned from tracking a top cyclist pushing through a race in the badlands of Kansas for a professional win, can also be used by a recreational runner who is trying to finish a memorial road race for their mother. Pace is not only about being the fastest or improving time on every lap; sometimes it’s completing the race that matters.

The stories we have witnessed are amazing, but they only matter because they are backed by science, not marketing ploys or cool buzzwords. While the blood test one receives from InsideTracker is minimally invasive, the answers biomarkers give penetrate deep down to the body’s ocean floor and arrive at the sedimentary core of the truth. Life’s race can be long and rewarding if the right driving and maintenance is done. When one has concrete data at their disposal, the right choices become visible. 

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Keen to learn more? You may enjoy: How Can I Improve my Athletic Performance Using Blood Biochemistry?