The connected athlete

Data have invaded every area of our lives – even exercise. Embedded accelerometers and GPS, not to mention gyrometers, provide valuable information on our speed, direction and step count. Peripheral sensors measure physiological parameters such as pulse and blood pressure. All these data are fed into applications to set targets, just like a personal trainer.

New technologies have not yet sidelined sports coaches altogether, according to Steven Vos, professor at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e). “The problem with current software is that it explains how to train, but in line with the elite sports concept, i.e. going ever faster and further,” he says. “But that’s not recommended for people who are not in proper physical condition.” He adds: “Exercise undeniably has a positive impact on health, but the benefits take time. That’s why too many people stop their workouts prematurely.”

Approaches need to cater to each individual to make exercise as appealing as possible. Vos hopes to do that by designing smart systems that can attract, monitor and motivate amateur athletes. “Smartphones have become a natural extension of our body,” he says, making a variety of data continuously available. Using this information, researchers have already identified five different profiles of budding athletes, a first step towards personalised programmes to encourage people to exercise.

Mechanical muscles

Until now, most applications have been used in endurance sports like running, because they are widely practised and compatible with today’s sensors. But other sports, such as tennis, also require proper technique. Leap Technology, a Danish start-up, has developed sensors made of materials featuring mechanical characteristics similar to muscles. These fibre-like materials, which adhere directly to the skin or are woven into fabric, are made in malleable, stretchable and super-thin electroactive polymers that can detect the slightest fluctuation. “It takes minimal force to distort them, which makes them mechanically transparent and does not hinder movement,” says Alan Poole, the company’s head of marketing. The system can analyse how muscles and joints work, for example, to perfect a lifted backhand on the courts. It can also be used to study how an athlete interacts with equipment: to optimise how a foot hits the ground when running, while factoring in the shoe’s distortion. The sensors are scheduled to hit the market in about two years.

Other technologies are directed at athletes’ brains. Jakob Eg Larsen, a professor at the Technical University of Denmark, has developed neuroscience applications such as the electroencephalogram (EEG) for smartphones. He teamed up with the company Emotiv to create the “smartphone brain scanner”. This system features a headset fitted with electrodes that collects data on brain activity. The data are then transmitted wirelessly to an application that produces 3D images of the brain. Resolution is not as high as with a laboratory EEG, but its portability makes it easy to use in natural conditions. Neurofeedback, a treatment used for psychological illnesses, could be adapted to improve training. This technique monitors data on brain activity to train the brain to regulate certain functions using video displays.

Virtual vs. human coach

More professional techniques are becoming widely available to amateur athletes. To gain muscle strength and prevent injury, Massimo Mischi, an associate professor at TU/e, has found a way to make weight-lifting training sessions more effective without using heavier weights. His discovery, based on a natural muscular reflex, increases the impact of workouts by 25% to 100%, depending on the specific muscle involved. The Dutch company Hipermotion has applied the technique to develop its new fitness machine, the MaxDFM.

A virtual coach offering personalised advice and ideal muscle build – Olympus for amateurs? Perhaps not. Future applications could even make such recommendations as, “If you want to run a half marathon in your condition, go see a real coach,” says Vos. These technological advances applied to amateur sports will more likely enhance our health more than our performance.

European mobile applications that boost running performance

Endomondo (Denmark)

Tracks the distance, route, and duration of runs as well as the calories burned. Users can set their goals to beat a friend’s or their own previous performance.

Spotify (Sweden)

Using phone sensors to measure a runner’s tempo, it chooses music that helps keep the pace.

Zombies, Run! (UK)

Immerses joggers in a world where they must run to escape zombies and fulfil various missions. The soundtracks make for training sessions full of suspense.

Runtastic (Austria)

Offers a personal exercise diary to keep track of running metrics. Other features include a customizable dashboard, detailed exercise information and progress sharing over social networks.



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