How Far Can You Push Physical Limits With A Sports Wearable?

Wearables have brought about significant benefits to the sports community. But it has also raised questions about their effectiveness.

Most sports wearables takes the form of the motion tracker: GPS-enabled wristwatches that monitor everything from distance travelled to heart rate, energy output, calories burnt and dozens more useful metrics.

Some go a step further to even instruct the wearer during their physical training.

The Zepp wearable sensor is one example of this. The wearable tracks data from every swing of the club or racquet, and sends feedback over time to eliminate errors and achieve greater overall consistency. You can even call up videoed or 3D-rendered swings of a cluster of professional athletes and attempt to replicate their technique. So far, there are versions available for golf, baseball, tennis and softball.

The possibilities are incredible. Wearables like these don’t just improve personal training and fitness. It teaches consumers to be more self-aware about their bodies and how to improve their physical condition in an informed way.

But not everyone is onboard with the idea of sports wearables.

Professor David Lloyd, a biomechanical engineer and injury-prevention specialist based at Griffith University in Queensland said, “A lot of the consumer-level products that have been rushed onto shelves are demonstrably inaccurate.”

Recent studies claim that consumer level heart rate monitors can be off by as much as 15-20 heart beats per minute, and creates potentially dangerous situations.

“That may not be a concern for your average consumer trying to track their fitness levels. But for elite sporting franchises, where every athlete is potentially a multimillion-dollar asset, that’s another issue entirely,” Lloyd said.

He does however assert that the vast amounts of data collected by these wearables, can be an invaluable source of information for researchers and sports centres.

Newcastle Knights centre Pat Mata'utia wearing one of the club's high-tech GPS tracking units.
Newcastle Knights centre Pat Mata’utia wearing one of the club’s high-tech GPS tracking units.

“For example, we know that the Achilles tendon – one of the most vulnerable and difficult-to-rehabilitate parts of an athlete’s anatomy – actually strengthens when under a specific strain range of around four to six percent,” he said.

“Spend too long under that range and you invite atrophy. Engage in prolonged activity over that range and you may begin to tear and eventually snap the tendon. Well, we now have a grant and a project under way to develop a wearable device that monitors that activity and strain in real-time. From an injury-prevention and rehab standpoint, such a device is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Fundamentally, a mix of technology and training will be the most ideal for anyone training with a wearable or sports gadget.

“The unspoken promise of devices like that is that you too can have the swing of an Adam Scott. But in reality that’s just not going to happen,” said Andrew McCombe, CEO of Golf University.

Newcastle Knights Head of Sports Science Jace Delaney believes the versatile, non-restrictive nature of the GPS training units – worn here under the team strip – provide valuable training and post-game data.
Newcastle Knights Head of Sports Science Jace Delaney believes the versatile, non-restrictive nature of the GPS training units – worn here under the team strip – provide valuable training and post-game data.

“It took Scott 35 years and a thousand swings a day to build his game. Sure, give me a GPS watch that tells me how far it is to the green, whether the pin’s at the back, front or middle. But beyond that, a reliance on wearable tech breeds just that: reliance. At a certain point you have to rely on yourself,” said McCombe.

Jace Delaney, head of sports science for the Newcastle Knights NRL club, agrees. He advocates a return to a simpler time.

“It is of the utmost importance that the technology is used correctly, in tandem with an integrated and collaborative high-performance staff. Simplicity is still the key. No amount of new technology will replace the common sense and know-how of a good, experienced and knowledgeable performance coach,” said Delaney.

At the end of the day, balance is still key.

While sports tech has pushed the limits of our physical training, it’s still up to us to ensure that we’re reaping the biggest benefits out of it.

Hero image: Golf University CEO Andrew McCombe (left) has his swing assessed by TrackMan.

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