Wearable Devices Give Athletes a Personal Performance Boost

Dana McMahan Writer

The newest health-tracking wearables help everyone from casual runners and fitness freaks to professional athletes play harder, longer — and safer.

Technology for top-tier athletes who want to push their limits isn’t new. Companies like Nike have analyzed athletic performance for product development for years.

But casual fitness enthusiasts have never been able to dive deep into data analysis and use it to improve their game — until now.

“There’s definitely been this increasing interest in data,” said Tim Clarke, co-founder of runScribe, a device that uses sensor technology such as accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers (like those found in unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites) to provide a 3D look at a runner’s every step.

“At the elite level, athletes have always had access to tech, but it’s been in a high-dollar lab environment,” he said. ”The equipment is really expensive and required experts to collect it.”

Now everyone from NFL athletes to weekend warriors can benefit from advances in the wearable space. And data collected from these devices is spurring greater accomplishments and reducing injuries.


Since 1980, laboratory scientists, engineers and designers have focused on the biomechanics and physiology of elite athletic performance at Nike’s Sports Research Lab at their world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.

Using state-of-the-art equipment such as 3D motion capture and high-speed video cameras, the teams collect and analyze data to inform innovation in Nike’s products.

Meanwhile at MIT, the STE@M (Sports Technology and Education @ MIT) program harnesses student creativity to prototype and test new sports products.

This new “2.0 version” of a program Kim Blair, Ph.D., began in 1999 looks at the needs of athletes and develops products such as shoes for marathon runners and materials for baseball bats.

Now with GPS technology and smartphones widely available, data that used to require supercomputers and expert data crunching is available instantly and in wearable form.

Among the new technologies is a haptic navigational shoe from Lechal originally designed for people with visual impairments. Wearers simply use foot gestures or voice commands to use the shoe as a navigational tool; the shoe communicates back by vibrating.

The Bluetooth-enabled technology can be used by anyone who wants to count steps and track calories burned.


Smart clothes from companies like SmartLife let fitness buffs track heart rate, calorie burn and more, all through an electronic brain embedded in a garment. BioSport in-ear headphones by SMS Audio deliver have a built-in heart-rate monitoring system, so you can listen to music and track your cardio output without wires or straps.

Performance isn’t just about training and what happens on the field, but also what happens off the field, especially during recovery. Trainers and coaches are seeing sleep quality as a critical component to performance.

Fitness and sleep trackers like the Basis Peak provide a comprehensive picture of sleep stages like deep and REM sleep as well as metrics like duration, interruptions and sleep quality.

“We’ve seem a huge uptick in interest from professional athletes on understanding more about their sleep” says Jef Holove, General Manger of Basis, an Intel company. “They see these deeper insights, and the benefits of improving their sleep, as giving them a competitive advantage.”

Thanks to technology getting smaller, power requirements diminishing and prices dropping, people can collect data that was historically only available in a lab.

Getting out of the lab was the impetus behind Catapult, which is the name of both the Australian company and the sports team tracking system. Worn between the shoulder blades, the device uses GPS as well as what’s called Inertial Movement Analysis to track the body’s movements.

“We came up with technology to monitor what your body does when you play,” says Brian Kopp, Catapult president for North America. “It captures every single micro-movement your body makes, then translates the output into data so you know how hard you work.”

Wearable devices can recognize when an athlete is fatigued, compensating for muscle tightness, dehydrated, over-exerting and countless other factors. They can be, said Clarke, an athlete’s “guardian angel.”

“If you’re training for an event, you’re walking a very fine line between not enough and too much,” said STE@M’s Blair. “Not enough means you’re not making progress as quickly as you could. Too much could spell disaster.”


Using Catapult, Kopp said the 2013 champion Florida State Seminoles saw an 88 percent reduction in soft tissue injuries among their football players.

“They’ve been smarter about how they practice and push, and it all starts with how they measure,” he said.

But not all coaches are ready for technology telling them what to do. Kopp said coaches who have been at it for forty years find it difficult to replace gut instinct and experience with data.

“It takes a fair bit of self-education to learn how to best use these technologies if you’re going to improve,” Blair said, adding that the onus is on athletes to find a system that works for them.

Coaching staffs now find themselves augmented with dedicated performance managers, who crunch numbers and report back to coaches.

Individual athletes must choose whether to manage their own data or hire a professional who’s an expert at data analytics to help them.

“You can upload your data and develop training programs without ever meeting a coach,” said Blair, who used remote technology to train for an Ironman with a coach in Oregon.

Though the technology is rolling out quickly, it has a ways to go before it’s fully embraced. Pro players can’t wear devices in games, Kopp said, and while college players can, they’re not allowed to stream the data live.

“Imagine a day, technologically, when you could be wearing a device and stream to the sideline and the coach knows when to take someone out,” Kopp said, noting that this happens in Australia and the U.S. likely won’t be too far behind.

The next big development will be integrated, customizable technology — things that measure other parameters of the body, such as hydration.

“We’re also seeing an explosion in instruments you put on sports equipment [such as baseball bats or tennis racquets] to measure swing,” said Blair. “Motion tracking technology is just getting a foothold.”

Regardless of the tech, it needs to be easy to use and be effective at pushing athletes to perform safely.

“It’s not technology vs. humans. We’re not trying to build an athlete to beat someone who’s not using technology,” Kopp said. “At the end of the day, you still need someone to go out and perform. All we’re doing is making it so people who do those amazing things are in the best condition they can be.”


Dana McMahan is a freelance writer, chronic adventurer and serial learner of sports who divides her time between bourbon country in Kentucky, and Detroit. Follow her on Twitter: @danamac.

Photo Credits: runScribe Facebook page; paulinux /; Catapult Facebook page.



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