By Anne Miller, Contributor
Can the U.S. Air Force help create a better college football player? Can better football players lead to better Airmen and women, soldiers, and members of the special forces?
For just shy of a decade, Dr. Josh Hagen, the lead for the Signature Tracking for Optimized Nutrition and Training Team at the Air Force Research Laboratory, has been trying to find out.
Previously based in the 711th Human Performance Wing at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and now at the University of West Virginia, Hagen is capitalizing on a raft of modern biometric tracking technology to better understand — and maximize — human physical performance and recovery on both the gridiron and military missions.
At a time when apps on smartphones can track heart rates and baseball managers crunch statistics to analyze how right-handed designated hitters face left-handed pitchers in the seventh inning, data can reveal patterns that inform the physical performance of top-caliber athletes — and, perhaps, when it comes to the military, save lives and boost battlefield service.
Fielding Data Analytics
Not all data is worth gathering, so Hagen and his team in Dayton had to figure out what they should track, and how, and then develop ways to analyze that data.
As Hagen put it, “How do I measure physiological signs, and how does that map against performance?”
Heart rate was an obvious indicator of resting and recovery versus performance and effort. Stress was another issue he wanted to address. But perhaps most importantly, the researchers needed a large group of elite athletes who had measurable outcomes and whose schedules and movements were tightly controlled, so that they could make reliable data comparisons.
It’s one thing to study, say, running backs in daily practices across several months, especially compared to weekly game outcomes or even practice scrimmages. It’s not so easy to study special forces team activity in the field. Teams stationed in places like Iraq can’t share details of their day or movements, and factors like sleep, diet, and exertion are difficult to track in a consistent manner when timing and resources constantly shift.
But champion collegiate football players are regimented. They have tightly-planned schedules and highly-honed physiques, on par with special forces teams. They have measurable performance outcomes on the practice field and right there on the scoreboard.
For Hagen, studying collegiate football players meant consistent data and comparable and transferable results — from world-class athletes on the field to world-beating fighters on the battlefield.
Looking to Smart Technology
In 2013, Hagen approached Ohio State University, not far from his former Dayton base, about studying its athletes. Football might be the most prominent program at the university (the Buckeyes were national champions in 2014), but Hagen’s crew soon discovered the advantage of also working with a variety of teams—OSU alone had 36 varsity sports teams and more than 1,000 student athletes in 2015, as associate athletic director told the Business Journal. That gave Hagen an even greater pool of data points to inform his studies and help him draw more detailed conclusions. (His team also works with athletes at the University of Cincinnati.)
And while finding premier athletes was one half of the story, Hagen and his researchers also needed access to advanced technology to measure their performance. Carrying the weight of the U.S. military, Hagen’s office was able to persuade tech companies to share some of the latest biometric tracking equipment. For example, Hagen said that when he started this project four years ago, his team bought an Adidas shoe pod that attached to a shoe to track running performance. His researchers have also employed performance monitors from Catapult, which excel at tracking physical movements like acceleration and deceleration while running, as well as chest strap/wrist readout products from performance companies such as Garmin, Polar and Suunto. These and other devices can generate reams of data on the football players, which Hagen hopes to apply to military development.
For the makers of these products, there is the potential added benefit of field testing. “Companies are putting in millions of dollars into these devices,” Hagen said. It’s in their best interest to know, “Are they good enough for the military to use them?”
The tools Hagen and his team have used in their studies include a heart rate variability monitor from Thought Technology that tracks exertion and recovery heart rates the next day. The researchers built upon the technology, creating algorithms that looked at outcomes in relation to athlete data — if they had 100 data points, for example, which ones would fluctuate or change in a way that correlated to performance? That helped them narrow their focus from hundreds to dozens of measurements, and then they could focus on those dozens to further hone the most predictive. In addition to using wearables, Hagen’s team also drew blood and tracked cortisol levels, a hormone indicative of stress.
After several years and thousands of data points, the researchers pieced together conclusions that serve as payback for the university’s volunteers. This isn’t just a scientific study in which results enter a scientific journal and disappear, Hagen explained. The findings are specific enough to provide recommendations for how athletic organizations can improve performance and take better care of their athletes the following year.
Signs of Recovery and Improvement
Hagen and his team were able to identify recovery issues, as well as mental-health issues, that could impact performance.
For starters, athletes may not recover as fast as they think they do. Some had higher morning heart rates than expected for a recovery time, demonstrating their bodies remained in “flight or fight” mode, not resting. Recovery is necessary to ready the body for top performance on game day, or in battle.
“Maybe you think that you’re tapering training and you think that you’re recovering, but you’re really not,” Hagen said. “Being chronically under-recovered leads to injury and illness.” His team studied a type of sensory-deprivation hydrogen therapy and found it could bring finely-tuned bodies back to rest.
Hagen also found that increased cortisol levels can suggest a need for emotional support that some athletes may not be able to articulate. A rise in the cortisol levels of the Cincinnati women’s soccer team, for example, was linked to academic finals week, which spurred coaches to back off a bit when they might not have otherwise.
“We altered their training load and gave them a lot of recovery that week,” Hagen said. “It’s giving those athletes every chance of success.”
And while Hagen cautioned that his work isn’t a magic potion for every player, even subtle changes can help improve overall team performance. “If you’re coaching 100 guys, [our research] may pick up something in five or six guys that [impacts the entire team.]”
Ideally, Hagen imagines a time in the near future when the Air Force can give its special operations teams a similar optimized training and rest schedule in order to ensure they hit a peak performance window during a targeted mission.
And, if hidden signs of stress like those found in athletes could lead to treatments that keep bodies and minds in better shape, perhaps these athletic performance studies will map to, say, the fields of Afghanistan.
Avoiding Future Injury
Now that the studies have hit Hagen’s initial goals — finding a large enough cohort to be able to gather meaningful data, proving the theory that collecting and analyzing such data can have direct payoffs in terms of understanding performance, and making adjustments based on data analysis — he’s started focusing on next-step goals. His researchers are working on a tool that measures sweat but resembles a Band-Aid: small, unobtrusive, and yet houses the ability to measure excretions down to a molecular level. No blood draws needed. He hopes to introduce the technology in a year.
His team is also working on mapping data to injury. Could biometrics predict a player more likely to suffer injuries? In an unpredictable realm where a quarterback sack could end with a broken ankle, it’s not easy to separate freakish accidents from predictable outcomes. That type of study takes a lot of time and a great many subjects, Hagen said.
Thankfully, he has both.