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Electronics - the best legal ergogenic aid for performance enhancement

David Stone has been cycling since the age of 8, specialises in time trial events and has achieved a string of successes in senior events around the world in recent years

Many top sportspeople live by the motto 'Be the best you can be'". In today's ultra competitive sporting world, reaching that peak, maintaining it and then pushing further demands much more detailed information than can be gained from intuition and a stopwatch.

Increasingly, athletes and their trainers are employing hi tech solutions to improve their understanding of performance and identify areas for improvement as well as new training techniques to reach ever higher goals. Over the last two decades, the field of sports science has developed rapidly, enabled by technologies such as precision sensing, geographical positioning and data processing.

Out of the lab
Today's athletes spend many hours training under laboratory conditions, in addition to practising in a 'normal' environment, such as on the track, the road or the water. Training in the lab is an increasingly technical activity, using cutting edge sensing and data processing equipment to detect, record and analyse a range of parameters such as heart rate, ecg patterns, blood flow and oxygen uptake. These are then combined with performance metrics such as force exerted and speed attained to calculate power output and efficiency. The combined sets of sensed and calculated data enable teams to benchmark performance, set goals, find ways to improve, and map progress through regular retesting.

As the top professional teams push the limits of data gathering to measure human performance, some of the more mature ideas are becoming accessible to a wider audience. Even casual cyclists can now buy relatively low priced heart rate meters (hrms), for example, to build a more detailed picture of personal performance. High end hrms are able to store their data for later analysis using pc based software.

Technologies enabling continuous measurement of an athlete's power output have also been taken up enthusiastically, particularly among cyclists. Power data gathered while cycling has benefits in a wide range of sports where cycle training is used to improve performance. These include rowing, cross country skiing, speed skating and also Formula One racing.

On to the road
Over the last 25 years, the German company SRM has successfully commercialised power measurement equipment for use in cycle racing. Power metering uses an array of strain gauges embedded in the crankset, which sense the force exerted throughout 360° of each pedal rotation. By combining this information with other data, such as speed and time, the cyclist's power can be calculated in Watts. Critically, it is possible to collect accurate power data while cycling on the road or the track, allowing top teams to monitor performance accurately in any training ride.

In professional cycling, power data recorded on the road allows teams to optimise factors such as gearing or race strategy, for example to maximise performance on a particular climb or to help coordinate a finishing sprint. Power can even be monitored during races, providing data that can not only benefit teams but is also interesting to doping watchdogs as well as knowledgeable followers keen to know more about their heroes and favourite events.

Again, the benefits are filtering down from the professional sport to top amateurs and club racers. Cranksets from well known manufacturers, featuring embedded power meter technology, are now available as standard catalogue items and can be fitted to a road, track or mountain bike in the same way as an ordinary crankset.

More recently, rapid developments in geographical positioning and mapping, enabled by GPS technology, has added an important new dimension to hi tech sports training. Combining physiological data, power metering and GPS information can provide an even more detailed picture of how hard an athlete is working, and how efficiently, under any set of circumstances. Advantages include the potential to set detailed training targets, work on improving technique, benchmark performance more frequently, and tailor training routines to eliminate weaknesses or, indeed, to maximise strengths.

Sports tech in practice
David Stone, a gold medal winning Paralympic cyclist, is using an impressive variety of hi tech training aids as he prepares for the London 2012 Paralympic Games. David, who has cerebral palsy, is one of three outstanding Paralympians currently sponsored by global electronics distributor Premier Farnell as they prepare for the Games. The Leeds based cyclist has also shared his paralympic journey so far on a dedicated blog on element14, Premier Farnell's online community for design engineers.

David's trainer, Dr Gary Brickley from the University of Brighton, took some time out to explain how David's team is making the most of advanced electronics to help him reach peak performance at exactly the right time.

David uses a bicycle and a tricycle on the road, and also trains in the lab using equipment such as turbo trainers. He is using wireless srm cranks on his road machines, and has recently added a Garmin computer accessible GPS receiver to the equipment used on daily rides. This allows the team to analyse speed in certain sections, and to synchronise the GPS data with the power, cadence and heart rate information collected continuously during the rides. It is possible to make basic efficiency calculations and also to improve areas such as aerodynamics, by examining the relationship between power and speed.

"By looking at the data we can set specific training goals," says Dr Brickley. "Also, since David and I live at different ends of the country, the fact that we can chat using Skype while at the same time looking at data from the rides is very important. I can look at the graphs to see where David has been working hard or look at areas for potential improvement."

A breath by breath gas analyser is also typically used in the lab to measure oxygen uptake. Dr Brickley explains that this normally involves carrying out a test that starts at 100W and increases by 25W every three minutes. The data helps the team target any areas of David's physiology that need to be fine tuned. "I have tracked David over the last 10years and have seen his maximum aerobic power go from 220W to over 350W," he says. "A 50% improvement in any engine is incredible!"

Brickley continues, "Before Beijing 2008, David and I flew out to the course and we compiled data – including video footage - as he rode it. We used all this information to optimise cornering, gearing, tyre pressures, wheels, everything to ensure the best possible preparation. He came back with two gold medals! We have set our sights on repeating that success on home soil."

David Stone commented: "The combination of the Garmin and wireless srms means I have all the information I need, immediately accessible to me. There is no hiding, I know exactly how hard I am working and can analyse my data continually with Gary to find new ways to improve. Advances in technology have added a whole new dimension to training. The numbers that the Garmin shows are now part of my competition, I am continually trying to beat them."

Elaine Barnes, vice president, Global Contact Centres Sales Effectiveness, Premier Farnell

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