For professional athletes sensors play an important part in shaping and improving their performance, as Neil Tyler discovers.

Sensors in sports provide athletes with useful information whether that is how they grip a tennis racket, monitoring their motion acceleration, delivering a better understanding of posture or keeping ‘tabs’ on heart rates.

Sensors can be used to measure all of aspects of professional sports and the data that’s created can aid decision making in terms of improving or changing training and coaching.

The ability to monitor athletic performance can also assist with injury prevention, recovery management, health assessment, and performance evaluation and optimisation.

Sensors use light, heat, motion, moisture, pressure, or other environmental phenomena to generate data.

In sports, accelerometers are widely deployed and are used in Inertial Monitoring Unit (IMU) devices that can help to determine an athletes’ readiness or their levels of fatigue as well as provide biomechanical analysis across activities.

Increasingly, sophisticated software is now being combined with accelerometers to create more informed and precise training models using data generated by the athlete themselves.

Accelerometers can also be found inside helmets and headgear and can be used to detect high impacts and predict injury. In the US, the National Football League (NFL), for example, uses accelerometers located in mouthguards to collect players’ head kinematic data which is then used to detect concussions and monitor impact data over time.

According to Dr. Peter Hartwell, Chief Technology Officer, Invensense TDK, “The data that’s generated by sensors can be used to make better decisions. Sportspeople can better understand their physiology, metabolism, and their levels of exertion, good or bad. By deploying sensors on a bat or a racket, it’s easier to understand the mechanics of a sport and why shots are being missed.

“It’s not just training and performance, sensors have an important role to play in injury management and consequently we are seeing growing sensor fusion and more informed analysis, all of which is creating much ‘smarter’ coaching.”

For example, TDK InvenSense has developed a barometric pressure sensor that uses an innovative capacitive MEMS architecture to deliver lower power consumption and lower noise and is small, measuring just 5 cm.

“Our SmartPressure device delivers a combination of measurement accuracy and ultra-low power operation for always-on applications and is intended for smart phones, tablets and wearables,” said Dr Hartwell.  “It can track changes in elevation for activity monitoring and other motion- or position-based services.”

Motion sensors

GPS/GNSS motion sensors are used to track distance and elevation and are being worn on the body or can be found in specialised equipment. Whether you’re an athlete or an ordinary consumer, Fitbit and Apple watches are using GPS/GNSS sensors to monitor speed, the distance covered and elevation. These devices can also be incorporated into things like bicycles to help the cyclist navigate and provide performance monitoring insights using GPS sensors.

These types of sensors – GPS and GNSS receivers – tend to be very power hungry and need to be able to operate on low power.

In light of recent events here on the UK, heart rate monitoring sensors have an important role to play when it comes to monitoring an individual’s performance and health. 

Just before Christmas Luton Town’s captain became the latest footballer to suffer a cardiac arrest on the pitch, when he collapsed during a Premier League football match against Bournemouth. It was the second time the 29-year-old Tom Lockyer had collapsed during a game.

He’s not the first player to suffer a heartache with other notable examples including the Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen, who suffered a cardiac arrest in the 2012 European Championship opening game against Finland, while back in 2012 the Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba experienced cardiac arrest during a FA cup match against Tottenham Hotspur.

Consequently, Optical Heart Rate monitors are used in wearable athlete monitoring devices such as wristwatches and chest wearables to monitor exercise intensity and can calculate heart rate intensity zones, heart rate variability, caloric expenditure, cardiac efficiency and overall training load.

The data that’s collected can then be used to not only monitor an individual player but to better understand a player’s performance and any issues over an extended period of time.

FIFA, the sport’s governing body, has approved a STATSports heart rate monitor and GPS tracker that can be used during training and games.

“When it comes to using sensors, I think it’s critical that they don’t impact on an individual’s performance. They have to be deployed in a way that doesn’t interfere with the sport,” said Dr Hartwell.

For professional athletes sensors have a critical role in delivering improved levels of performance – many professional athletes will talk about the importance of the extra one percent that can make all the difference to them winning or losing – but it’s not just the individual performer or the team that benefits.

Other benefits

Sensors are also benefitting major industries from textiles to sports equipment manufacturers.

Textiles are becoming increasingly smart and can carry a variety of different sensors capable of analysing sweat, for example, during an individual’s performance and can help to prevent issues such as dehydration.

In addition, the sports equipment industry is integrating sensors into its products in order to add more value. More and more, sensors are being integrated into equipment from bats to rackets. Golfclubs now come with integrated sensors that when combined with software can provide immediate feedback on a player’s swing. Sensors can also be found in helmets, balls, starting blocks in athletics or swimming, skis, vests, and racing saddles.

Athletes look to optimise their performances. So, good health is a prerequisite in order achieve peak performance. Not surprisingly, there are many sensors that can measure body functions and biomechanics whether it is an athlete’s heart rate, breathing, lung capacity and perspiration or the movement of muscles and joints. This is extremely useful data to the athlete.

Like the heart rate monitor, mentioned previously, blood oxygen and lactate sensors can also provide in-depth insights into an athlete’s performance over time especially in endurance sports such as running and cycling.

When it comes to endurance sports being able to monitor blood oxygen saturation levels is critical, especially for those training at high altitudes where oxygen is less available. If an athlete’s oxygen levels drop, blood lactate levels can increase, lessening the effectiveness of their training.

Usually monitoring lactate levels required a blood sample, today non-invasive wearable monitors can measure lactate levels in sweat.

Although there are some questions over its accuracy these types of sensors can show when lactate begins to accumulate in the blood. Consequently, athletes are using continuous blood lactate monitors to optimise their training load.

Athletes, especially those training in higher temperatures or in a more humid environment, can also use environmental sensors to adapt their training programmes. By monitoring oxygen levels and the delivery of oxygen to their muscles they can better tailor their training.

Garmin smartwatches, for example, are able to track athletes’ VO2 Max (oxygen use efficiency) and heat acclimation to help optimise their training and improve levels of recovery.

The future of sports is very much linked with technology and sensors, increasingly combined with artificial intelligence, will be used by athletes and players to become better.

But this isn’t simply going to impact sport. Improvements will feed through to the consumer space and to improving overall levels of health.